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

The Back-Up Plan


The Back-Up Plan

Jennifer Lopez shows how many times Alex O'Loughlin takes off his shirt in the movie.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (CBS) Jennifer Lopez, Alex O’Loughlin, Eric Christian Olsen, Melissa McCarthy, Michaela Watkins, Danneel Harris, Noureen DeWulf, Anthony Anderson, Tom Bosley, Maribeth Monroe, Robert Klein, Linda Lavin, Cesar Millan. Directed by Alan Poul

Life doesn’t always go the way we want it to. We make plans, have an idea in mind as to what we want out of life. When things don’t go as expected, it’s good to have a back-up plan.

Zoe (Lopez) thought she had it all figured out; great job, get married, have a few rug rats, presto blammo life is sweet. The problem is that none of her boyfriends were working out (men being what they are) and the old biological clock is beginning to tick just a hair louder. Therefore, Zoe makes the decision to go the man-less route in having kids.

Yup, we’re talking artificial insemination. Zoe goes to a fertility clinic where a kindly old doctor (Klein) does the procedure and she gets all knocked up. Giddy from the news, Zoe leaves the clinic on a stormy afternoon and gets into a cab. Trouble is, Stan (O’Loughlin who filmed this just before finding stardom in the TV reboot of “Hawaii Five-O”) spotted the cab at exactly the same time. The two argue and Zoe eventually gives up the cab because she doesn’t want to spoil her great mood.

Of course, now the two of them see each other everywhere. This is the Hollywood God Mechanism, cinematic deities sending none-too-subtle messages that the two were meant to be together. And of course, they are. This is a romantic comedy, after all. The two fall in love but Stan isn’t aware that Zoe has a bun in the oven and Zoe isn’t about to tell him because he might bolt. Boyfriends are a lot like deer that way, skittish.

Eventually she breaks down and tells him and Stan being a Great Guy (you can tell right away he’s a great guy because he’s an organic farmer selling his organic goat cheese at a Tribeca farmers market) doesn’t bat an eyelash but takes on the responsibility of being not only a boyfriend but a father to be – without any genetic connection or legal requirement. I can picture half the single moms in the audience sighing “Why can’t I meet a guy like that?” particularly when Stan shows up shirtless on a tractor, a kind of Chippendale’s farmer get-up.

Of course this is a Hollywood rom-com so there are going to be issues. The couple is going to break up. Are they going to get back together again? Are you kidding? C’mon, you know what the answer to that is.

Lopez is one of those actresses that has a great deal of talent is sadly aware that she has a great deal of talent. One gets the impression that she has a person in her entourage whose sole purpose is to tell her what a great deal of talent that she has. I’m not saying that she’s egotistical, but she seemed to be a much better performer before she became a Big Star. Even in Anaconda, as ludicrous a horror movie as has ever hit the big screen, she was more natural an actress.

I have to admit though, that she is really charming here. It’s as if that entourage flunky has been given the new responsibility to remind her that she doesn’t have to be Jenny from the block 24-7. She can be Zoe instead, a kind of meek and sweet girl. This is the kind of performance that made her a star in the first place.

O’Loughlin turns out to be an appealing romantic lead; together with his cop action persona in Five-O could well parlay that into stardom of his own. The supporting players are for the most part forgettable, although Klein has a few good moments and Anthony Anderson gets a really great scene as a playground dad telling Stan about the joys and pitfalls of being a dad.

Like most Hollywood romantic comedies, this is as wispy and sugary as cotton candy and just as forgettable. It is a pleasant diversion for as long as it’s there, but not long after it’s gone you might feel hungry for something more substantial. It does at least give me hope that Lopez is capable of better than we’ve been seeing from her lately, and that in itself is worthwhile.

WHY RENT THIS: Lopez is as engaging and charming as she’s ever been. O’Loughlin is an appealing leading man.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As with most Hollywood rom-coms, very formulaic.

FAMILY VALUES: Being as the movie is about being pregnant, there are a lot of pregnancy and sexual jokes herein; there’s a tiny bit of bad language and some mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the late Tom Bosley’s final film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.5M on a $35M production budget; the movie broke even and even made a little bit of money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Dream House

Cairo Time


Cairo Time

Love; as timeless as the pyramids.

(2009) Romance (IFC) Patricia Clarkson, Alexander Siddig, Elena Anaya, Tom McCamus, Amina Annabi, Andrew Cullen, Mona Hala, Fadia Nadda. Directed by Ruba Nadda

The allure of a foreign city, particularly one whose culture is very different from our own, beckons to many of us in an insistent way. Who hasn’t daydreamed of being adrift in an exotic city, swept away by romance?

Juliette (Clarkson) is a fashion magazine editor who arrives in Cairo expecting to meet her husband, a U.N. worker. Unfortunately, he’s been detained by trouble on the Gaza Strip and sends his friend Tariq (Siddig) to fetch her at the airport and look after her while he’s away.

Tariq does show Juliette around, although not to the pyramids which she is saving for Mark (McCamus), her husband. However she is made aware of the sweet intoxication that is Cairo – sunset boat rides on the Nile, shopping in open air bazaars, dancing at Egyptian weddings, playing chess in a coffee house – mostly with Tariq at her side.

As the day pile up and Mark is still a no-show, Juliette’s loneliness becomes palpable and she is drawn by the handsome and elegant Tariq. She becomes enamored of the music of Umm Kulthum which she runs into in several places in Cairo. This all leads her to the realization that she is attracted to a man who isn’t her husband. Is it her loneliness that drives her, or is it simply Cairo, seducing Juliette with its romance and charm?

At the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, this film won the award for Best Canadian Film at the event, which may surprise given its setting in Egypt. Director Ruba Nadda visited Cairo as a young girl and the impressions were indelible; she was moved to make this film years later, and it’s certainly very kind to the Egyptian capital. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier delivers breathtaking images of the capital with the Pyramids towering majestically in the distance, as well as intimate shots of crowded Cairo streets. I’m sure the Cairo Tourist Board has the warm fuzzies for this film.

Nadda’s smartest move was casting Clarkson and Siddig. Clarkson is an actress who often gets overlooked when the discussion of great actresses of our generation is underway, but she is certainly that. She is expressive without saying a word, relying on her face and her eyes to get across information pages of dialogue never could.

She plays Juliette with the courtliness and elegance of a Southern belle, minus the accent. One would say the performance is mannered, but Juliette is like many refined women of my age and older – possessed of an inner grace and charm that comes from manners and wisdom. Yet, she is lonely, the long hours separated from her husband taking their toll. Her children are grown, her job consumes her and she can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something more to life.

Into this mix comes Tariq and Siddig is perfectly cast in the role. Handsome and elegant, he carries himself with the exotic romantic charm of Omar Sharif mixed with the honesty and directness of Gregory Peck. As you can tell by my comparisons, this is an old school performance of the highest order. The two make a wonderful couple, dancing around a growing attraction that to Nadda’s credit doesn’t happen suddenly, but subtly over a period of time. It grows organically and becomes realistic in that sense.

However, the plot is paper-thin and there isn’t much substance here. This is a romance novel on film in many ways, not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, the pacing is so languid and the mood so gentle that the movie seems to lack passion, which I’m a bit ambivalent about. On the one hand, I think it works better that Juliette and Tariq are not leaping into bed and exchanging smoldering looks; on the other hand, the movie doesn’t affect you as strongly because of it. It’s a bit of a Catch-22, but I think in the long run Nadda made the right choice; there are plenty of movies out there with all the passion you could want.

I loved the charm of this movie and the beauty of its cinematography. It’s all the more poignant now, given events in Cairo going on as this is being published. I’m not sure the Cairo of this movie will exist once events are played out but something tells me that it will; a city that has seen the rise and fall of Pharaohs, the coming and going of the British will be around long after all of us are gone. But even if Cairo is inevitably changed, a fleeting moment of its allure is captured here for all time.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautiful Egyptian vistas capture the romance of Cairo but also the traffic and noise of a major metropolis. Clarkson elevates every movie she does.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is a film as wispy as gossamer with little substance.

FAMILY VALUES: There are elements of marital infidelity and some smoking and drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Siddig is playing an Egyptian, he is actually from the Sudan, born of an English mother. He is best known as Dr. Julian Bashir on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are four short films by director Ruba Nadda, as well as a Q&A session from the film’s screening at the Toronto Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably broke even or thereabouts.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Black Swan