By William Wolf

FIDDLER: A MIRACLE OF MIRACLES  Send This Review to a Friend

A joyous and informative tribute to the creation of the internationally famous musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” this is a film that can be appreciated on so many levels. Directed by Max Lewkowicz, who wrote the screenplay with Valerie Thomas, “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” richly provides an account of the fabled show’s history, with a treasure trove of clips and a load of interviews by notables with pithy and often revealing comments.

It is a pleasure experiencing this film on an emotional level as well as for its reflection of the show’s artistry and universality. Clips from performances in different languages demonstrate how the creators tapped into the subject matter of Jewish life described in the stories by Sholem Aleichem, paralleled in other cultures involving the downtrodden and personal issues in family life.

Ironically, in its initial tryout run there was a negative critical reaction. One thing that the new documentary does is trace the tinkering and the way the insertion of the opening number ‘Tradition” gave a whole new spirit to the evolving production.

Key are incorporated interviews with composer Jerry Bock lyricist Sheldon Harnick, book writer Joseph Stein and producer Hal Prince. Original cast member Austin Pendleton, who played Motel, has his reflections, and we also hear from Joel Grey, who has directed the superb Yiddish version currently playing. Chaim Topol, who starred as Tevye in the film version produced and directed by Norman Jewison, is also interviewed, and we are reminded of how stalwart the acting by the Israeli star was in comparison with more Eastern European nuances of other performances.

Of course, we get to see clips of Zero Mostel’s renowned performance, and we hear from Mostel’s son Josh. Another lauded performance as Tevya was by Herschel Bernardi, and the late actor’s son Michael is also among those interviewed. There are a host of others whose comments are valued, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Harvey Fierstein, Danny Burstein, Jessica Hecht, Ted Chapin, Bartlett Sher and Ted Sperling.

The film constitutes an important historical record of the road “Fiddler” has traveled, and there is emphasis on its status as one of the most beloved musicals of all time. It provides fresh reason to laud the Bock-Harnick-Stein triumvirate, and also the work of director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose being a tough taskmaster was an irritant. (Attention is also paid to the friction between Mostel and Robbins, as a result of Robbins having named names in the red-scare period.)

There is a precious coda to the film in which we see Sheldon Harnick playing the violin. I never knew that was among his many talents.

I heartily recommend this documentary as among the year’s outstanding films, which can not only provide you with extensive enjoyment and insight but also should stand as a vital record in the trajectory of musical theater. A Roadside Attractions release. Reviewed August 23, 2019.

HOT AIR  Send This Review to a Friend

The plot of “Hot Air,” directed by Frank Coraci from a screenplay by Will Reichel, is on target in this age of right-wing extremist broadcasters (think Fox News). In this case, the angry on-air American commentator is played By British actor Steve Coogan, who does a fierce job disseminating vitriol as commentator Lionel Macomb, who has a personality to match. Coogan demonstrates that he can handle a dramatic role as well as comedic parts for which he has become better known.

As long as the film is making its political point, “Hot Air” provides fresh air to the topic. But the seeds of sentimentality are planted when his needy 16-year-old African-American niece Tess, played by Taylor Russell, turns up seeking shelter.

At first Lionel, who hadn’t known of his niece, wants to turn her away, but he soon softens. There is a back story involving Tess’ mom, who has been in rehab. Tess finds a sympathetic ear from Lionel’s girlfriend and publicist, Valerie, sympathetically played by Neve Campbell. One may wonder how Valerie can tolerate Lionel.

What starts as a hard-edged portrayal reflecting the right-wing nastiness that plagues the American scene these days--and Coogan does well playing an American—descends into an unbelievable plot resolution. Good luck to you if you can accept how it all works out, thereby undercutting the toughness encountered at the outset and diluting the film’s topicality. A Freestyle Releasing release. Reviewed August 23, 2019.

FRIEDKIN UNCUT  Send This Review to a Friend

I met and interviewed William Friedkin at the time his “The French Connection” was all the rage. Now, here he is at the age of 83 in the documentary “Friedkin Uncut.” Where did all the years go?

Director Francesco Zippel provides an intimate view of Friedkin today, with reflections about his various films, including “The Exorcist,” “Sorcerer,” “To Live and Die in L.A,” “Killer Joe” and “Cruising.” Clips illustrate the director’s accomplishments.

Friedkin currently lives in Beverly Hills and is married to Sherry Lansing, who achieved distinction of her own when she was head of Paramount Studios. (He was previously married to French actress Jeanne Moreau.) The film doesn’t dwell on the director’s personal life, but concentrates on his reflections about his career and the film world.

The documentary is a sort of valentine to him, and he makes an impression pontificating, often with a sense of humor, but always in light of the high esteem that he apparently has for himself and his work. He has earned this through his ability and also his proud determination to make films in his own way, and that gives him special stature.

When we are refreshed with scenes from “The French Connection” in particular, we see the talent that went into that film, especially with the famous car chase. What comes through is a combination of careful planning and recklessness with relation to some of the danger involved. Considerable attention is also paid to the making of “The Exorcist.”

There is a leisurely, congenial air about Friedkin as he relaxes and talks about his work. There are also contributions by various others with their comments, including by Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Willem Dafoe, Wes Anderson, Matthew McConaughey, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Shannon and Juno Temple.

“Friedkin Uncut” serves as a reminder of how much creative energy the director was able to pour into his films, and why he merits an important place in retroactively surveying movies at the time when he was riding high. An Ambi Distribution release. Reviewed August 23, 2019.

DRIVEN  Send This Review to a Friend

An odd frilm directed by Nick Hamm and written by Colin Bateman and Alejandro Carpio, “Driven” looks at the life of John DeLorian and the scandal in which he became involved. What makes the film different from what one might expect is the light tone applied to very serious events.

In the film set in 1980s California, Lee Pace plays DeLorean, who had established a major reputation at General Motors and subsequently became famous as the independent creator of his DeLorean auto that never became the success that he had hoped it would be. The film follows his becoming bogged down in financial problems and his involvement in a drug dealing sting.

There is the friendship that develops between DeLorean and his neighbor Jim Hoffman, played by Jason Sudeikis, who, caught in his own illegality, becomes an informant for the F.B.I. in a trap that’s set to nab DeLorean. Judy Greer portrays Hoffman’s wife, Ellen, and Isabel Arraiza is Cristina, DeLorean’s fashion model wife. Corey Stoll has a key role as F.B.I agent Benedict Tiso.

There is an element of pathos involved in the situation as depicted. Hoffman doesn’t seem like an evil guy despite his betrayal of a friend and there is regret on his part for what he has to do to save himself. DeLorean, as played by Pace, is shown to be more of a larger-than-life character than a villain. Inspired by real events, the film needs a much more serious bent to do justice to all that happened.

(DeLorean was charged in 1982 with an attempt to sell a huge quantity of cocaine, but in his 1984 trial was acquitted as a result of his having been entrapped. DeLorean died in 2005 at the age of 80.)

This fictionalized drama by Hamm makes for easygoing if not in-depth viewing, with the stars and supporting cast members delivering performances in keeping with the overall approach of mixing comedy with crime and intended suspense. A Variance Films and Universal Pictures Content Group release. Reviewed August 16, 2019.

THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING  Send This Review to a Friend

For many years we have been hearing about the inequities for women in the world of filmmaking, and recently voices have been becoming louder. Now along comes “This Changes Everything,” a documentary cry for facing the issue head-on and doing something about it more rapidly. Ironically, the film has been directed by a man, Tom Donahue, and he has sympathetically made the case for women loud and clear.

Prominent women--and men- speak out in interviews and comments adding insight into the need for better roles for women and more opportunities on the filmmaking end, including producing and directing.

Foremost is the contribution by Geena Davis, who is both passionate and articulate in leading us through the maze, and who is also an executive producer of the film. Prominent in the documentary is reference to the investigative role of the Director’s Guild of America’s Women’s Steering Committee, set-up in 1979. Its mission: looking into the process of hiring by Hollywood studios.

The film is enlivened by illustrative film clips, but the basic strength is gathered from the comments by many notables in the industry. The large roster includes Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, Reese Witherspoon, Cate Blanchett, Jill Soloway, Shonda Rhimes, Yara Shahidi, Chloe Moretz, Amandla Stenberg, Alan Alda, Sandra Oh, Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain, Rose McGowan, Judd Apatow, Rosario Dawson, and even Anita Hill.

One might complain that the film begins to seem repetitive. But the overall impact is strong, and the film takes its place among important agitprop works that deliver a crucial message. The need is for change that enables more opportunities for women in every aspect of the film industry—and achieved much faster than the limited progress made thus far. A Good Deed Entertainment release. Reviewed August 9, 2019.

TEL AVIV ON FIRE  Send This Review to a Friend

The title of this film is also the title of a fictional popular television soap opera, set in 1967, that both Israelis and Arabs enjoy watching in this amusing, light-hearted comedy directed by Sameh Zoabi, who wrote it with Dan Kleinman. Any movie that attempts to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian gap with humor is most welcome.

The set-up focuses on the decent but ineffectual young man, Salam, sympathetically played by Kais Nashif, who is given a job by his uncle, Bassam (Nadim Sawalha), who produces the show. What can Salam contribute? Since he speaks Hebrew, he can be useful in going over scripts to be sure here are no errors and aiding actors in their pronunciations.

There’s a hitch. Salam, who lives in Jerusalem, must commute to Ramallah, where the film is being shot. Each day he must pass Israeli security on the way, and he needs approval from an Israeli officer, Assi, played by Yaniv Biton, who, with a little help from Salam, comes to believe that Salam is actually an important writer on the show.

The comedy intensifies as Assi wants to impress his wife, who, like women on both sides of the divide who have become fans of the program, is partial to wanting the outcome of the show to be personally pleasing. Thus the officer wants to use his power over the coming and going of Salam to in effect become a co-script writer and influence the ending. The soap’s financial backers have their own ideas.

Salam has his own romantic goal. He is in love with a young woman, Mariam, played by Maisa Abd Elhadi, and he wants to impress her and advance their failed relationship.

What’s fascinating about the rather crazy plot is the concept that both Israeli and Arab women are caught up as fans of the same corny TV series, which in itself involves espionage and seduction in the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities.

The screenplay makes the relationships involved frequently funny even though basically outlandish, and the cast gets nicely into the comedic and romantic spirit of it all while the film makes its inherent point about potential coexistence. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed August 2, 2019.

ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD  Send This Review to a Friend

Although Quentin Tarantino spends a good deal of time attempting to capture the aura of Hollywood at the end of the 1960s, his ultimate payoff is an outburst of the sort of repellent violence in which he has gloried during his career. His fans may whoop it up laughing at the excess—such as burning someone to death and brutally smashing skulls—but others may be put off by the intense, smart-alecky killing.

Satire is hardly the director’s strong point, although he makes a stab, sometimes successfully, at finding humor in surveying the Hollywood scene and its inhabitants in a big chunk of his sprawling opus that runs two hours and 41 minutes. He has also been wise enough to cast two top male stars in a relationship upon which he builds his observations that attempt to create nostalgia. Tarantino knows how to imitate genres, the western in particular, and blend imaginary material with real clips.

The story, scripted by Tarantino, is structured around the friendship between actor Rick Dalton, played appealingly to the hilt by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his stunt double, boozing partner, chauffeur and long-time pal Cliff Booth, portrayed by an also excellent Brad Pitt. The better professional days for both Rick and Cliff are on their last legs, but the men still grasp at remaining opportunities. Tarantino’s take on Hollywood is enhanced by assorted references, locations and parodies. Real people of the era are portrayed, including actors Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond). Noted landmarks are depicted, such as the hedonistic Playboy Mansion. Autos of the period, studios and assorted artifacts add authenticity, as do the skillful production design and cinematography.

How effective you may find all of this depends on how you relate to Tarantino’s vision. In other hands such material might become much more entertaining and satirical. All of this, including the more amusing bits and the pro acting by the stars, is a careful buildup to the violent payoff climax.

The horror of the actual murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski, by the Charles Manson cult, is paralleled by a substitute assault. There is a build-up to what we think will be the Tate episode itself. We are introduced to the hippie cult of female followers of Manson at the location where they hang out, and ultimately, under Manson’s orders, a group sets out to kill rich Hollywood types.

Tate, played by Margot Robbie, is seen happily enjoying her performance in a film at a movie house and cavorting with friends, which leads us to think that we will see Tate’s murder. But Tarantino pulls a switch. Rick, his Italian wife, and Cliff become the targets, and, reversing gears, it is the Manson invaders who get slaughtered, the brutality of which is designed to feed audience delight at the spectacle of vicious revenge.

How much of an appetite you have for enjoying such violent retribution may determine your overall reaction to the film. Tarantino has clearly embodied “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” with his personal vision quite expertly achieved. How much of this vision appeals to you is the question. A Columbia Pictures release. Reviewed July 26, 2019.

JIRGA  Send This Review to a Friend

A most unusual dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, “Jirga” is a tale of seeking redemption. It also involves the possibility of forgiveness, but that is by no means on the table in the journey taken by Sam Smith as an Australian veteran of the lengthy war in Afghanistan. The story is a labor of love by writer--director Benjamin Gilmour, who originally planned to shoot in Pakistan as per financial possibilities, but, thwarted by the secret service there, he switched to filming in the more appropriate location of Afghanistan despite dangers and need for other financing.

Smith plays Mike Wheeler, who is haunted by guilt feelings for having bungled into shooting a non-combatant Afghan husband and father. Wracked by this aspect of PTSD, he seeks solace by making a long journey back to Afghanistan and eventually to the village where what he considers a war crime occurred. The trip is portrayed colorfully, including being captured by Taliban and how he manages to continue on his journey.

Wheeler’s mission: to place himself in the hands of the community so it can seek justice for the killing weighed under the local Jirga process. On arrival he says he is willing to accept whatever judgment his handed out, which could be death.

Key in the situation is the eldest son of the man killed, who is given the power of being able to forgive or not. The veteran’s feeling of guilt is compounded on encountering the son and the widow.

The atmosphere grows tense when the local council meets to adjudicate, with feelings running high amid the differences of opinion and the obligation to do justice, which poses the issue of mercy versus a death penalty. Wheeler‘s fate lies in the hands of the son.

Director Gilmour, working from his own screenplay, makes the most of the Afghanistan locale, creating a strong sense of place. In the supporting cast, including non-professional locals, are Sher AlamMiskeenUstad and Amir Shah Talash. While the dialogue is basically in English, Pashto dialogue is also used.

Hovering over the film is our own knowledge of the suffering in the prolonged war and the inherent issues that the story raises. The film is very well done overall, with suspense built harrowingly as one awaits the conclusion with a feeling that it could go either way. With this tale Gilmour has found an original way to bring the war and its aftermath for those who have fought it before a contemporary public. A Lightyear Entertainment release. Reviewed July 25, 2019.

THE FAREWELL  Send This Review to a Friend

One may chuckle at the line on screen at the start of “The Farwell” informing us that the film is “based on an actual lie,” a reverse of all the films that claim to be based on true stories. But there is truth here too—“The Farewell” really is based on a lie. Written and directed by Lulu Wang, the film is mostly set in China and stems from Wang’s own story about her grandmother not being told that she had been diagnosed as being fatally ill.

What emerges is a very warm family drama that, while very serious in depicting Chinese culture and attitudes, has amusing elements as well. It features numerous convincing portrayals, including one by Nora Lum, better known as Awkwafina. She previously appeared in a wildly over-the-top comic role in “Crazy Rich Asians.” Here she gets a chance to show her serious acting skill in a touching dramatic role as Billi, a young woman who was taken from China to New York by her parents at an early age and has missed the loving ties she felt with her grandmother, Nai Nai.

Billi doesn’t reveal that she has been turned down for a fellowship to advance her music career when she visits her parents. Sensing something wrong, she worms out of her mother that her grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Billi is appalled at the decision not to tell Nai Nai and feels it is morally wrong.

Thus a basic issue is raised, a question that many families face, with some feeling strongly that they would want to know how much time is left, and others feeling the victim should be spared anguish. Take your pick as to your own opinion. In the film one family member explains his Chinese attitude that by telling Nai Nai a burden would be placed on her, but by keeping the news secret the burden would be on those who must carry it themselves in devotedly caring for the doomed person.

An elaborate ruse is developed, with a fake wedding planned that would be the occasion for family members to come together to have a farewell visit with Nai Nai, who in turn would have the joy of a reunion without knowing its purpose. Zhao Shuzhen, who plays Nai Nai with much warmth and twinkling spirit, gives an impression that she may know, or at least suspect, more than her family gives her credit for.

A particular strength of the film lies in its depiction of the upscale family with attention to individual stories and attitudes. Wang provides an in-depth look at the prevailing culture and the local environment. Her filming was done in her grandmother’s city of Changchun. There is also insight into the differences between life for those in China and Chinese-Americans. Billi, for example doesn’t think she speaks Chinese well, and although firmly placed in the United States, bemoans how she has been missing all of the things from her childhood that she lost when her parents moved to America.

Among those providing effective portrayals are Diana Lin as Billi’s mother, who believes in keeping painful emotions to herself, and Tzi Ma as Billi’s father, who goes along on the same track. They don’t even want to take Billi back to China for the reunion in fear that her sad-sack expressions will give the secret away. Billi, who gets there on her own, turns out to be stronger than they expect.

There is a kicker at the end of the film that I won’t spoil for you. By that time one can have become deeply involved in the real achievement of the film springing from the plot—a visit with an extended Chinese family affectionately and intimately observed with strengths and faults illuminated so that one may be able to feel having come to know and respect this collection of people trying to do the right things in life according to their individual and cultural views. An A24 release. Reviewed July 28, 2019.


What, If anything, have people in Romania learned from history? The disconcerting answer comes with an upsetting bang at the conclusion of Romanian writer-director Radu Jude’s noble fictional effort to explore Romania’s role in the massacre of Jews and others in Odessa in 1941. The anti-Semitism depicted in the director’s aim at exposing the Romanian complicity, necessary to make the point, ultimately becomes in itself harrowingly difficult to endure even in this righteous cause.

Jude approaches the subject via the creation of the character Mariana, forthrightly played with solemnity and dedication by Ioana Jacob. Mariana is a theater director who thinks up the idea of staging a pageant in a public square that will portray the role of Romania in the slaughter that has been long-buried by the effort to avoid history. The mass killing has been attributed to the Nazi forces and the general fighting in World War II. Mariana aims to remind the Romanian public that the guilty party is Marshal Ion Antonescu, the fascist and anti-Semitic Romanian leader executed in 1946 for war crimes, with the complicity of the Romanian military. The title of the film is an arrogant statement that Antonescu made.

With government funding, Mariana wants to bring in tanks and has recruited actors to play soldiers needed. She encounters resistance from cast and crew as the project develops. Most of all, there is resistance from a government official who argues with her that it is unwise to dig up the past and that she would do better portraying Romanian heroism. He threatens to call of the project if she doesn’t tone everything down. A secret plan made with a leading actor is to agree to the official’s demands, and then go ahead as originally planned to vividly dramatize the slaughter of the enacted Jews by leading them into a building and burning it down.

What Mariana doesn’t count on is the possibility of the public gathered for the spectacle to cheer on the anti-Semitic shouting and killing instead of being aghast at what takes place and thus demonstrating that anti-Semitism still virulently exists.

The film is a mighty blast for historical accountability. Unfortunately it also contains diversionary scenes. In order to depict Mariana’s life, the director has her walking around nude at times, and there are nude scenes with her married lover and the depiction of problems in their relationship, relatively minor in the larger context. I could also do without Mariana picking at her toes while quoting passages from Hannah Arendt.

However, that said, what overrides such detractions is the film’s overall concept of attempting to set history straight and remind Romania and the world of what still must be addressed. That is where the film’s power lies. Reviewed July 19, 2019.


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