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Interview: Michael Bernardi of “Marshall” and “Fiddler on the Roof”

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I loved seeing Herschel Bernardi play Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” in the 1960’s and it was a great pleasure to speak to his son, Michael, who played the role in the Broadway revival. He also appears in a brief but very compelling role in “Marshall,” the film about one of Thurgood Marshall’s early criminal cases.

What was your audition like for “Marshall?”

I was in the middle of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway and I was in rehearsals for my first shot at playing Tevye as an understudy when I got word about this audition for a project with Thurgood Marshall. I got extremely excited and so I knew I had to do everything in my power to make that happen.

The scene in Marshall has a lot going on and there’s a lot of subtext. You don’t want to come in all over the place. It’s very specific what’s at stake in the scene. So I remember being in rehearsal, being in 1905 Eastern Europe wearing my shtetl wardrobe and then getting on a subway and walking into the world of Marshall and finding the Zen place within myself to just serve the story as much as possible. That probably helped because there was no time to overthink it. Also being in Fiddler was such an incredible resource of information, to be already immersed in that world, to really understand what that immigrant experience was and what was at stake, what people were fighting for as they arrived in America and what the cost would be if things didn’t work out. So I was very pleased with how the scene showed so many of those colors and just trying to plumb those circumstances as much as possible as in a very short time span tell that story of what was at stake for the Jewish people in that time period and at the same time fighting for the future and fighting for equality and fighting for acceptance.

What difference has your father’s legacy as an actor made in your life?

He died when I was one and a half. But there were family members that told me his story and he left behind such incredible legacy, so my entire life I’ve been blessed to have random people coming up to me just stopping dead in their tracks and going, “Your father meant so much to me and my family.” Just this look in their eyes of such reverence and love when they speak about him. I feel like the love that I may have missed out on from my father has been given to me through the love that he gave to so many people. So in that regard my entire life I’ve definitely have felt that the presence of the story of Fiddler and what that story means and has meant to millions of people.

It’s a very specific story, and yet it seems to have such universal impact.

Because we are human and because really Fiddler on the Roof was created structurally as an empathy machine. Especially that first act of Fiddler on the Roof was constructed to find that common humanity of human beings through humor and to really show that this is a family that you’re meeting that has the same worries and daily foibles and conflicts of any family that has ever lived.

I think Fiddler is about family and I think that’s why it’s so universal; it speaks to everyone’s kitchen table and then once you achieve that kind of familiarity with an audience and that audience recognizes themselves and their family in these people onstage that come from a completely different culture, you find that union. And then in the second act you can really start introducing the plight and the specific trials of that cultural group and once you make that connection then that audience can go on that ride and truly have an empathetic experience. I know that everything I write, everything that I’m involved in, that’s my greatest goal, is to endear an audience and find that commonality amongst people, not the lowest common denominator amongst people but the truth that we all share.

A great way of doing that is through comedy and making people laugh and literally having that experience of sitting in a theater and finding something funny on stage and experiencing that the person next to you and the person in the row in front of you is also laughing and that person is a total stranger, that person may be wearing a hijab, the other person may be transgender, but you are all sharing a communal experience.

It sounds to me as though live performance is especially meaningful to you.

It is a tradition, that’s the word, right? It is a tradition in my family because it wasn’t just my father who was a prolific performer on stage but also my grandparents; they originated a lot of the roles that Sholem Aleichem had brought into the mainstream in the Yiddish theater for American audiences. There are pictures of my grandfather on a stage in the Yiddish theater pulling around a milk cart and my grandmother was famous for playing the role of Yenta and this is all before all these stories were put together into the musical called Fiddler on the Roof. So that stage experience, that communion with an audience that you can feel in the moment is profound and extremely addictive and there’s really nothing like it and it can never really be captured on film. That being said when a film is truly great I think that it’s really filmmakers that understand those principles of reaching out to the audience and structuring things in a way to induce that community experience so it all comes back to theater ultimately. But filmmaking, you don’t have that present moment give and take with an audience and so it’s an act of faith.

Originally published on HuffPost.


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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images
Profanity: Some strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situation
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Severe illness, medical situations with some graphic images, issue of assisted death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 20, 2017
Copyright 2017 Bleeker Street

“Plucky or pitiful?” a man asks his wife as they drive toward a grand British estate to beg for funding to provide wheelchairs for the severely disabled. They meet with a crusty old aristocrat (Diana Rigg, always a treasure) who says that normally she has no trouble turning people down but she feels she must say yes to them. And, because they are so dashed plucky, so do we.

Robin Cavendish called himself a “responaut,” a jaunty, adventurous term for a man who was completely paralyzed by polio in his 20’s. And this jaunty, adventurous, paralyzed man’s story is told, perhaps a little too lovingly, by his filmmaker son in “Breathe,” about Cavendish, who revolutionized the mobility and accessibility of the severely disabled in mid-century Britain.

But this film is less about his activism than it is about his love story. Robin (Andrew Garfield) married Diana (“The Crown”), and their unswerving devotion and determined spirits are the heart of the film.

Like “The Theory of Everything,” which it resembles, the movie opens with our hero doing something active. He races along in a car and then swings a cricket bat, trying to catch the attention of the bored beauty sitting by the tea table. Soon they are married and off to Kenya, where he is a tea broker and she goes along with him for the fun of it. They are blissfully happy until, just after she tells him she is pregnant, he becomes very ill with polio, paralyzed from the neck down, and given just three months to live.

She manages to get him back to England, where he is put in a ward with other paralyzed men. He cannot speak. He cannot move. He cannot think of any reason to see Diana or the baby or to try to live. When a priest comes by with platitudes, he manages to spit at him.

But Diana’s devotion and his restored ability to speak inspire him to insist on going home. Nothing like that has ever been tried before and the doctor in charge forbids it. Another patient bets him a fiver that he won’t last. But he does. And he works with a friend to invent a wheelchair with a respirator that gives him mobility.

First-time director Andy Serkis (the motion capture actor from “Planet of the Apes” and “Lord of the Rings”) has a disarmingly light touch. The escape from the hospital is accompanied by the kind of musical score we might expect in a heist film with more humor than tension. Plus, if there’s anything better than one Tom Hollander in a movie, it is two Tom Hollanders, utterly charming playing Diana’s affectionate but eccentric twin brothers. Most of the dialog is delivered with an understated smile, the kind of “Hullo, darling,” we used to get in movies of the 1930’s. I found that endearing. This is very much a love story, not just between Diana and Robin but between a son and his parents.

Parents should know that this film includes severe illness and paralysis, some graphic and disturbing images, some sexual references and situation, and the issue of assisted death.

Family discussion: What made Robin different from the other patients? Do you agree with his decision about when to die?

If you like this, try: “The Theory of Everything” and “The Intouchables”

Only the Brave

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references, some crude, and non-explicit situations
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs, substance abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, many characters killed, snake bite
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 20, 2017
Copyright 2017 Sony

They literally fight fire with fire. Unlike “structure fires,” burning buildings doused with water, wildfires in non-residential areas are contained by setting a line of fire to stop them from spreading. Sometimes it does not work. “Only the Brave” is the story of the Granite Mountain hotshots, the “alpha” team of 19 Arizona firefighters who were killed in 2013. Like “The Perfect Storm,” this is a real-life story that spends three-quarters of its time making us love the characters and then heart-wrenchingly shows us how painful it was to lose them.

Josh Brolin, who has spent some real-life time as a firefighter, plays Eric, the leader of the group that, as the movie begins, is the second team, not allowed to set the fires on “the line.” “You guys are type two and we’re hotshots so why don’t you do what deucers do best, which is stay in the back and mop up our ?” sneers the leader of the alpha team. Eric and his group want very much to be certified as alphas and they train hard, the more experienced members of the team as the newcomer, Brandon (Miles Teller), good-naturedly dubbed “Donut” by the team for his zero score when quizzed on the rulebook.

“It’s not easy sharing a man with a fire,” a wife explains. The same qualities that make these men (they are all men) good at what they do can make it difficult for them to be the good husbands and fathers they strive to be.  For Brandon, the discipline and support of the team makes it possible for him to stay away from his past life of slacking and substance abuse.  But for some of the others, the intensity of the fire fighting experience is something of an addiction and it is difficult for them to go back to normal life with their families, who can never really understand what they face and what they do.

The moments of struggle are touching, as Brandon’s discovery that he is going to be a father inspires him to change his life and Eric’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) tries to stay close to a husband who is not ready to share what he has been through. The movie’s greatest strength is in its presentation of the music of man-talk, indirect, mock-aggressive, often crude, but always in service of the most profound commitment and loyalty.  For a moment, we get to be a part of that group of hotshots, and it is piercingly sad to lose them.

Parents should know that this is the true story of firefighters with a lot of peril and many sad deaths, some strong language, sexual references (some crude) and situations, pregnancy, drinking, and some drug use and references to substance abuse.

Family discussion: What qualities does someone have to have to be a hotshot? Why didn’t Brendan want painkillers at the hospital?

If you like this, try: “The Perfect Storm,” “Backdraft,” and “Ladder 49″

Joe Berlinger on Armenian Genocide and Efforts to Suppress the Story

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Copyright Falkun Films 2017

The word “genocide’ was created to describe the massacre of 1,500,000 Armenians by the Turks, a century ago. And yet, the story has all but been eliminated from our understanding of the 20th century, a more devastating erasure of history than the genocide itself because it erased the story, and because it erased any hope for justice.

A new documentary from director Joe Berlinger is the story about the story, about what happened, and about the efforts to prevent what happened from being told. “Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial, and Depiction,” in theaters November 10, 2017, has three chapters: behind the scenes in the filming of “The Promise,” starring Oscar Isaac and Christian Bale, an exploration of the denial that it ever took place, and the deception that led to repression of efforts to tell the truth and creation of a false counter-narrative.

Why start a documentary with the behind the scenes of a production about a fictional version of the event?

There are a couple of reasons why. From an aesthetic standpoint, this is complex and dense history and you want to make it digestible for a modern audience. I’m not a historical filmmaker who normally does things with talking heads and archival footage. From a practical standpoint it put me in a familiar place to tell an unfolding story and that gave me the dramatic structure to then hang all of this history.

From a thematic standpoint, there have been other documentaries about the facts of the genocide itself but what’s more interesting to me, what I actually wanted to make a film about, was the mechanism of denial, the aftermath of the denial and how denial operates. There is a checkered history of movie making on the theme of the Armenian genocide in Hollywood because any prior attempt to do a mainstream movie has been basically shut down. The Turkish government complains to the State Department and the State Department twists the Hollywood studio’s arm and it drops the project. As early as 1935 that’s what happened to Irving Thalberg when he was trying to make “Forty Days of Musa Dagh” and so when I heard a film was actually being made independently financed by Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian, so clearly this was private money but it involved a lot of Hollywood people, an A-list director, I saw “The Promise” as a historic event.

So it wasn’t just embedding with the film to get some visual eye candy of behind the scenes of a movie. It was the perfect way to express what to me is the more important aspect of the film which is not just the history of the genocide but the actual hundred years of denial and how all that happened. I can tap into that thing that I think is the most interesting aspect of this story, how the narrative has changed. In 1915 when the genocide was beginning there were 145 articles in the New York Times and it was the largest humanitarian relief effort up until that point ever mounted to help people in a foreign country. Babe Ruth’s 50th home run bat was auctioned off to raise money so it was a shining moment in American history and yet today we have lost that vision of our past because it’s been systematically repressed and a counter narrative has been put out there. So what better way to talk about dueling narratives than by making a film about filmmaking?

A really special moment in the documentary is where we see them filming a character finding all the dead bodies because it’s where all the scenes kind of come together. You have Terry George trying to present an atrocity for a PG audience intercut with the actual survivors’ testimony so that it’s real for them while it’s a movie for these people, intercut with the archival footage of the day showing those gruesome photographs just to give an inkling to an audience of what it’s really like in a way that could never be shown in a mainstream motion picture and then we have the true behind the scenes with tender moment with Christian Bale working with a child.

Part of what made the third chapter so powerful was the way that it resonates with the era of fake news, Nazis being called “good people,” fights over Civil War statues and climate change denial.

For many of these people that history is still present today and if we discount those histories, if we don’t understand what we do when we blow up Iraq and unleash the wave of the ethnic strife as a result, we will keep getting it wrong. I’m not saying Saddam Hussein should have remained in power; it’s too complex to go so deeply into that. The Armenian Genocide is like the quintessential example of history that’s not been reckoned with and accounted for and beyond that you see how techniques are used to invalidate a historical reality.

Much smarter people than me have said that the final stage of genocide is denial. It’s absolutely essential that we recognize the historical realities of a situation and I find it morally reprehensible that the United States does not recognize the genocide because we’re afraid of losing our strategic allies because they have air force bases where we can launch missions from. Even if we do lose our strategic air force bases. I just believe that we have to be accountable to our history and as Serj Tankian says so eloquently in the film genocide should not be bargained as political capital and that goes for our own reckoning with history. These are all painful aspects of history that we have not fully dealt with and that’s why we’re seeing the repercussions that we saw in Charlottesville so the lesson of the movie is that you have to respect the history and account for it and hold people accountable.

Originally published on Huffington Post.

Middleburg Film Festival: Sheila Johnson and Susan Koch on This Year’s Films

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In its fifth year, the Middleburg Film Festival has grown from a tiny gem at the splendid Salamander Resort in Virginia hunt country to a major powerhouse with a very strong line-up ranging from major awards contenders to exceptional independent films, plus interviews with promising newcomers and established greats. The festival opens October 19, with The Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. In an interview, founder Sheila Johnson and executive director Susan Koch talked about the festival’s highlights, including a tribute to women directors, a presentation to composer Nicholas Britell featuring not just movie clips but a full live orchestra, and a conversation with Legacy Award winner James Ivory.

What inspired this year’s special focus on women directors?

Koch: It’s funny because we had these films and these incredible directors and all of a sudden I realized we have four of the leading women directors coming to the festival with these great films. We have Dee Rees with Mudbound, an epic film. We have Greta Gerwig with Ladybird. We have Maggie Betts making her directorial debut with Novitiate and we have Valerie Faris, co-director of Battle of the Sexes. Given everything that is going on, I think that it’s just great to have a dialogue that focuses on the accomplishments of women.

Johnson: It’s not that we go looking for films by women. It is really done organically. It’s because they have done the job and they’ve made some of the best films. We did not know that would be a theme until we saw what we would be presenting.

As much as I love seeing the films, my favorite thing about your festival is your great tributes to the composers, this year to Nicholas Britell of “Moonlight” and “Battle of the Sexes.” There’s nothing like it at any other festival. How did that come about?

Johnson: We wanted something that was different, that no other film festival was doing. I’m also a violinist, and so when I watch movies I really listen to the music. And so Susan and I thought it would be really great if we could really celebrate that “unsung” hero (pun intended), the composer. It gives us a chance to expand the educational component of the festival by bringing in the incredible student musicians from the Shenandoah student orchestra. And we can show clips on the big screen with the dialogue off just to hear the music. And this year one of our previous awardees, Marco Beltrami, will return to do a master class with Nicholas.

What made you decide on James Ivory for the Legacy Award?

Johnson: Well just look at what he’s done. His are my favorite movies in the whole world.

Koch: He’s 89 and he’s not showing any signs of stopping. We will be showing his new film, Call Me by Your Name, and it seemed like such an opportunity to recognize his tremendous body of work. He’s got an incredible, elegant visual sense and he portrays people with such understanding and humanity.

I’m very exciting about participating in the festival for the first time on the Talk Back to the Critics panel!

Koch: We love having you out there and people want to meet you. The people who come to the festival have a lot to say about movies so we are expecting some lively discussions.

The films this year range from family-friendly to adult material, from ultralocal to international.

Johnson: Yes, we Wonderstruck, based on the book by Brian Selznick, we have have entries for the foreign-language Oscar, and we have a documentary filmed in Middleburg called Music Got Me Here, the story of a young man who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury that left him unable to talk until his former music teacher was able to reach him.

What do you want this festival to do?

Johnson: There is something about seeing a film as part of a community experience. You’re sitting there experiencing it together and afterwards it just really fosters dialogue. I think the other thing that we’ve been thinking about a lot especially at these times is that there is an incredible need for people to talk to one another. We have seven countries’ submissions to the Oscars and we hope people will be expanding their views of the world through these incredible foreign language films. I just really hope that in so many ways, we are not are only presenting incredible films but also giving people a lot of things to talk about.