Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

Posted on September 8, 2019 at 5:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements/disturbing images
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Images of pogroms and references to the Holocaust
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 13, 2019

“Fiddler on the Roof” opened on Broadway in 1964 and every single day in the over half a century since then it has been performed somewhere. Even more impressive, it has been performed pretty much everywhere, and is currently back in New York with an off-Broadway all-Yiddish version directed by Joel Gray. In this engaging new documentary about the history and continuing cultural vitality of the musical based on the stories of Yiddish author Sholom Aleichem about the families in a Russian Jewish shtetl, we see productions in Japan, Thailand, and in a student production with an all-black and Latinx cast. We see Puerto Rican “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda singing “To Life” to his Dominican/Austrian-American bride at their reception, in a YouTube video with over 6.5 million views.

We hear the show’s creators and performers talk about what it means to them. Since the earliest part of the 20th century, Jewish composers and lyricists including Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Fritz Loewe, and more wrote huge hit Broadway shows about cowboys, Thai kings, an Italian mayor of New York, Pacific Islanders, and a sharpshooting hillbilly. Finally, it was time to write their own story, the story of the Jews who lived in tiny towns in Eastern Europe until anti-Semitic gangs and local governments pushed them out. And so they were ready to tell the story of their parents and grandparents, just as those stories seemed vitally important again.

So we see again what has made this story so vibrant over the decades. “What is this about?” director/choreographer Jerome Robbins repeatedly asked the show’s creators, Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), Jerry Bock (music), and Joseph Stein (book). They tried different answers — about the poor father of daughters who have their own ideas about who they should marry or about Jews struggling in a country that is increasingly hostile to them. He asked them again until they finally came up with the right answer and it was just one word: tradition. That, of course became the iconic opening song in the play.

My parents saw the original production of “Fiddler” on Broadway and bought the cast album, which our family played constantly. I played the part of the oldest daughter in a religious school production and then our daughter played the same role in her middle school version. We have all seen it many times, and my parents saw a production in Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast my parents saw, where Tevye sounded like TV. They asked a member of the audience why it was so popular in Japan and they got the same answer someone in this movie did, “Because it is so Japanese.”

The fringes on the prayer shawl and the words of the prayers may be different, but every family has had to resolve conflicts between the generations and every individual has had to face the existential question of which traditions provide a foundation of our identity and connect us to our culture and which have to be adapted or abandoned, which aspects of our culture hold us up and which hold us back.

In “Fiddler,” we see three conflicts as Tevye’s three oldest daughters fall in love. The oldest refuses an arranged marriage with an older, wealthy man and asks her father to approve her marriage to the poor tailer she loves. Then the second says she will marry the hotheaded revolutionary she loves, and she does not want her father’s permission, only his blessing. He gives it to them. But when the third daughter wants to marry a man who is not Jewish, that is something he cannot accept. Meanwhile, Russian anti-Semitism is growing, and it is no longer possible for the Jews to stay in the only home they have ever known. When the play was first produced in 1964, the world was still learning about the breadth and damage of the Holocaust (the term itself was still not widely used), and the State of Israel was just 16 years old and still perilous. The story was at the same time charmingly nostalgic, painfully topical, poignantly personal (everyone understands “Sunrise Sunset”), and meaningfully universal. The documentary shows the contributions of the extraordinarily gifted people who created the show (touchingly, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, a Jew born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, was inspired in part by visiting the town his family came from, wiped out in the Holocaust), and the impact the show has had around the world, always resonating with contemporary concerns. But most of all, it reminds us of why it is so enduring simply through the characters, story, and music that will still be touching audiences in another 50 years.

Parents should know that this film has references to theatrical and historic tragedies and atrocities.

Family discussion: When did you first see “Fiddler” or hear its songs? What are your favorite traditions?

If you like this, try: the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof” and a theatrical production — there should be one near you.

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Documentary Movies Movies Musical

Amazing Grace

Posted on August 4, 2019 at 2:12 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 5, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 5, 2019

Copyright 2019 Neon
Amazing Grace” is 87 minutes of pure joy. No matter who you are, any one of any age, race, or religion, this film of a 1972 recording session in a small church in Los Angeles, will lift your spirit to the sky. Aretha Franklin, still in her 20’s and one of the top recording artists in the world, returns to the music of her youth to record what is still the number one gospel album of all time. A young filmmaker named Sidney Pollack was there to record it. But for a number of reasons, including an audio track that was not in sync with the visual, it was never shown to audiences.

Now it is here. Ms. Franklin barely says a word. Her father does, though, as does another preacher, James Cleveland. Other than that, it is just music, one of the greatest voices in history singing the church music she grew up with, accompanied by a choir led by Alexander Hamilton (that is his name), whose conducting is a movie of its own.

Watch her raise the roof.

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Documentary DVD/Blu-Ray Musical

UglyDolls

Posted on July 28, 2019 at 2:23 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and brief action
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 3, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 22, 2019

Copyright STX 2019
I reviewed UglyDolls for rogerebert.com. An excerpt:

UglyDolls” is less a movie than an infomercial for the plush Hasbro toys designed to be “ugly” in a commercially cute, lovable way. Unfortunately, the script is not particularly cute or lovable, just a muddled story with lukewarm musical numbers that takes pieces from better films like “Toy Story,” “Monsters Inc.,” “The LEGO Movie,” “Smallfoot,” “Trolls,” and all those other stories about how we should appreciate our own kinds of beauty and the individuality of those around us. It’s not bad. It’s just not very good.

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Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy Musical

The Lion King

Posted on July 16, 2019 at 1:22 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, very sad and scary death of a parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 18, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
I had a lot of skepticism going in. The last two live action remakes of animated Disney classics were disappointments. Even the best so far (in my opinion, “Beauty and the Beast”), could not escape its, well, remake-ness and justify itself as an independent work worthy of the time and attention of the filmmakers and the audience.

Also, I am not the biggest fan of the original “Lion King.” I would not go as far as this very extreme critique, but it always bothered me that all the animals were supposed to sing happily about the circle of life when that means something very different to those at the lower end of the food chain to those at the top. The idea of Simba’s right to the throne made me uneasy (Nala is much more worthy, or maybe let the lions choose who is best). And I never got past the Hakuna Matata idea that a good way to deal with life’s problems is to run away from them. Plus, how can they call this live action when the animals are CGI?

All of which is to explain that I was very pleasantly surprised and it won me over. The opening scene is a shot for shot recreation of the original, but more spectacularly beautiful, thanks to Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel (the cinematographer of the most beautiful film of all time, The Black Stallion). The quality of the light, the texture of the terrain, the fur, the feathers all lend a grandeur to the story. And the music is sumptuously produced, evoking the holiness of the natural world.

We all know the story, which draws from Shakespeare (“Hamlet” and “Henry IV”), the myths collected by Joseph Campbell (the hero’s journey), and perhaps from the Bible as well (the prodigal son). Simba is the lion prince, born to rule as far as he can see. But his father, Mufasa (voiced again by James Earl Jones, as in the original) teaches him that the ruler serves those he rules. Simba will be responsible for their welfare, Mufasa tells him. “It will be yours to protect…A true king searches for what he can give.” Still, Simba chafes at the rules and dreams of a day when he is king and can do anything he wants.

Mufasa’s brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to be king. He resents Mufasa and Simba. In a brutal scene that will be too intense for younger children and many older children and adults, he kills Mufasa and blames Simba. The cub is devastated, and runs away. He is befriended by a warthog (Seth Rogen as Pumbaa) and a meerkat (Billy Eichner as Timon), who sing to him about the pleasures of a worry-free life. (Eicher has a great singing voice! Who knew?)

The lions believe Simba died with his father. But when Nala (Beyonce) finds him, she tells him that Scar and his hyena henchmen have all but destroyed their community. Can he be the hero they need?

This version makes an attempt to address some of the issues that concerned me in the animated feature, though Mufasa’s explanation of the circle of life is not entirely reassuring. But director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “Chef,” Happy in the Avengers movies) brings together the realism of the animals, who come across as authentic and expressive, with a capable balancing of humor and drama. John Oliver’s Zazu and Keegan-Michael Key’s Kamari are comic highlights. Was this necessary? No. But it earns its place.

Parents should know this film has some intense scenes of peril and violence, very sad death of a parent as the child watches, severe feelings of guilt and abandonment, murder and attempted murder, predators, some potty humor, and references to the “circle of life.”

Family discussion: Why is a group of lions called a “pride?” What from your family do you carry with you? What is the difference between Mufasa’s idea about responsibility and heritage and Timon’s idea that nothing matters?

If you like this, try; the animated “Lion King” and “Lion King 1 1/2” and “The Black Stallion” a beautiful film from the same cinematographer

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Coming of age Fantasy movie review Movies Movies Musical Remake Talking animals

1776: A Broadway Musical About the Signing of the Declaration of Independence

Posted on July 2, 2019 at 9:33 pm

Celebrate the 4th of July by watching the entertaining and inspiring “1776,” based on the Broadway musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The movie does not shy away from the terrible compromise on slavery that the founding fathers agreed to in order to make this country one nation, with a fault line that would shatter our deepest convictions enumerated in the very document our country was established on. The characters are really brought to life with all of their courage and hope as well as their faults and fears.

EHere’s a glimpse from a recent Broadway staged version, with Santino Fontana of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

And from the movie, with William Daniel as the “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams.

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