Movie Review ~ The Goldfinch


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A boy in New York is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Ashleigh Cummings, Willa Fitzgerald, Aimee Laurence, Denis O’Hare

Director: John Crowley

Rated: R

Running Length: 149 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: When I was in school, I like to think I was pretty good with my homework. Sure, there were times when I wound up working late on calculus, having procrastinated my way into an all-nighter but for the most part I was on top of things. One thing I never failed to follow through on was doing any assigned reading.  However, I’m admitting now in this public forum that lately, in my advancing age, I’m getting bad at finishing books. I’ll start them all the time but then I get distracted and can’t make it to that final page. If a movie is based on a book, I do everything I can to read it before I see it and in these last few years it’s often come down to the wire to get in those last chapters.

I give you that brief backstory because it helps illustrate how disappointed I should have been with myself for not reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-prize winning 2014 novel The Goldfinch before the film adaptation was released. You know what? I got on the waiting list for the library and waited months and months for it to be my turn. When I finally got the hefty novel home, I took one look at it in all its 794-page hardback glory and decided on the spot I was going to give myself a well-earned pass on attempting it.

I feel no shame.

In fact, having seen the movie I’m wondering if I was better off with not having any pre-conceived notions going in. With nothing to live up to, the film could make a play for my attention without striving to be exactly what I had envisioned in my head. I purposely avoided delving too deep into the plot or matching characters to actors prior to seeing the film but rather let the screenwriter Peter Straughan (The Snowman) and director John Crowley (Brooklyn, Closed Circuit) have a crack at telling me a story. It’s a long story, though, and one that doesn’t quite shake off its creaky contrivances and some muddled performances.

Narrated by protagonist Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), we see how he lost his mother at a young age, when a bomb is set off in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Barbours, a rich family with a son that attends Theo’s prestigious prep school, soon take in Young Theo (Oaks Fegley, Pete’s Dragon). Initially hesitant to get too close to this broken boy, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, Secret in Their Eyes) warms to his love of fine art and kind spirit that shines even during his most dark days. Yet Theo has a secret he’s keeping from everyone and it involves a priceless painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, and a mysterious man he meets in the rubble after the bomb goes off. Both will lead him on journey forward while shaping his future from a past he wants to forget.

Straughan has a challenge in parsing down Tartt’s epic into a watchable two and a half hours and it winds up working some of the time. Having to manage two timelines with the younger Theo and the grown-up man he becomes gets a little tiresome over the course of the film, only because Theo as a boy is so much more interesting than the enigma he turns into. Every time the action switched back to Elgort in the present there is a marked dip in energy and curiosity into the mystery at the center of it all. It helps that Fegley is an assured talent, steering clear of your typical child actor trappings and giving the impression he’s an old soul trapped in the small frame of a youngster. The same can’t be said for Elgort who labors mightily with the material, rarely letting go and totally losing himself in the role. Sure, there are Big Acting scenes where Elgort puts himself through an emotional ringer but there’s a thread of falsehood running through his work that lets the character and, in the end, audiences down.

It’s a good thing, then, that Crowley has filled the supporting roles with such unexpected (and unexpectedly solid) actors. As is often the case, Kidman is terrific as a WASP-y Upper East Side wife, rarely without her pearls and pursed lips. Even in old age make-up later in the film, she manages to give off a regal air. Kidman always gives her characters sharp edges yet the performance never lacks for warmth. Luke Wilson (Concussion) was a nice surprise as Theo’s deadbeat dad that brings him to Nevada to live with his new wife (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave, gnawing on the scenery like it was a turkey leg) but doesn’t seem to have interest in being a parent. Wilson so often plays soft characters but he gets an opportunity here to show a harder side and it works to his advantage.

I struggled a bit at first with Finn Wolfhard (IT, IT: Chapter Two) and his Borat-adjacent accent as young Theo’s bad influence best friend but he eventually won me over, though Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk) as the older version of Wolfhard’s character rubbed me the wrong way from the jump. Ashleigh Cummings gets perhaps the best scene in the whole movie as older Theo’s unrequited childhood love, I just wish her character was better conceived. She gets all this wonderful material and then pretty much vanishes. Also absent for long stretches is Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), turning in the most memorable performance in the movie. Wright has long been a valuable character actor, never quite making it to A-List leading man status but showing here you don’t have to be the focus of the film to effectively steal the show.

Crowley’s best move was to get Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall) to lens the film. Deakins is a master behind the camera and his gorgeous work here is another reminder that he’s one of the all-time greats. Everything about the movie looks wonderful and feels like it should work but there’s a curiously absent beating heart that holds it back from reaching the next level, one that I’m guessing would have pleased fans of the book more. For this audience member coming in blind, I found it to be a watchable but only occasionally memorable literary adaptation of a celebrated work.

Happy Friday the 13th!

 

Hello Campers!

Tonight is the first time there’s been a full moon on Friday the 13th since October of 2000!  This rare occurrence might mean you’ll want to stay indoors tonight and steer clear of ladders, black cats, and mirrors perched precariously and waiting to shatter.  Why not fire up one of the classic Friday the 13th films that were a mainstay during the ’80s, arriving almost yearly to slice and dice their way through a new set of unlucky teens.  They may have become a bit of a joke by the end but there are a key few that get the jolt job done, achieving a great balance between horror and entertainment.

I’ve reviewed a few of these over the years and sometime I’ll do a retrospective of all — but here’s a few to look out for:

Friday the 13th (1980) – The original that started it all, I watched it again recently and must admit that it’s still pretty effective.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) – It was supposed to send Jason out with a bloody bang and, thinking it was the last, it shoots for the moon and scores.
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) – My personal favorite, it’s the one I’ll likely make time for tonight – a prime example of how the genre can combine laughs with screams.
If you’ve got seven hours to spare, I also would highly recommend Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (2013) – it’s jam-packed full of juicy bits on the making of the movies.

The others?  Well, your mileage may vary and it all depends on how forgiving you feel toward dear old Jason and his beloved Camp Crystal Lake.

There won’t be another one of these nights for another 30 years — 2049!  Make the most of this evening!

Movie Review ~ Official Secrets


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The true story of a British whistleblower who leaked information to the press about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Indira Varma, Adam Barki, Conleth Hill, MyAnna Buring, Rhys Ifans

Director: Gavin Hood

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  You can almost set your watch by it.  Every year, the moment the summer movie season has made its last gasps (and with Brittany Runs a Marathon and Ready or Not sneaking in, what a fulfilling final breath it was!), the more serious-minded films are staging a not so stealth attack at cinemas.  It’s time to set aside the imaginary heroes that vanquish villains in other galaxies in favor of stories of true to life tales of champions of a different nature.  Come hell or high water, you will be exposed to one or more of these films in the next several months and you can only cross your fingers and hope it’s as entertaining as it is informative.

The first movie to step up to the plate is Official Secrets, a long gestating project that at one time was set to star such A-listers as Anthony Hopkins, Harrison Ford, and Martin Freeman.  When it failed to materialize, the work bounced around until it was picked up by Academy Award winning director Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky) and attracted another tantalizing cast of UK favorites.  Taking a familiar page out of the Spotlight handbook and exploring a cover-up by that reaches deep within the government, Official Secrets has everything the equation of a pot-boiler needs to succeed.  What it doesn’t have is any spark to get a fire going.

In 2003, Katharine Gunn was a translator working at a British intelligence agency who is copied on an e-mail from the chief of staff of the NSA.  The memo sought to identify support for the illegal surveillance on six nations within the UN that could tip the scale in favor of war with Iraq.  Though information Gunn, her colleagues, and her bosses had about Iraq clearly indicated the reasons for the proposed war were flawed, there was little Gunn could do to stop a determined train that had already left the station.  However, she could expose the lie…but to do so would cost her everything.  Leaking the memo to the press, Gunn was eventually arrested and charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act.

While Gunn’s story is compelling and her bravery with sticking her neck out is to be applauded, I’m not entirely sure a feature film was necessary.  The screenplay from Gregory and Sara Bernstein doesn’t exactly make the case either, with the movie often devolving into a fairly standard David v. Goliath tale.  The only interesting wrinkle in this courtroom drama (that rarely sees the inside of a hall of justice) is that Gunn’s hands were often tied in her defense, since she would run the risk of violating the Official Secrets Act every time she discussed the case with her lawyer.  On the other side of the coin, Hood shifts focus to the offices of The Observer, the publication that got a hold of the leaked document and printed it as a cover story.  The characters at The Observer are arch, like a UK version of The Paper, and while the actors often acquit themselves nicely you can’t get around the feeling you can predict the next line of dialogue at any point.

With the screenplay lacking in dramatic heft, it’s up to the actors to do the heavy lifting and that’s where the movie finds a few sparks.  As Gunn, Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method) clocks a solid performance, shedding her normal period attire for a modern-ish drama where she can show a range that sits in a comfortable spot.  It’s not a huge performance, it’s not a muted one…it’s evenly pitched and effectively grounds the movie in some realism even as it starts to drown in cliché.  I also liked Matt Smith (Terminator Genisys) playing Martin Bright, The Observer reporter that breaks the story and almost gets swallowed up by the wave of backlash it incurs.  Continuing his streak of showing fondness for quirky, rumpled roles, Ralph Finnes (Skyfall) turns up as Gunn’s human rights attorney that goes to bat for her.

Less successful is Adam Barki, MyAnna Buring, and Rhys Ifans (The Five-Year Engagement) in underwritten roles that eventually become distractions.  Barki, in particular, has little chemistry with Knightley so their husband and wife characters never seem to gel.  When the movie implores us to care about this relationship, it becomes a big ask.  With Buring (Kill List) as, actually, I never quite understood what her relationship was to Knightlely, only that she was part of the group that helped get the memo out in the open. I’ve been intrigued by Buring in her previous roles and wish she had been given more to do. And Ifans, what can I say?  The Blustery Reporter with Conviction has been done countless times in better movies, though I did respond positively anytime we spent time in the offices of The Observer.

What’s good about Official Secrets when all is said and done is that it serves as a reminder that governments are not above the law or beyond reproach.  Some may look at what Gunn did as treasonous but in this current time of frustration with the truth being hidden behind a smoke screen of lies, there’s a particular thrill in seeing someone rebel against it all.  I’d have liked it if Hood had sharpened the movie more – it was never going to be a political mystery thriller but there was room to turn the volume up a bit.

Movie Review ~ Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice


The Facts
:

Synopsis: With one of the most memorably stunning voices that has ever hit the airwaves, Linda Ronstadt burst onto the 1960s folk rock music scene in her early twenties.

Stars: Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt

Director: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s one thing to see the toll the cruel progression of time can take on a person but it’s another experience all together to hear it.  For famous actors or people in the public eye, there can be ways both artificial and natural of slowing that march toward wrinkles.  If you’re a singer, though, there’s little that can be done to keep a clarion voice ringing out forever.  Think about it, how often have you been to a concert from a performer and wondered, “Gee, they just don’t have the range they used to.”  We’ve seen many voices sadly silenced too early due to reckless living but it’s the singers that have no control over their fading instrument that are especially tragic.

Timing-wise, the excellent new documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice came my way at a most opportune moment.  I’d just finished listening to a new double-CD of Ronstadt’s most famous songs and a number of lesser-known tunes that didn’t chart as high but still showcased her dynamic song stylings and killer voice.  I was surprised that I never made the connection at how many instantly recognizable songs Ronstadt leant her voice to.  With her wide range in vocals and interests, the singer spent decades at the top of her game, only to have her career cut short due to the gradual onslaught of a debilitating disease.

Directors Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman both bring a healthy experience in documentary film making, having amassed decades of work with topical subjects that are deeply rooted in human emotions. Epstein’s won two Oscars for his feature docs about the AIDS quilt and Harvey Milk and just last year Epstein and Friedman were nominated for an Academy Award for their short, End Game.  They are probably most noted for 1995’s The Celluloid Closet, showing the history of homosexuality depicted in Hollywood films.  Though their narrative feature Lovelace wasn’t as well received as it could have been, it showed they were capable of more than just telling stories via an investigative lens

Born the daughter of a machinery merchant and a homemaker, Ronstadt grew up in Arizona and was brought up with music ever-present.  From the Mexican folksongs her father taught her as well as the large library of records her family owned, she honed her musical gift by building her range in multiple styles.  By the time she joined the folk-rock group the Stone Poney’s in the mid-‘60s she was already creating a singular sound that set her apart from her contemporaries.  Rather rapidly advancing as a solo recording artist, she was still associated with many legendary artists of the day from The Doors to Jackson Browne to the men that would eventually form The Eagles.  Pretty much everything Ronstadt touched (or sang) turned to gold.

While Ronstadt was never a fading violet in terms of being outspoken and does contribute guiding narration to the film, she mostly lets Epstein & Friedman tell her story through interviews with her friends, family, and colleagues.  Considering Ronstadt’s time in the business and how many people she’s worked with, it’s a who’s-who of titans in the music industry…from recording executives to superstar artists.  Many seem in total awe not just in Ronstadt’s talent but in her humble persona, always preferring defer praise onto someone else.

Over the next four decades Ronstadt would earn multiple Grammy’s and even a Tony nomination for starring in the Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance.  While she collaborated with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris on three CDs and made a duet with nearly every popular star of the day, it was always her solo songs that hit the biggest chord.  The term ‘rock chick’ was largely coined because of her and at one point she was the highest paid female singer in the music industry.  The power in her voice was unmatched and whether she was belting out a rock song or pulling it back to deliver a soft ballad, she had the ability to make any song her own.  Those interviewed for the doc speak of an artist they loved seeing perform, someone who was there for them onstage and off if they needed.

Retiring in 2011, there were rumors Ronstadt was having trouble with her voice and found it difficult to maintain her sound.  When she announced in 2013 she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and was unable to sing anymore, it was devastating for her fans across the world.  Being interviewed now, Ronstadt seems a bit unconvincingly resolute about her future…like she has grudgingly accepted some realities about her diagnosis.  Yet there’s still an aura of gratefulness around her, thankful for the time she was given, but clearly desiring more.

Epstein & Friedman pack the film with music and archival performances that demonstrate what a force Ronstadt was in her prime.  Thankfully, it’s not a warts and all feature so there’s little time spent on Ronstandt’s very public relationship with Governor Jerry Brown or any other kiss-and-tell diversions.  It appears Ronstadt was the rare artist that found her calling early on and kept her focus on quality instead of excess.  Near the end of the film,  Epstein & Friedman capture a moment Ronstadt as she is now in her home in San Francisco that gave me extreme goosebumps and a lump in my throat.

Movie Review ~ Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A dark fairy tale about a gang of five children trying to survive the horrific violence of the cartels and the ghosts created every day by the drug war.

Stars: Juan Ramón López, Paola Lara, Ianis Guerrero, Tenoch Huerta

Director: Issa López

Rated: Not Rated

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: While Hollywood studios and low-budget independent financiers in the United States were busy perfecting the slice and dice slasher film and then running it into the ground over the last few decades, the filmmakers south of the border have been interested in more than just bloody shocks. I’ve seen enough Spanish and Mexican horror by this point to know that you aren’t coming to see these carefully contrived films for high body counts, excessive nudity, or any of the other trappings that has given the horror genre such a bad (and boring!) name. Instead, you are more apt to find terrors that spring from ordinary circumstances following average folk as they discover what’s scaring them might be something of their own creation.

Even without the supernatural elements that gradually infiltrate Tigers Are Not Afraid, there is enough real-life horror to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The devastating effects of the drug wars in Mexico City have been well-documented in investigative pieces and fictionalized films like Sicario and Sicaro: Day of the Soldado. Gruesome murders between dueling cartels are used to send messages between rivals, often leaving bodies in broad daylight or having people simply vanish without a trace.  Rising gun violence and the increase in competition have driven crime to staggering levels.

Two very different children feature prominently in the action as sort of a modern day Peter Pan and Wendy.  El Shine (Juan Ramón López) is the leader of a rag-tag group of lost boys living on the streets and steering clear of Caco, the crime boss in their district. On a very different path is Estrella (Paola Lara), a school-girl living with her single mother. As the film opens, Estrella is learning about fairy tales in her classroom when an act of violence spins her world upside down and sends her down a rabbit hole of dark visions and deadly consequences. When her mother disappears, she finds her way into El Shine’s gang as she searches for her lost parent, bringing her ever closer to an evil that seems to be tracking her.

Writer/director Issa López makes the most out of a small budget and manages to get some great performances out of her young actors in the process. The kids are asked to go through quite the emotional wringer and there’s an intellectual maturity in these children that’s hard to teach. If, in the end, the skeleton of the story isn’t that complicated and doesn’t quite match the more complex narratives orchestrated in films like The Orphanage, Julia’s Eyes, or Tesis, there’s enough intriguing ideas present to make it an above average offering. It’s also rather unpredictable, taking several turns I didn’t think it had the guts to go through with.  You’re advised to stick with it during a slightly saggy middle section, paying attention to some carefully dropped clues by López as to what’s developing.

More spooky than scary, but fairly sad when you contemplate the grim reality facing children living in similar conditions, I wasn’t anticipating Tigers Are Not Afraid to be such a somber horror entry . With its visages of tarp-wrapped bodies beckoning to young children and a blood trail that literally follows our heroine home from school, the film isn’t short on unsettling sights. López has a good eye for how to get maximum value out of a tense moment and a keen sense of timing to not linger long in the blackness. Still, I think audiences will come away from the movie more stirred than shaken.

Movie Review ~ Before You Know It


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A pair of sisters find out the mother they thought was dead is alive and starring on a soap opera.

Stars: Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Judith Light, Alec Baldwin, Mike Colter, Mandy Patinkin

Director: Hannah Pearl Utt

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Once you’ve been to New York City and done all the touristy things, that’s when the real adventure starts. Only then can you truly get to the heart of the city and explore the neighborhoods to find hidden gems that are off the beaten path. Restaurants, clothing stores, art galleries, and little theaters are all over the place just waiting to be discovered. Back in the day, the films of Woody Allen that were set in the Big Apple had a way with making good use out of these little-seen corners of a mostly familiar city.

It’s probably not the best comparison to make at this time or might not be exactly the kind of praise the writers and director of Before You Know It would love to hear but there’s a Woody Allen-esque quality to this quirky comedy. It would be easy to fathom Allen conjuring up this NYC set tale on his typewriter, assembling his cast drawn from a stable of familiar faces, and garnering praise for its astute look at familial relationships that break down at the most inconvenient times. Yet this isn’t another offering from that divisive director but the product of two women that wrote, directed, and star in the film. Being so interwoven into the framework of the movie can, at times, be the kiss of death for those that take on multiple roles on a film production but that’s not the case here – in fact, it makes the movie richer.

Living above their tiny off-off-off Broadway theater, sisters Jackie (Jen Tullock) and Rachel (Hannah Pearl Utt) have taken on their responsibilities to keep the operation afloat. Free-spirit actress Jackie takes to the stage and supplants that work with other odd jobs on the side while her more serious younger sister tends to the business side and directs. Their father, Mel (Mandy Patinkin), who raised them on his own after their mother died, is a former Broadway actor turned playwright that’s just earned a prestigious fellowship, one that will help produce a long gestating play the family has been working on together. Mel abhors the corporatization of the theater and doesn’t do much to ingratiate himself with his new benefactors…so when he suddenly passes away and leaves the sisters with mounting debts and an unfinished play they aren’t in the mood for more surprises.

A visit to their lawyer to hear the reading of their father’s will reveals a whopper, though. The mother they had been told passed away is actually very much alive is the sole owner of the theater…and she’s closer than they might have guessed.  Leaving her family all those years ago to pursue her dreams of stardom, Sherrell (Judith Light, Amazon’s Transparent, making a rare but welcome appearance in a feature film) is a famous actress on a popular soap opera that’s feeling the sting of ageism at work. When her daughters sneak onto her set and make a surprise appearance, it isn’t exactly the happy reunion any of them had imagine.  As they get reacquainted with a woman they don’t know and pretty much abandoned them for a different life, all three women are forced to take a hard look at their choices in the past and plans for the future.

Directed by Utt and written by Utt and Tullock, the women do more than just play on their strengths and fashion their movie around several highlighting moments. Jackie and Rachel both have their own hang-ups that get some attention but the spotlight is shared with the supporting cast as well. Having an affair with her daughter’s new therapist (played in brief cameo by Alec Baldwin, Still Alice), Jackie is used to taking the backseat to the stronger personalities she surrounds herself with. At the same time, without being able to find a work/life balance, Rachel is unable to maintain a steady relationship with any woman she finds interesting. When they meet their long-lost mother, instead of filling a gap they’ve been missing they find maybe her taking off wasn’t such a bad thing.

The trickiest role is given to the most interesting actor and Light steps up to the plate and hits a home run. Obviously drawing from her years starring in the One Life to Live, Light’s soap diva wants to be taken seriously but doesn’t want to look bad doing it. She’s OK if they make her an evil twin…just not an “ugly” one. Light makes the character brittle but not broken, vain but not vapid.  I thought I knew where her character was headed but was surprised at the little things Light does along the way to keep us interested. When Rachel offers to rewrite some of the dialogue her mom finds beneath her, they bond in a way neither expect…leading to drama between the sisters and their newly acquired parent.

There’s some extraneous storytelling when the action shifts from the sisters and Sherrell to Jackie’s daughter being befriended by an accountant (Mike Coulter, Girls Trip), who shows up to do the books. It’s the only askance bit of narrative I found in the film but it eventually finds a cohesive way into the story Utt and Tullock wrap up nicely by the end. Though writing as two there’s the feeling of a single voice in the screenplay and that helps keep the film buoyant, with laughs in unexpected places and honest bits of drama along the way.

Movie Review ~ Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The origin story behind one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals and its creative roots in early 1960s New York, when “tradition” was on the wane as gender roles, sexuality, race relations and religion were evolving.

Stars: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Austin Pendleton, Fran Lebowitz, Michael Bernardi, Jerry Bock, Danny Burstein, Joey Grey, Josh Mostel, Harvey Fierstein, Topol, Harold Prince

Director: Max Lewkowicz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: A funny thing happens to me anytime I hear someone bring up the musical Fiddler on the Roof. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I stop in my tracks, get completely serious, and say “I. Love. That. Show.” It’s not being dramatic, it’s not overstating the truth…it’s just fact. For a while I used to say it was my guilty pleasure show…until I realized that I’d never seen a bad production of it and there were quite a few others than shared in my sentiment. In the world of theater, it seems that you either love Fiddler, you were in Fiddler, or both.

For the last 55 years, the Tony winning show inspired by the tales of Sholem Aleichem with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein hasn’t gone a single day without being performed somewhere in the world. Ponder that for a moment. Every day, for over a half century, somewhere on earth, an audience experienced the musical set in a Russian shtetl in 1905 about a milkman named Tevye and his family. A little over a month ago, I caught the new Broadway tour of the 2015 revival of the show and fell in love with it all over again. Yes, the first act is longer than most Adam Sandler movies (100 minutes) and by this point there’s hardly a person in the world that hasn’t “deedle deedle dum’ed” their way through a shower rendition of ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ but the show continues to work like gangbusters.

Inspired to learn a bit more about the show, I tracked down a copy of Barbara Isenberg’s excellent 2015 book ‘Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, the World’s Most Beloved Musical’ right around the same time I got wind of this documentary. Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is part creation story and part time capsule, showing not just the genesis and lasting impact of the musical but also the cultural climate it sprung out of. While many of the stories from the book are repeated in the movie, both have their own golden nuggets that make them a must for any Fiddler fan.

Clearly, the admirers are plentiful and endure along with the show, including a plethora of familiar stars of stage and screen that are interviewed by director Max Lewkowicz. Using archive interviews with the creators (Stein and Bock have passed away) and having family members fill in some narrative gaps, the film is often a straight-forward ‘this is how we made it’ charting of how the piece developed. Those interested in Broadway history will find many recognizable names mentioned as the show went from a poorly reviewed tryout in Washington D.C. to becoming a global phenomenon that continues to sell out theaters whenever it plays in whatever language it’s been adapted to.  Yet before we get to how the writers came up with the songs and how director/choreographer Jerome Robbins devised the inventive dances, Lewkowicz takes audiences on a journey through the early ’60s and the mood the country was in when the Fiddler crew was setting up shop.  It’s valuable to see where the authors were coming from and what might have influenced them, not just in that point in history but in their own personal remembrances.

While the book ultimately has some more dishy asides about the shenanigans that went on offstage and original Tevye Zero Mostel’s tendency toward the unpredictable onstage, the documentary has its own share of memorable moments. I found the audio clips from the first school production to be incredibly moving. As the show was still playing its original run on Broadway, a inner city NYC school was granted the rights by the creators as a way to demonstrate that, though the show was about Jews, its message was universal. The production was met with protests by the religious on both sides, each wonder the appropriateness of someone outside of the Jewish heritage going through a show that has several faith-based observances serving as key moments.  Hearing the young cast sing the music is remarkable. Try to stave off the chills.

Starting out strong by going into a fairly detailed deep dive into the politics and temperature in place when the musical was first created, Lewkowicz stretches things a bit too far by looping in everyone’s favorite Pulitzer Prize winner, Lin-Manual Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) for some on-camera time. Now, I’m fan of what Miranda did for Broadway with Hamilton and hold that piece of theater up as the highest of high bars, but did we really need his appearance talking about his wedding reception video that went viral (a well-orchestrated viral, I might add) where he got family and friends to sing ‘To Life’? Honestly? No. It feels like a strange diversion, an unfocused detour after such a keen honing in on more related topics.  I know it’s included to show how the music continues to inspire but it comes off as a chance for Miranda to pat himself on the back for devising the surprise for his bride.  So it smacks ever so slightly of inclusion for name value alone.

At a brief 92 minutes, there’s a bounty of information here for the casual fan and for those that have listened to the cast recording thousands of time. It’s nice to hear from Topol, the Oscar-nominated star of the movie who played Tevye onstage before and after his silver screen performance. Seeing him play the role onstage several years ago, I’m not ashamed to admit I burst ino tears the moment he said his first line. I would have liked to see a bit more comparisons between the Fiddler productions throughout the years, from the revised version that played Broadway in 2004 (I saw Harvey Fierstein as Tevye…another unexpected delight), the most recent revival from 2015, or from the current production playing off-Broadway performed entirely in Yiddish.  Even so, there are clips from a number of international productions, illustrating again the ease in which the show crosses through languages and interpretations.

Thanks to the judicious editing by Lewkowicz and the addition of some nice animations to tie passages together, it’s a well-paced watch. Engaging and entertaining but, like it’s subject, over in the blink of an eye, Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles may follow the same structure as many making-of documentaries but it gives the audience something extra. By looking at the bigger picture surrounding the show and how it has had an impact, it makes an oft-done musical seem as relevant today as ever before.

Movie Review ~ IT: Chapter Two


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jay Ryan, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård, Xavier Dolan, Will Beinbrink, Teach Grant, Jaeden Martell, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: R

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Two years after IT: Chapter One took the late summer/early box office by screaming storm, we find ourselves in a similar situation upon the arrival of its sequel.  Like its predecessor, IT: Chapter Two is being released at the very tail end of a mostly bummer summer of sputtering sequels and non-starter indies.  At this point in the year, the hunger for something high quality that isn’t seeking Oscar gold (or is it?) but just wants to entertain is, I must admit, quite appealing.  Re-watching Chapter One in anticipation of Chapter Two, I was struck by how well that earlier film scooped up the audience into its spell and had high hopes the second chapter would continue with that same magic.

In my review of the first film I wondered why the studio didn’t have a little more faith in the property and shoot the entire novel back-to-back instead of disrupting its non-linear plot in favor of more straight-forward storytelling. Instead, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema, still wary after a troubled start to the project when the original writer/director left, decided to test the waters by filming only the first of a planned two-part movie.  The film was a gigantic hit (rightfully so), made a few stars out of the kids, and almost immediately had fans compiling their dream cast for the follow-up that quickly got the greenlight.

It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club bested Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård, Atomic Blonde) and most have moved away from the tiny town of Derry, Maine.  Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, The Three Stooges) is the only one that has stuck around, living above the library and keeping watch for any strange occurrences that might be tied to the evil he faced with his friends when they were tweens.  Receiving a fairly targeted message at the scene of a horrific crime that confirms his worst suspicions, Mike tracks down his long-lost pals who have all strangely forgotten the summer of the clown and they oath they made to return.

Overcoming his stutter and becoming a successful novelist and screenwriter, Bill (James McAvoy, Split) is more than happy to vacate the set of his latest movie where he’s having trouble getting the ending right.  Beverly (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) escapes her violent husband/business partner in order to keep her promise, while foul-mouthed stand-up comedian Richie (Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins) leaves his tour and heads for Maine.  Eddie (James Ransone, Sinister) and Ben (Jay Ryan) have no problems getting out of their stuffy corporate jobs and away from the drone of their daily lives.  Only Stanley (Andy Bean, Allegiant) finds it harder to return for reasons I won’t spoil here.

When the gang has gathered back in their hometown and Mike levels with them about the evil that has reemerged, the memories come flooding back and it’s here the movie starts to fray. Up until that point, writer Gary Dauberman (Annabelle Comes Home) and returning director Andy Muschietti (Mama) have been pulling the rope tighter and tauter around the group, giving them all warning signs that danger awaits them all.  Once they all arrive, however, there’s a fracturing isolation that occurs which gives each person an individual mini sub-storyline to follow and the movie curiously goes slack.  Seems that Mike has found out a way to destroy the entity that has been feeding off of Derry residents for hundreds of years and he needs his friends to split up and gather a personal “artifact” from that summer that was important to them.

This gives each actor their own stretch of time to be the star of the film and not everyone uses their time wisely. Surprisingly, it’s the biggest stars that fare the worst with McAvoy whipping himself into an absolute frenzy at inopportune times, coming off as bug-eyed and hysterical instead of terrified.  Chastain is right behind him feasting on the scenery and she and Hader fight over which high emotional moment to gnaw on next.  (There is a serious campaign to get Hader an Oscar nomination for his work here and, while I’m a fan, that’s totally bonkers.  This isn’t even an Oscar-adjacent performance.) All three become, frankly, grating as the movie extends which makes the restrained and nuanced work Ransone, Ryan, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Mustafa, seem even more welcome.  These character “adventures” feel like the chapters they are in the book, personal moments that have slight ties to the greater action but are largely drop-in and drop-out scenes.  The same scenario is repeated later in the movie when the adults get thrown into their own personal horrors.  What started in 2017 as a scary riff on Stand by Me turns into a tricky re-working of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

What’s really missed are the child actors from Chapter One and, though they have been brought back for this second installment they aren’t…quite the same.  Over the past two years the kids have done what kids do at that age: they grow.  Via digital scrubbing and voice modulating, the performances have been youth-ized and the results are often creepier than Pennywise.  You know the voice matches the actor but the face doesn’t look right so it’s all strangely out of whack.  Only Sophia Lillis seems to have escaped the airbrush and thus her performance feels the most grounded and real.  When the action switches back to the adults, you can see the work the older actors have done to match their younger counterparts and, for what it’s worth, the casting is spot-on.  I just kept wondering what would have happened if they waited 27 years to let these younger actors grow into their older selves.

As is the case with most sequels to horror films, the scares have to be bigger and more frequent and IT: Chapter Two definitely falls in line with expectations  The trouble with that is there is no build up to a scare almost anywhere in the movie.  Sure, there is some disturbing imagery and a few jolts but none come close to the satisfying and expertly orchestrated thrills elicited from Chapter One.  It’s like in Jaws.  Once you’ve seen the shark, you’ve seen the shark and it’s all about the attack from then on.  Now that we are familiar with Pennywise and have seen so much of him, there’s less menace to be had, even though he does bare that hideous maw with rows upon rows of razor teeth multiple times in the film.

There’s a fairly large amount of iffy CGI on display, as well. Though the protracted finale of the film features the most well-rounded effects of all, there are numerous nightmare creatures conjured up by Dauberman and Muschietti that are simply goofy to look at.  An abundance of grotesque creepies emerge from the darkness throughout the movie and few have the same impact of the simple image of Pennywise staring out of the dark at an unsuspecting child.  An effective (if extremely hard to stomach) opening sequence at a country fair and a later scene underneath the town bleachers are good reminders of how Muschietti can extend tension to its most enjoyable breaking point.

At 169 minutes, the movie either needed to be 40 minutes shorter or 60 minutes longer. Were it shorter, Muschietti could have trimmed up some redundant character bits in the third act that feel like extra padding.  Had it been longer, we could have spent some more time with the Losers Club and their lives outside of Derry.  There’s too little of their current lives shown to give us a proper introduction so we have to almost base our knowledge soley on what we remember from the original film.  What I do appreciate is Muschietti’s attention to small details from the book and within his vision of the film.  I’ll  have to give the movie a second watch, but there’s usually something not quite right going on in the background of scenes that most viewers won’t catch on the first viewing.  It’s also a nice touch to have Eddie’s nagging wife played by the same actress who was his mother in Chapter One.  There are also two very funny cameos, one in particular that had our audience cheering.

There’s rumors of a supercut that might happen that would combine both movies into one and I’d be fascinated to see how that would come together. I’d definitely recommend this movie, sequel flaws and long running time aside, because of the way it nicely concludes what was started back in 2017.  If only everything was done at the same time and the filmmakers didn’t have that extra year to get too zealous with their plans for IT: Chapter Two.

The Silver Bullet ~ Black Christmas (2019)



Synopsis
: A group of students are stalked by a stranger during their Christmas break. A remake of the 1974 horror film Black Christmas.

Release Date:  December 13, 2019

Thoughts:  Though Halloween has often worn the crown as the original stalk and slash holiday film, 1974’s Black Christmas beat it to theaters by a solid four years.  Though it failed to make serious waves in its first release, the effective chiller (made by the same guy who gave us A Christmas Story!) has become a classic with countless imitators over the years.  It’s been remade once before in 2006 when rebooting old chestnuts was all the rage and didn’t do much but make audiences long for the simplicity of the original.  Now comes a 2019 version that seems to chuck everything but the title and the thin premise out the door.  While I’m most certainly down for any wintery horror arriving smack dab in the middle of Oscar season, I’m disappointed to once again see a trailer that gives away so dang much of the movie – where’s the restraint?  Starring Imogen Poots (Green Room) and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), my interest dropped a few notches after seeing the preview and only because I feel like I’ve caught the gist of the entire film.