Movie Review ~ Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles


The Facts
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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 ~ Mary Poppins Returns


The Facts
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Synopsis: Decades after her original visit, the magical nanny returns to help the Banks siblings and Michael’s children through a difficult time in their lives.

Stars: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: The journey to make Mary Poppins in 1964 was so fraught with tension and hard feelings that it’s no wonder it took 54 years for a sequel to make its way into theaters. If you don’t believe me, check out the entertaining Saving Mr. Banks for a little history lesson…however revisionist it may seem to be.  What child didn’t grow up seeing the titular magical nanny educate the Banks children and bring order to their family while teaching the biggest lesson of all to their workaholic father? I vividly remember seeing it not only in my house but at school on special occasions when they’d get out an old reel-to-reel projector and gigantic screen.

Over the years the popularity of P.L. Travers creation never really went away, even inspiring a long-running West End and Broadway musical that’s now making the rounds in a community theater near you. You can’t keep the old girl down and in 2018 she’s returned in an all new sequel that’s a surprisingly spry near-equal to its half-century old predecessor. The Walt Disney Company took a huge gamble in dusting off this treasured property and turning it over to director Rob Marshall and it has paid off handsomely; Mary Poppins Returns is a true movie event, a hard-working winning combination of fantasy, music, and heart-tugging emotion.

It’s been thirty years since Jane and Michael Banks spent a wondrous few weeks with Mary Poppins but life at #17 Cherry Tree Lane has moved on. Having recently lost his wife, Michael (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) now lives in his family home with his three children and gets the occasional visit from Jane (Emily Mortimer, Hugo) who has followed in her mother’s footsteps and continued the fight for equality for all. When the bank threatens to foreclose on his house and gives them less than a week to come up with the money all hopes seems lost…until a familiar figure appears from the sky.

Making her grand entrance clutching a kite, Mary Poppins (the divine Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place) has lost none of her dry wit and charming aloofness. She soon sets up shop with the new generation of Banks children while keeping her eye on Jane and Michael as they scramble to find a lost set of bank bonds that could get them out of debt. While their father worries about their future, Mary Poppins helps his children adjust to the present through adventures in undersea realms, at the upside-down dwelling of Mary’s cousin Topsy (a wack-a-doodle Meryl Streep, Hope Springs), and in the painting on a porcelain pot.

Having directed the film versions of Chicago, Nine, and Into the Woods, Marshall knows his way around a movie musical but this is far and away his most accomplished and polished work to date. With the old-school appeal of a Hollywood song and dance spectacular, Mary Poppins Returns is the kind of throwback everything-including-the-kitchen-sink experience they just don’t bother to make anymore. Disney and Marshall had the good sense to give audiences exactly what they want in a sequel to a cherished classic…and then some. While not a remake of Mary Poppins per se, it does seem to hit the same beats as that earlier film even down to a splendid animated sequence and a visit to one of her zany relatives.

Even if Marc Shaiman’s songs don’t stay in the brain quite as well as the tunes created by the Sherman Brothers, they feel like they exist within the same universe and are performed with exuberance by Blunt and company. There’s no ‘Feed the Birds’ level accomplishment here but ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ stirs the right amount of feelings and ‘A Cover Is Not The Book’ is a clever bit of wordplay that the Sherman Brothers would get a kick out of. Streep’s oddball ‘Turning Turtle’ is something only she could pull off and Whishaw’s plaintive ‘A Conversation’ gives the actor a nice jumping off point early on in the film. Marshall and his co-choreographer John DeLuca also nicely avoid the trappings of filming huge musical numbers for the screen by letting the audience see the entire company dancing rather than always cutting into close-ups. ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ arrives late in the game but is a true show-stopper.

If the film makes one miscalculation, it’s in the misappropriation of time given to Lin-Manuel Miranda (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) as Jack, a lamplighter friend of Mary’s that’s a stand-in for Bert the chimney sweep from the first film. Whereas Dick Van Dyke’s Bert was someone that occasionally popped up in the action, it feels like Jack is shoehorned into the plot at every turn and it begins to take away from the time we want to spend with Mary and the Banks family. At times, Jack becomes the driving force of play and that made the movie feel like it was veering too far in the wrong direction.

Still, it’s hard to argue that Blunt commands the movie in no uncertain terms whenever she’s even close to the screen. I personally think Blunt is the perfect choice for any part she turns up in but here there’s a real chemistry between actress and role that is rarely seen. No one is going to erase the performance of Julie Andrews from our memory and Blunt doesn’t even try to recreate that particular take on the role. Smartly choosing to give Mary an updated look that sets her apart from her 1964 appearance, Blunt’s Mary is just as staunch as Andrews but doesn’t soften quite as easily. She’s also riotously funny with her droll line readings and incredulity at the state of affairs she encounters upon her return. Andrews won an Oscar for her work and I expect Blunt will get a nomination as well.

Filling out the cast is Colin Firth (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) playing a rare villain role as a bank manager eager to claim the Banks house, Julie Walters (Paddington) as put-upon maid Ellen, David Warner (Waxwork) as Admiral Boom, and Angela Lansbury (Beauty and the Beast) as a wise Balloon Lady with a magical touch of her own. Then there’s Van Dyke (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) dancing up a storm and keep your eyes out for the original Jane Banks, Karen Dotrice, making a cameo outside of Cherry Tree Lane.

Bound to rake in some serious money this holiday season, Mary Poppins Returns is that rare sequel that feels like it wasn’t done for the money but for the greater good. I know it’s all about the bottom line but this is one film that feels like it could heal what ails you…even if just for two and a half hours.

Oscar Nominees: Best Original Song

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Every day from now until the Oscars on Sunday, February 26 I’m going to deconstruct the nominees in each category. I’ll give you their history with the Academy, some extra thoughts on each nominee/film, who was snubbed, and what you might consider before choosing them in your office pool.

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Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: Right off the bat, let me say that I wish there was a rule that there could only be one nominee per film…but that’s sour grapes on my part because, well, read on.  The first of two songs nominated from La La Land is arguably the better of the pair, though it’s also the one that does more to solidify Emma Stone’s hopes of winning an Oscar than its own.  The 11 o’clock number for Stone’s struggling actress character, it’s got a good bridge but not much of a hook.  Truth be told, it’s largely due to Stone’s earnestly honest performance of it that makes it memorable.  Taken out of context on the live broadcast (and maybe sung by someone other than Stone), I’m wondering how strong it will feel.

Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: La La Land‘s second nomination is for the song featured heavy in the trailers and promo clips.  It’s an ear-worm of an anthem, but not a terribly tuneful or great one.  Score composer Justin Hurwitz wisely interspersed the song generously throughout the film and Ryan Gosling’s laid back jazz musician actually made me think he was coming up with the words right there on the spot.  Don’t forget that Hollywood LOVES to reward material that involves them in some way and a song called ‘City of Stars’ in a movie title La La Land hits the double target for voters that can’t get enough of their own back-patting. If neither film from La La Land takes the trophy, don’t feel too bad for composers/lyricists Pasek and Paul, they have Dear Evan Hansen, a sizable hit on Broadway looking likely to win them a Tony.

Nominee: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Song: ‘How Far I’ll Go’ from Moana
Oscar History: First time nominee
Thoughts: I’m just going to say it and I don’t care if you hate it.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is possibly the most overexposed celebrity alive today and if his song from Moana wins it will be largely due to the Hamilton fever that has taken over both coasts over the last two years.  There’s no doubt that Miranda is musically gifted and winning an Oscar here would make him the youngest EGOT winner ever (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) but the man has already won everything under the sun (even a Pulitzer!) for Hamilton…voters are either going to want to make it a clean sweep or they’ll think Miranda has filled enough shelf space this year with other statuettes.  That being said, while Moana and this song aren’t my favorite in the Disney canon, it surely makes for a positive message for young girls in that it teaches them they don’t need to pine for a prince to achieve the impossible.

Nominee: Justin Timberlake, Max Martin, Shellback
Song: ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ from Trolls
Oscar History: First time nominees
Thoughts: Like Pharrel’s ‘Happy’ from a few years back, this song from Trolls is the kind of get up and shake your groove thing song that will make its performance one to look forward to.  If La La Land‘s two songs split the vote and Miranda Mania doesn’t bring Moana to the winner circle, this could (and, really, should) walk away the winner. The only caveat I can see is that this one has gotten the most radio air time and if listeners/voters are sick of hearing it every day in their gym it might make it harder for them to cast a vote for it to win.  It’s a fun song with good lyrics and a great hook…a definite party song.

Nominee: J. Ralph & Sting
Song: ‘The Empty Chair’ from Jim: The James Foley Story
Oscar History: Ralph has been nominated twice before, last year for Racing Extinction and in 2013 for Chasing Ice.  Sting has been nominated three times before, for Cold Mountain, Kate & Leopold, and The Emperor’s New Groove.
Thoughts: When the nominations for Best Original Song rolled out, I can imagine many people having to blink a few times when they saw this nomination appear on screen.  Looking over all the nominees, this is still the biggest WTF moment but digging deeper maybe it was wrong to count this one out in the first place.  Both Sting and J. Ralph have been nominated multiple times in this category and Sting especially has a lot of good friends within the Academy.  Trouble is, the song is a bit of a downer as is the documentary it’s pulled from so we could be in for a bathroom break once Sting takes the stage to perform it.  The movie didn’t get much traction…in fact, I didn’t even remember that I had SEEN this movie already, having caught it when it was broadcast on HBO earlier this year.

Missed Opportunity:

Should Been Nominated: ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ from Sing Street
Why?: Oh my goodness I was SO hoping this song (or any song, for that matter) from Sing Street would make it into the nominations.  The movie has the best songs of the year in my book and any one of them could be placed in the list of nominees and outshone its competition.  Director John Carney’s previous two wide released films (Once and Begin Again) snagged nominations and Once actually won.  I think the music here is better than both of them so it’s a damn shame a song like the favored ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ couldn’t rustle enough votes to see its name announced on Oscar night.  

In my book, the Best Song of the year wasn’t even nominated.  Instead we’re left with two languid songs from the first original musical produced in Hollywood in decades, a pretty good song from a hotter than hot composer, a party anthem destined to be played in roller rinks for eternity, and a Sting track that feels like a B-Side.  So…while I’d give it to the Trolls song I’m going to go with ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land for the win.  (By the way, all five nominees were better than Sam Smith’s dreadful winning song from last year!)