Before I Wake


Kate Bosworth knows why the butterflies fly.

(2016) Horror (Netflix) Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Topher Bousquet, Dash Mihok, Jay Karnes, Lance E. Nichols, Antonio Romero, Kyla Deaver, Hunter Wenzel, Scottie Thompson, Jason Alan Smith, Michael Polish, Brett Luciana Murray, Natalie Roers, Erika Hoveland, Avis-Marie Barnes, Courtney Bell. Directed by Mike Flanagan

 

Dangerous and even deadly children have long been a horror trope. There is something about angelic little moppets who gleefully cause mayhem and murder that is absolutely horrifying, reflecting our own fears of being bad parents or of being vulnerable to our kids.

Jessie (Bosworth) and Mark (Jane) have been through the worst nightmare any parent can conceive; their son Sean (Romero) died tragically in a bathtub drowning incident. Jessie is no longer able to conceive and there is an empty space in their lives that two years after the accident they are ready to fill with Cody (Tremblay) who has a tragic history of his own. The couple adopts him and their case worker Natalie (Gish) thinks that these two will give Cody a loving home. And they do for awhile.

They soon discover that Cody has a mysterious power, one that has caused him to be abandoned by would-be foster parents. His dreams become tangible. At first it is beautiful as colorful butterfly with internal lights flit about their house. Then, however, it becomes clear that Cody’s nightmares are also punching into the real world and his nightmares can kill people.

Flanagan is considered one of the most promising young horror directors at the moment for good reason. He’s had a string of movies that have been at least a cut above most films of the genre. This one, caught in the morass that was Relativity in 2015 (when the movie was originally supposed to be released) and 2016 has finally seen the light of day thanks to Netflix. Was this worth the wait?

Yes and no. The movie has some incredible visuals, from th butterflies of light to the terrifying Canker Man (Bousquet). It also has a strong performance from Jane who is superb and likable as Mark although his hair choice has to be questioned; his Fabio locks aren’t quite right for the character. However, Bosworth is dreadfully miscast as the heroine. She is pretty like a porcelain doll and she just looks out of place in the movie. To make matters worse, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard inexplicably make her exploit the young boy’s powers which really made me feel uncomfortable. To be fair, critics have pretty much universally praised her performance so take my criticism with a grain of salt; sometimes even a good performance doesn’t connect with everyone.

Tremblay, who went on to an Oscar nomination for Room is a bit wooden here but also to be fair he was about seven or eight years old when he filmed this. The concept though is pretty original and for the most part Flanagan gets it right until the ending which is a bit lame. This won’t go down as one of his better films but those who follow his career definitely should see it and those who like films like The Babadook will probably enjoy this one as well.

REASONS TO GO: A terrific premise with some nifty visuals. Thomas Jane is extremely likable.
REASONS TO STAY: Kate Bosworth isn’t convincing enough as a horror heroine. The ending is lame.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of terror and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be distributed theatrically by Relativity but their financial woes led to a constant shifting of release dates and finally the film was sold to Netflix where it was quietly released more than two years after the original premiere date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dreamscape
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Big Take

The Ritual (2017)


These are the manly rituals of remembrance.

(2017) Horror (eOne/Netflix) Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Matthew Needham, Jacob James Beswick, Maria Erwolter, Hilary Reeves, Peter Liddell, Francesca Mula, Kerri McLean, Gheorghe Mezei, Adriana Macsut, Constantin Liviu Codrea, Zane Jarcu. Directed by David Bruckner

 

There is nothing quite like a hike in the woods to get you connected with the planet and with your friends. There are those who relish it more than others; some prefer more urbanized pursuits. But the one thing that most people agree on – particularly when it comes to horror movies – is that short cuts rarely end well.

Five college buddies are at the pub trying to figure out where they’re going to go on their bro vacation. They are of an age where they’re getting too old for Ibiza and too young (barely) for brunch but Vegas remains an attractive option. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes the group of five and now they are a group of four. In honor of their fallen comrade, the surviving four – whiny Dom (Troughton), guilt-ridden Luke (Spall), Alpha male Hutch (James-Collier) and the “takes the piss” guy Phil (Ali) – head out on a hiking trail in Northern Sweden headed for a lodge which is supposed to be really, really cool.

Along the way, one of them twists his ankle and rather than continue on the trail or head back, the five do the horror film-stupid act of taking a short cut through the woods because we know that a walk through dark and scary woods is a far easier task than following a clear, well-marked and well-maintained trail, right? All in all, with decision making skills like that, they’d have been better off going to Las Vegas. All they’d have lost was money.

They end up lost and stranded in the woods in the balmy Swedish weather (read as “lots of rain and fog”). Soon creepy things start to happen; they find eviscerated animals hanging from trees and strange symbols carved into the wood. They hole up in an abandoned house (which Phil wryly proclaims “This is clearly the house we will all be murdered in”) with a strange straw figure on a kind of altar. No wonder each of them have terrible nightmares that night and at least one of them ends up naked in a supplicating position at the altar.

Unnerved the quartet tries to find their way back to Swedish civilization but what they don’t know is that they are running headlong into the clutches of a rural cult – and the dark thing that the cult fears and worships. Daylight can’t come fast enough.

This British film was snapped up by Netflix and well they should. This is arguably one of the best horror films since The Babadook in my opinion. It has a lost in the woods Blair Witch Project vibe (albeit without the found footage) combined with a Wicker Man cult creepiness. In fact, Bruckner does a great job with the creepy tone which continues to grow more and more unnerving as the film progresses.

The movie does start rather slowly with one scene of shocking brutal violence breaking up the monotony but it turns out to be very okay; this is a slow builder and a fast burner of a movie. By the time the second half of the film rolls around you realize you’re on a roller coaster both emotional and metaphorical as the scares and chills come at you without any let-up.

The monster in the film isn’t revealed until near the very end (mostly you see it as trees swaying and unearthly howls) and it’s certainly worth the wait. It’s not in the film very long in terms of screen time but it casts a giant shadow the whole way and it also has the power to send the characters hallucinations involving their worst fears and greatest guilt. It is particularly effective on Luke who blames himself for what happened to one of their number, not because he’s directly responsible but because he failed to help when his hour of need arose.

The movie is all about guilt and redemption and that may be a bit too cerebral for horror film fans who only care about the visceral (and there’s nothing wrong with either of those types of horror by the way). There is some scenes of gore but we don’t see bodies actually being ripped wide open by the monster which might be the movie’s only real failing.

The Ritual played the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 and has gotten some really good critical notices particularly in its native UK. Here in the States, it is available now on Netflix and worth getting the service for all by itself. This is one of the best Netflix original movies to date for the service and an early entry for the best horror film of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The monster, when finally revealed, is really nifty. The last half of the film is a roller coaster ride. The creepy factor gets higher and higher as the film goes along.
REASONS TO STAY: The film starts off rather slowly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, violence (some of it graphic and brutal), some grisly images as well as scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers of the film is Andy Serkis although he doesn’t appear in the film as either an actor or a motion capture specialist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rituals
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Devil’s Gate

Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro


Sleepers in unquiet graves.

Sleepers in unquiet graves.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Tony Vaccaro, James Estrin, Tyler Hicks, Alex Kershaw, Michel Lepourty, Anne Wilkes Tucker, John G. Morris, Sam Tannenbaum, Mike Forster, Lynsey Addario. Directed by Max Lewkowicz

 

Soldiers are a special sort of breed, one to be admired immensely. Not only are they willing to lay down their lives for their country but they often return home damaged – particularly during times of war. They are forced to do things that go against everything they are taught (i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill) and they see things – horrible things – that reflect humanity at its absolute worst.

Tony Vaccaro was barely out of high school when he was drafted to serve as an infantryman in the Second World War. Orphaned at a young age in Italy, he left that country and moved to New Rochelle, NY when the Fascists took over. While in high school, he developed an interest in photography and when he was drafted, applied to the Army Signal Corps to take photographs for them. He was turned down, told that he was too young for the Signal Corps. “I’m too young to take pictures,” he reflects in the documentary about his 272 days in the service of his country during which he took more than eight thousand photographs, “But not too young to kill.”

He took pictures of weary servicemen, resting for a moment after marching or fighting. He took pictures of men being shredded by shrapnel. He took pictures of burned tanks, the burned driver on the ground beside it. He took pictures of shell-shocked civilians and grateful French children kissing G.I.s. Many of his pictures come with incredible stories.

At one point he finds a soldier frozen in the snow. Curious as to whom the victim was, he is horrified to discover it is Henry Tannenbaum, a childhood friend. Years later, Tannenbaum’s son Sam saw the picture of his father at an exhibition of Vaccaro’s work and called up the photographer. When Tony found out who was on the other end of the line, he wept but for Tannenbaum, the picture gave him some closure and made his father, whom he had no memory of, more real to him. The two men became friends and visited the site where Tony found Henry’s body. Ironically, the place is now a Christmas tree farm (Tannenbaum is Christmas Tree in German).

One of the hardest photographs he ever took was that of a German woman, who had been raped and murdered by Allied troops after she’d been found with a bazooka, and then stabbed in her vagina with a bayonet. At first Tony was horrified and he removed the blade and covered the dead woman up. However, he went back and put her back the way she was when he found her and snapped the picture before then covering up the body and removing the blade once again. He had set out to document his experiences and he felt it wouldn’t be true to his mission if he didn’t document that as well, but he remarked it would be the most difficult of all the pictures he’d shot, including that of Tannenbaum.

In an era where photographs were routinely staged, Vaccaro’s pictures stand out because they were real. While sometimes soldiers would refuse to have their pictures taken by outside photographers, Tony was trusted. He was one of them, a brother. They would pose for him sure but they also allowed him to turn his cameras on them when they were fighting for their lives and the lives of their brothers. No other photographer in any war, before or since, has gotten as close to the soldiers fighting it as Vaccaro did. The incredible pictures he took reflect that. War is undoubtedly hell, the kind of hell that only those who have been to the front lines of war can understand. The photographs of Tony Vaccaro help those who have never been to war to gain at least a little bit of understanding.

Vaccaro is front and center here and he reminisces about some of the things he took pictures at from the places he took them in 70 years later. We see him on the beach at Normandy where he was part of the Allied invasion on Omaha Beach; the quaint French village which was largely untouched by the fighting; the woods where a horrific battle was fought. His memory is incredibly clear for a 94-year-old man.

His interviews are augmented by commentary by contemporary combat photographers who are singularly admiring of the job Vaccaro did, often going from firing his M-1 rifle to grabbing his camera and snapping pictures. In one incredible moment entitled “The Last Step of John Rose” an infantryman throws both hands in the air as a mortar explodes behind him. Shrapnel is already lancing through his body and with his next step he will crumple to the ground. “Suddenly, life comes to an end and gravity takes you,” Vaccaro reflects. “Giving up life, we all go down to earth again. All of us.”

After the war, Vaccaro stayed in Europe, unable to return home. He was caught in the grip of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although they didn’t discuss such things then. He put his negatives in storage and left them there until recently; even though he had documented his experiences, he was not disposed to sharing them although eventually he did. He would eventually continue following his passion for photography, becoming a fashion and celebrity photographer for Life magazine and others.

But despite a lifetime photographing beautiful things and beautiful people, he remains close to the pictures that haunted him from the time he took them until now. “There is beauty in tragedy,” one of the commentators intones and there is truth in that. The picture of a frozen soldier in the snow is awful to contemplate but has a certain serene beauty to it that is hard to ignore. So is this documentary, which is worth looking into.

REASONS TO GO: The photographs are absolutely extraordinary. Vaccaro is still emotional about his time on the front lines and that emotion only enhances the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to death and mayhem may find the photographs too disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity some gruesome images of war and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Argus C3 35mm camera that Vaccaro used throughout the war cost him $47.50 as a used (or secondhand) camera back in 1942.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fury
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Collateral Beauty

Lights Out (2016)


Attention Teresa Palmer: there's a blue light special in the basement.

Attention Teresa Palmer: there’s a blue light special in the basement.

(2016) Horror (New Line) Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Maria Bello, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho, Rolando Boyce, Maria Russell, Elizabeth Pan, Lotta Losten, Amiah Miller, Ava Cantrell, Ariel Dupin. Directed by David F. Sandberg

 

As humans, we are conditioned to fear the unknown and what can be more unknown than darkness? We can’t see what’s in the dark – our eyes aren’t built for it. In the dark, anything can happen and not all of it is pleasant. Sometimes, that which lives in darkness can be downright terrifying.

Rebecca (Palmer) is a metal-loving young woman who has a – I hesitate to call him a boyfriend but he does have sex with her and they’ve been dating for several years – friend with benefits named Bret (DiPersia) who is a musician who plays metal. She lives on her own in an apartment over a tattoo parlor. She left home the moment she could pack her bags; hallucinations and nightmares had driven her to the brink of madness.

This is where her mother Sophie (Bello) dwells as a matter of course. Sophie was committed to a mental institution as a little girl and came out fragile, but her issues seemed to be under control with medication, and her second husband Paul (Burke) – not Rebecca’s dad by the way – has watched with some alarm as his wife’s mental condition starts to deteriorate rapidly. When Paul meets a tragic end, Sophie pretty much slides off into the deep end.

Rebecca’s half-brother Martin (Bateman) has now begun to have the same kinds of nightmares and hallucinations that just about destroyed Rebecca’s sanity. Concerned that Sophie is terrorizing her little half-brother, Rebecca moves to take Martin over to her apartment and out of Sophie’s influence. Sophie, who not only hears voices but has conversations with them, seems to be talking to a presence named Diana. Diana, as it turns out, was a friend who brutalized her in the asylum but had met a gruesome end. Some ends, as it turns out, are not as permanent as others.

Sandberg based this movie on a short movie – less than three minutes long – based on the same creature. With the feature clocking in at just a hair over 80 minutes, he certainly knows how to keep his stories compact which is laudable these days when movies routinely hit the two hour mark. He also uses a very interesting trope for his demonic presence; it only becomes visible and physical in darkness. Shine a light on Diana and she becomes incorporeal and harmless. When that light goes out…well, Diana raises havoc with those unfortunate to fall under her crosshairs.

This isn’t a particularly gory movie, nor are there a ton of murders (although a couple of hapless cops do get Diana’s special attention near the end of the movie). Most of the film is spent basically running away from Diana who is apparently very possessive of Sophie and doesn’t want to share her with anyone, even (and maybe especially) her own children.

It is refreshing to have characters in horror movies not act like utter and complete idiots, doing things that no rational sane human being would ever do. Say what you want about the leads here, they act like you and I would probably act in a similar situation, although to be fair I’d probably be a screaming wreck about a third of the way into the movie were it my life story.

The acting isn’t particularly outstanding; Bello is one of my favorite actresses but she makes some odd choices as Sophie – no pun intended. The part is a little bit of a caricature of a crazy person and if you don’t get the jitters watching Sophie for any length of time, you’ve probably taken some Valium recently. That or you drink enough coffee to make you permanently immune to the jitters. Palmer is beautiful and has some facial resemblance to Bello, but at the end of the day this isn’t a performance I would put into a star-making category; the success of the film will likely give her career quite a boost however.

Sandberg relies mainly on practical effects here, believe it or not. The CGI is kept to a minimum, although I’m certain that there is some optical trickery going on to make Diane visible and invisible so smoothly. I’m sure a computer or two were employed in that essential process.

All in all, this is a solid, scary movie that is going to make you think twice about turning out the lights when you go to sleep. I’m usually immune to such things, but I have to admit that when I went to bed after seeing the movie earlier that day, I did feel a good deal of apprehension as I shut out the lights. When a horror movie can do that to you, you know that you’re watching a director who knows what he’s about. I’ll be looking forward to his future work with more than a little bit of interest.

REASONS TO GO: You’ll want to sleep with the lights on afterwards. The demonic presence in the film has a nifty conceit.
REASONS TO STAY: Bello is wasted in a caricature of a performance and none of the actors really stand out. There are only so many ways you can make the lights flicker.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of disturbing images and terror, a fair amount of violence, some adult themes and a brief drug reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house in this movie is the same one used in Ouija and its upcoming follow-up Ouija: Origin of Evil.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Jason Bourne

Silent Hill: Revelation


Videogame or bondage fantasy?

Videogame or bondage fantasy?

(2012) Horror (Open Road) Adelaide Clemens, Kit Harrington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Sean Bean, Radha Mitchell, Malcolm McDowell, Martin Donovan, Deborah Cara Unger, Roberto Campanella, Erin Pitt, Peter Outerbridge, Jefferson Brown, Milton Barnes, Heather Marks, Rachel Sellan, Michel C. Foucault, Arlene Duncan, Jason Best, Jacky Lai. Directed by Michael J. Bassett

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Videogame adaptations have a history of being lousy movies. There have been some exceptions to be sure, but for the most part they have been awful cinematic experiences. Many gamers say that it is impossible for videogames – a truly interactive medium – to translate to movies which is a fully passive medium. Occasionally they are proven wrong, like in the case of the Silent Hill movie. Would the sequel be as good?

Heather Mason (Clemens) has, along with her father Harry (Bean) been on the run for as long as she can remember from dark forces that she doesn’t fully understand. Her mother Rose (Mitchell) is gone, taken in a car accident. As Heather approaches her 18th birthday, she is plagued by terrible, horrific visions. When Harry disappears, she discovers that nothing she knows is as she believes it to be.

The truth is that she is being chased by the Order of Valtiel, a cult that inhabits the damned town of Silent Hill which burns eternally. Years ago, a young girl named Alessa Gillespie (Pitt) was burned alive by the Order and its leader Claudia Wolf (Moss). The reason they are chasing them is that Heather, whose real name is Sharon Da Silva and who was once part of Alessa whose agony caused her to create the shifting dimensions that plagues Silent Hill.

Assisted by her boyfriend Vincent (Harrington), Heather decides to go to Silent Hill to find her father. Tormented by hideous, disturbing monsters that appear as dimensions shift in the blasted town which burns endlessly. There, she will confront the monsters of her past, present and future as she discovers betrayals that will rock her to the core and secrets that will change everything.

Christophe Gans directed the first Silent Hill but was unable to direct its sequel. Bassett, who directed Solomon Kane was instead hired and in all fairness to Bassett he was given a terribly convoluted script to work with. The problem is, he wrote it. There is a ton of exposition here and even that isn’t enough to really adequately explain what’s going on. The movie careens from scene to scene and often even with all the exposition it is incredibly confusing to the audience. The characters don’t have much going in the way of personality, particularly Vincent – and Heather, Harry and the rest aren’t much better.

The movie gets much better when it shows the monsters that are kind of a combination of Clive Barker bondage demons and H.R. Giger’s nightmares. Some, like the Red Pyramid or the cleaver-wheeling Nurses, are likely to haunt more than a few dreams. The blasted landscapes of Silent Hill and the other dimensions therein are also compelling.

The main problem though is not just that the movie is difficult to follow; the gravest sin the film commits is of being bland. There are plenty of flames but no fire; lots of shadows but no depth. Silent Hill: Revelation may have been originally filmed in 3D but the movie is flat as a pancake. The monsters, demons and landscapes are cool without a doubt but the movie left me actually bored and if there is one cardinal offense that a movie can commit it’s that.

I don’t know that gamers are correct in saying that their medium can’t be translated to one that is less interactive; after all, books and films are completely different mediums and there have been some great movies based on books. I think the problem lies in that Hollywood doesn’t really respect videogames or gamers and doesn’t understand the mindset; they basically throw videogame-based movies together without much regard to building a universe in the same way that they have for comic books. Videogames are inherently cinematic; there is absolutely no reason that they can’t translate to the multiplex. The fact is that a crap movie is a crap movie regardless of its source.

And Silent Hill: Revelation is far from being a crap movie. The videogame franchise has a rich background and is a good looking movie. Yes, it is terribly flawed – something tells me that Bassett didn’t really get the franchise or maybe he didn’t care to. This could have been a much better movie but it is at its core deeply unsettling and atmospheric. I would have liked a less convoluted story but from a simply visual point of view could admire the film on that basis alone.

WHY RENT THIS: Awesome demonic creatures. Bleak landscapes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bland characters and performances. Lacks force or fire.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and foul language, disturbing images and some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bean and Harington played father and son in Game of Thrones; Harrington went on to work with Moss again in Pompeii.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $52.3M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Resident Evil
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

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

Riddick


Vin Diesel practices his badass scowl.

Vin Diesel practices his badass scowl.

(2013) Science Fiction (Universal) Vin Diesel, Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, Katee Sackhoff, Dave Bautista, Bokeem Woodbine, Raoul Trujillo, Conrad Pla, Danny Blanco Hall, Noah Danby, Neil Napier, Nolan Gerald Funk, Karl Urban, Andreas Apergis, Keri Lynn Hilson, Charlie Marie Dupont, Jan Gerste, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, Antoinette Kalaj, Lani Minella. Directed by David Twohy

Some characters need to be on their own turf to really be effective. Indiana Jones, for example, is at his best in some ruined palace, searching for treasure; high society shindigs are not his thing. As for Richard B. Riddick, well, let’s put him on some forgotten miserable barely habitable rock in the middle of deep space populated by vicious, deadly creatures and we’re interested.

And that’s just where Riddick (Diesel) finds himself after being betrayed by Lord Vaako (Urban) of the Necromongers (from The Chronicles of Riddick which preceded this). The world is desolate, filled with carrion eaters, a jackal/dog hybrid and a slithering nasty that has a venomous sting on its scorpion-like tail and a penchant for hiding in standing pools of water. Riddick is left on this planet to die, his leg broken and without any supplies or weapons except for a tiny little throwing knife.

Riddick manages to set his broken leg the hard way and finds his way to a grassland which is a bit less predator-filled. He manages to tame one of the jackal/dog puppy hybrids and keeps it as a pet and watchdog. He survives for years this way.

When he sees a storm brewing, he realizes his happy haven is about to be overrun by the slithering nasties. He needs to get off this rock and fast. He’s found a mercenary outpost and presses the panic button, making sure that he is detected. Given the bounty on his head, it isn’t long before two sets of bounty hunters – one led by the sleazy Santana (Molla) with his brutish sidekick Diaz (Bautista), the other a group of mercenaries led by Boss Johns (Nable) who has a personal stake in Riddick. He is supported by the laconic Moss (Woodbine) and the aptly-named Dahl (Sackhoff), a lesbian with no time for Santana’s shenanigans and the ability to kick his ass to back it up.

As you might guess, the two parties begin feuding almost immediately and Riddick is forced to pick them off one by one. The storm is almost upon them and once it gets there, things are going to get really, really bad.

This is more of a throwback to the first film in the series, 2000’s Pitch Black more than its successor. That was more of a thriller than the space opera that was The Chronicles of Riddick. Neither movie did particularly well at the theatrical box office but both performed much better on home video. Of course, it’s taken nine years for the second sequel to hit the screen (has it really been that long?) and tastes have changed somewhat since then.

Diesel has been identified with this role in many ways more so than Dom Toretto from the Fast and Furious franchise. Riddick is in many ways the ultimate badass; he’s a survivor no matter how overwhelming the odds and it is a prudent man who is terrified of Riddick. Yes, he has had his eyes surgically altered so that he can see in the dark – an effect they used well in the first film but for whatever reason have shied away from ever since.

The rest of the cast is pretty much serviceable but then they really aren’t given a whole lot of personality other than the one-dimensional kind. Sackhoff, best-known to genre fans for her run as Starbuck in the highly respected Battlestar Galactica reboot on SyFy a few years back, shows some big screen promise; she’s got tons of charisma, oodles of good looks and plenty of chops to become the female action hero that has been sorely lacking in Hollywood.

The creature effects are pretty spectacular and all of the non-human monsters look believable and deadly. Even Riddick has problems with the slithering nasty and realizes that discretion is the better part of valor with those baddies (he spends some time developing an immunity to the venom but rarely takes them on head-on if he can avoid it). While the slithering nasties (called mud demons  by and large) aren’t quite as lethal in some ways as the creatures Riddick faced in the first film, they do resemble the titular Aliens in some ways.

There is a good deal of posturing and posing, that kind of testosterone-slurping “my balls are bigger than yours” competitiveness between the various Mercs and Bounty Hunters (including Dahl) which gets a bit tiresome over the length of the film. The film’s climax is also a bit of a letdown, lacking epic scope and originality. It just kind of ends.

Thanks to a pretty minuscule budget by sci-fi standards, it seems logical that the movie will make a tidy profit, making the likelihood of a fourth film in the franchise (fifth if you count the short The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury) pretty strong. That won’t bother me in the least; as anti-heroic as he is, Riddick is one of the more compelling characters to come along in the movies in some time. I wouldn’t mind seeing what else he gets himself in to.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific creatures. Extreme badassery.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much posturing. Denouement lacks excitement.

FAMILY VALUES:  Quite a bit of violence, some brief nudity and sexuality and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Diesel agreed to do a cameo in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift in exchange for the rights to the Riddick franchise in order to secure financing independently for the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Act of Killing