Review: ‘Tango Shalom,’ starring Jos Laniado, Lainie Kazan, Renée Taylor, Joseph Bologna, Karina Smirnoff, Judi Beecher and Claudio Laniado

September 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jos Laniado and Karina Smirnoff in “Tango Shalom” (Photo courtesy of Vision Films)

“Tango Shalom”

Directed by Gabriel Bologna

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedy/drama “Tango Shalom” features a predominantly white Jewish cast of characters (with some African Americans, Indian Americans and Arab Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A married Hasidic Jewish rabbi, who is experiencing financial problems, enters a televised tango contest with the hope of winning the grand prize, even though it is against his religious beliefs to touch a woman who is not his wife.

Culture Audience: “Tango Shalom” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in predictable movies with subpar acting and two-dimensional stereotypes of religions and ethnic cultures.

Judi Beecher and Jos Laniado in “Tango Shalom” (Photo courtesy of Vision Films)

With not enough dancing and too many bad jokes, “Tango Shalom” is filled with cringeworthy acting and shallow clichés about religions and ethnicities. This movie about a tango contest ultimately devalues the dance rehearsals. Viewers with low standards for family comedies might find something to like about this subpar film. But for people with more sophisticated tastes and for fans of dance-oriented films, “Tango Shalom” disappoints on many levels.

Directed by Gabriel Bologna, “Tango Shalom” has a screenplay co-written by three of the stars of “Tango Shalom”: the late Joseph Bologna (Gabriel’s father), Claudio Laniado and Jos Laniado. Claudio Laniado and Jos Laniado, who are brothers in real life, also portray brothers in the movie. Joseph Bologna died at the age of 82 in 2017, which tells you how long it took for this movie to get released. The Bolognas and the Laniados are also among the producers of “Tango Shalom.”

With all these family members involved in the screenwriting, producing and directing of “Tango Shalom,” it might have hindered any objectivity in seeing how embarrassing this movie makes several of the cast members look. Everything about “Tango Shalom” gives the impression that the film was made in an insular way, with no one having the courage to step up and demand improvements or to hire collaborators who could suggest better ways that this movie could have been made. Even though there are several well-known actors in the “Tango Shalom” cast, it’s easy to see why “Tango Shalom” had problems finding a company to distribute the film.

For starters, the acting is very uneven. The less-experienced actors in the cast say their lines as if they’re in a high school production, not in a movie with professional actors. Better casting decisions should have been made—and that’s ultimately the director’s responsibility. The screenplay has a lot of structural problems. “Tango Shalom” is being marketed as a dance contest movie, but there’s a lot less dancing in the movie than there should be. The scenes for the contest rehearsals are rushed in during the last third of the film.

Instead, for the first two-thirds of this dreadfully repetitive and cornball movie, the protagonist—a married Hasidic Jewish rabbi named Moshe Yehuda (played by Jos Laniado)—spends a lot of time worrying about entering the contest in the first place. That’s because it’s against his religious beliefs to touch another woman who’s not his wife. Viewers are expected to believe that this dance contest, which would violate Moshe’s religious beliefs if he touched a female dance partner, is his only option to possibly get some cash quickly.

Moshe lives with his wife and five children in a crowded middle-class home in the Crown Heights neighborhood of New York City’s Brooklyn borough. He wants to enter the tango contest because he’s having financial difficulties: The Hasidic school that he owns and operates is close to being evicted for non-payment of rent. Moshe has been using his personal savings to keep the school afloat, but he might have to declare personal bankruptcy if he doesn’t come up with the cash to pay off his debts. He has already maxed out his credit lines and can’t get any bank loans.

Moshe’s homemaker wife Raquel Yehuda (played by Judi Beecher) is the only person in the family who knows about these money problems. Moshe and Raquel have a good marriage overall—the movie makes a point of showing more than once that the couple’s sex life is still active—but the financial stress has caused some strain in Moshe and Raquel’s relationship. There was some trust broken because Moshe hid some of these financial problems from Raquel until he could no longer keep these problems a secret from her.

As is typical for a movie about a big family, there’s plenty of bickering among the family members. Expect to see arguments around the dining table. Moshe and Raquel’s kids are computer nerd Shlomi Yehuda (played by Nicholas Foti), who’s about 16 years old and who constantly spouts statistics and financal numbers; tomboy Shira (played by Justine Laniado), who’s about 14 years old and a huge baseball fan; Esther Yehuda (played by Samantha Rodino), who’s about 10 years old; Rifka Yehuda (played by Emma Argenziano), who’s about 7 years old; and Yeheskel Yehuda (played by Luigi Ferrara), who’s about 6 years old.

And (cliché alert) there’s always at least one high-strung, “no filter” grandparent (usually a grandmother) who ends up causing drama. In “Tango Shalom,” it’s Yoshe’s widowed mother Deborah Yehuda (played by Renée Taylor), who is prone to having crying tantrums when things don’t go her way. This movie has a lot of melodramatic acting that’s just plain awful.

Moshe has a somewhat flaky younger brother named Rahamim Yehuda (played by Claudio Laniado), who’s the type of person who always seems to be looking for his next big “get rich quick” scheme. Near the beginning of the movie, Rahamim is whining to Moshe about losing so much money in a recent financial investment that Rahamim can’t afford to pay for his upcoming wedding to his fiancée Marina Zlotkin (played by Marci Fine), who is very high-maintenance and wants a dream wedding. Marina has has a meddling mother named Leah Zlotkin (played by Lainie Kazan), who is a seamstress and very judgmental of other people.

Rahamim asks Moshe to borrow money for Rahamim and Marina’s wedding, but Moshe stalls on giving his brother an answer because Moshe is too proud to admit that he’s broke. There’s a contrived sequence of Moshe trying to look for another job to make some money. Because of his orthodox religious beliefs and his lack of work experience in anything not related to his religion, he finds out that he’s not suited for a lot of secular jobs.

However, he manages to get a low-paying job where he would have to do some physical labor, so the employer requires that Moshe take a physical exam. And what do you know, the doctor who’s doing the exam is a woman. Moshe is so horrified, he hides in the closet of the doctor’s office and eventually runs away from the office, without even telling the job that he won’t be working there after all.

Moshe (who has some limited experience in Hora dancing) then finds out about a TV contest called “Tango America” and that the grand prize would solve his financial problems. By chance, he observes a popular local instructor named Viviana Nieves (played by Karina Smirnoff) giving tango instructions. She has the type of open dance studio where people can look in the windows to see Viviana giving dance lessons to her students.

It doesn’t take long for Moshe to decide that Viviana will be his tango instructor. But what does take long is for Moshe and Viviana to get around to actually rehearsing together. He tells her up front that his religious beliefs forbid him from touching her. She’s skeptical of taking him on as a student, but she wants to enter the “Tango America” contest for personal reasons.

One of the reasons is for revenge: Two of the “Tango America” contestants are her ex-boyfriend Jose Hernandez (played by Jordi Caballero) and her former best friend Ana Parda (played by Mayte Vicens), who both betrayed Viviana. Jose recently dumped Viviana because he was cheating on Viviana with Ana. The other reason why Viviana wants to enter the contest is because she’s a widowed mother to an underage daughter who has multiple sclerosis, and Viviana needs money for experimental medical treatments that her health insurance won’t cover.

Moshe’s wife Raquel disapproves of this idea of Moshe entering a tango contest. She thinks he’s having a “spiritual crisis.” And so, Moshe consults with clergy from various religions to get their advice on whether or not he would be doing the right thing to enter the contest. It’s a very long stretch of the movie that’s dragged out to annoying levels, as if the filmmakers almost forgot that “Tango Shalom” is supposed to be a dance movie.

Moshe walks through Brooklyn and Manhattan in search of clergy who will advise him. He meets with his Grand Rabbi Menahem (played by Bern Cohen), who doesn’t encourage Moshe to enter the contest but says that Moshe should study the Torah for the answers. Moshe also consults with a Catholic priest named Father Anthony (played by Joseph Bologna); a Muslim clergyman named Imam Ahmed (played by Yasir Sitara); and a Hindu mystic named Ravi Prajna (played by Hamza Zaman).

All of the clergymen are polite and respectful, even if their dialogue is trite. Ravi Prajna says, “Big problems can be such big fun!” Moshe asks, “Why?” Ravi Prajna answers, “Because they lead to solutions.” Ravi Prajna is actually the one to come up with the solution idea that Moshe uses to become Viviana’s tango partner.

During one of these treks through the city, Moshe walks past a group of young African Americans standing on a street corner and listening to hip-hop. In a very racially condescending scene, Moshe looks intimidated just being in close proximity to African Americans, which makes him look like he forgot that he lives in Brooklyn, where a lot of African Americans live. But since “Tango Shalom” is such a corny and unrealistic movie, take a wild guess if this rabbi is going to learn some hip-hop moves from this group of black people he’s never met before.

There’s also a silly subplot of Moshe being spied on by certain rabbis and other members of his synagogue, who are sure that Moshe will be “tempted” to commit some type of infidelity with Viviana. In real life, Smirnoff is famous for her long stint as a professional dancer on “Dancing With the Stars,” but her dancing talents are under-used in this film, which has an irritating tendency of having too much quick-cut editing in the dance scenes.

There are so many unnecessary and exasperating edits in Smirnoff’s dancing scenes, viewers will get the impression that a dancer double was used, even though Smirnoff is more than capable of doing her own dancing. In the rehearsal scenes, the movie offers very little to viewers in showing the art of tango dancing because of the gimmick solution that Moshe uses to avoid touching his tango partner. The slapstick comedy in the film is awkward and very phony-looking.

Imagine watching an episode of a dance contest on TV, and more than two-thirds of the episode was time-wasting filler of the contestants fretting about whether or not they should be in the contest. Throw in some argumentative family members, a hodgepodge of clergy and clumsily handled religious stereotypes used as punchlines—and you have an idea of what watching “Tango Shalom” is like. The scenes showing actual dancing are treated almost like an afterthought because “Tango Shalom” is too caught up in serving up stale comedy that’s as fake as the rabbi disguise that Viviana wears in the movie.

Vision Films released “Tango Shalom” in select U.S. cinemas on September 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Olympia,’ starring Olympia Dukakis

July 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Olympia Dukakis in “Olympia” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

“Olympia”

Directed by Harry Mavromichalis

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Greece and briefly in Canada and Cyprus, the documentary “Olympia” interviews an almost all-white group of people talking about Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis, including entertainers, other colleagues, family members and Dukakis herself.

Culture Clash: Dukakis battled against sexist stereotypes and ethnicity biases by founding a theater company and not limiting herself to one type of outlet for acting.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Olympia Dukakis fans, “Olympia” will appeal primarily to people who like biographies about entertainers who refuse to be pigeonholed.

Louis Zorich (far left) and Olympia Dukakis (third from right) in “Olympia” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama)

The documentary “Olympia” is a lot like the Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis herself—opinionated, funny, candid, foul-mouthed, sometimes rambling, but never boring. Directed by Harry Mavromichalis (in his feature-film debut), this up-close and personal biography of Dukakis will delight her fans as an updated companion piece to her 2003 memoir “Ask Me Again: A Life in Progress.” People who didn’t read the book might discover many things about Dukakis that they didn’t know but will probably end up liking.

This movie clearly was not a rushed job, since a lot of the “new” footage is obviously several years old. The movie begins with Dukakis in California to get her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—an event that happened in 2013. There’s some other footage of Dukakis (who was born in 1931) celebrating her 81st birthday in 2012. And in one of the movie’s funniest segments, she’s in San Francisco, as a grand marshal for the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade. As she’s perched in an open car and waves to the parade crowd, she chuckles and makes this self-deprecating comment through her smile, “Some people don’t know who the fuck I am.”

The documentary will give viewers a pretty clear of idea of who Dukakis is because it’s fairly comprehensive in the access that director Mavromichalis had to Dukakis, her family, friends and colleagues, as well as her personal archives, such as photos and videos. She’s perhaps best known to the general public for her Oscar-winning role in 1987’s “Moonstruck,”  but Dukakis is also a longtime theater star and has several other roles in movies and television, including the 1989 film “Steel Magnolias.”

While in San Francisco for Gay Pride Weekend, Dukakis was honored for her memorable role as transgender woman Anna Madrigal in the 1993 PBS miniseries “Tales of the City,” based on the book series by Armistead Maupin. “Olympic knew she was part of something historic,” Maupin says of Dukakis’ “Tales of the City” role. “And she knew that what she was saying through that character had not been said before [on TV], not with such affection and clarity.”

“Tales of the City” executive producer director Alan Poul says of Dukakis as the Anna Madrigal characters: “It was a fearless and groundbreaking portrayal at a time when that kind of imagery in entertainment media didn’t exist.” The documentary also includes some hilarious footage of Dukakis having dinner with Maupin in a hotel room with some other friends. What’s in the movie makes people wish they could’ve been a fly on the wall to hear the entire dinner conversation.

Most people familiar with Dukakis already know that she was never an overnight sensation and had to pay her dues for decades. She says in the documentary that from an early age, she was “rebellious,” “independent” and resistant to conform to the strict gender roles that were expected of people in her generation.

Dukakis (who was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and went to Boston University) talks about clashing with her strict mother, Alexandra (nicknamed Alec), when Olympia was growing up. She describes her mother as a disciplinarian who used sticks and belts—behavior that would be considered abusive by today’s standards. Olympia says about her mother: “Her job was to to keep shame from the family,” and Olympia’s independent streak “scared” her mother.

One of the ways that Olympia defied stereotypes was by becoming a Junior New England Fencing Champion when she was a teenager. Her cousin Michael Dukakis (the 1988 Democratic nominee for U.S. president) says in the documentary: “How many Greek kids were fencing champions or even fenced?”

Joyce Katis Picard, one of Olympia’s former Boston University classmates, remembers that she and Olympia stood out for their non-Anglo ethnicities, in a student body that consisted primarily of people of Anglo Saxon descent. Katis Picard says of her college friendship with Olympia: “We bonded as a way of protection.” She adds that even in her college days, Olympia was a feminist and nonconformist: “She moved beyond the messages of the time.”

In the documentary, Olympia talks about going through a period of time when “I was the queen of the one-night stand,” and having casual flings was a way of life for her. But that all changed when she and actor Louis Zorich fell deeply in love with each other. They married in 1962, and stayed married until his death in 2018. They had three children together: Christina (who declined to be interviewed for the documentary), Peter and Stefan, who are both interviewed in the film.

Although Olympia ended up taking a traditional path of getting married and having kids, that doesn’t mean that she was a traditional mother. In the documentary, she expresses remorse over some of her parenting skills: “I regret that I wasn’t able to handle my children better. I didn’t create boundaries and discipline. I did the best I could.” She also says she’s horrified by the memory of forgetting to pick up her son Stefan from school one day. He had to wait 45 minutes at the school while all the other kids had already left.

Peter says of his childhood growing up with two busy actors as parents: “At the time, I kind of wished my parents were more normal. They weren’t doing any gender roles in their marriage. At 8 years old, I was doing my own laundry.”

Although Olympia and her husband were married for 56 years (a rarity in a showbiz marriage), that did mean that they didn’t have some rough patches. She mentions that Louis was having an affair when she was pregnant with her first child, Christina. He made the decision to end the affair and stay with Olympia, who co-starred with her husband in multiple off-Broadway plays, including 1963’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and 1980’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

In the documentary, Louis says that he didn’t expect to get married until he fell in love with Olympia. He remembers falling in love with her was the first time that he felt that way about anyone, even though he jokes that when he proposed to her, he couldn’t quite get the word “marry” out during the proposal. And he comments, “If someone says on my deathbed, ‘What do you remember about Olympia, it’s those two or three incredible [acting roles,” which he says include her starring role in the 2013 off-Broadway production of “Mother Courage,” which he says brought him to tears every time he watched her perform in the play.

“It’s one of my favorite relationships I’ve ever known,” actor Austin Pendleton says of the marriage of Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich. “They embrace each other in every sense of the word. They recognize each other on such a deep level.”

Olympia also opens up about a dark period in her life when she says she was addicted to “uppers and downers” for about two years. She decided she was going to quit one day when she looked in the bathroom mirror, and she heard a voice inside herself say, “You’re trying to kill yourself.” Olympia also mentions that there were other times in her life when she was suicidal, including an incident when she deliberately stepped in front of a truck, but a woman pushed her out of the way and saved her life.

In retrospect, Olympia says of her drug addiction: “A lot of these drugs were about trying to run ahead of everything.” Olympia also opens up about her thoughts on dying, by admitting that she’s afraid of death for this reason: “It’s a loss of what little part of myself is separate from everything else.”

She also admits to lifelong insecurities about not fitting in and being judged by her looks. “It never goes away, that thing of being ‘outside,’ that thing of being ‘different.'” She adds that at some point in her life, she found a way to fight the urge to fix herself and instead figured out how to accept herself for who she is instead of trying to change herself to please other people.

One of the obstacles she faced early in her career was being told that she was “too ethnic” for many roles. Instead of giving up, Olympia decided to create her own opportunities, by founding the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, New Jersey. Thomas Kean, who was governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990, comments in the documentary: “Olympia had high standards. Her feeling is, ‘Only the best.’ They [the Whole Theater Company] took chances.”

Carey Perloff, former artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, has this to say about Whole Theater: “They did all kinds of crazy stuff … And they really talked to the audience,” in order to get their feedback.” Olympia is also seen in the documentary in rehearsals for Shakespeare and Company’s 2013 production of “The Tempest,” with Olympia in the role of Prospero.

And, of course, the documentary includes plenty of praise of Olympia from her colleagues and friends. Olympia’s “Tales of the City” co-star Laura Linney says of Olympia’s ability to move seamlessly between the worlds of theater, movies and television: “She was one of the first people to do that … [which was] very brave of her, because at the time, it was looked down on.”

Lynn Cohen, an actress who passed away in February 2020, affectionately describes Olympia as “generous,” “totally open” and “crazy.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “She’s like a summer storm … Her range is frightening and wonderful to watch. It’s what every actor wants.”

Olympia’s longtime actress friend Diane Ladd says, “She’s a total professional. She doesn’t play diva or mademoiselle or goddess. She doesn’t pull any rank. She’s all heart. She’s a perfectionist. I like that.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Olympia’s actor brother Apollo Dukakis; Shakespeare and Company artistic director Tony Simotes; playwright Leslie Ayvazian; actress Lainie Kazan; former HBO executive Kary Antholis; and actor Rocco Sisto. The film has footage of Dukakis doing a Q&A of “Moonstruck” with director Norman Jewison, during a retrospective tribute to Jewison at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.

There’s also some great behind-the-scenes footage of Olympia getting ready for the 1988 Academy Awards, where she won the prize of Best Supporting Actress for “Moonstruck.” There’s also video of her family members’ reactions to her winning the award, including her mother who burst into tears at this victorious moment.

The documentary has some slices of humor, such as showing Olympia fumbling with a Siri device (you can tell how old the footage is from the version of Siri that’s seen in the film); going grocery shopping and interacting with star-struck fans while she vacations in Cyprus; and dictating an email message to her personal assistant Brenda Low-Kamen to send to actress friend Brenda Fricker and going off on a humorous tangent in the message.

One of the highlights of the film is when Olympia goes back to her family’s original hometown in Greece. (Her daughter Christine and some of her grandchildren are also there for the trip.) It’s in this footage that Olympia is not treated as a famous actress, but as a nostalgic, almost wistful person who’s rediscovering and finding a new appreciation for her family’s history. After she talks with a quartet of female villagers in her age group who’ve been lifelong friends, Olympia is so emotionally moved by the experience that she breaks down and cries when she thinks about how her life could have turned out differently if her parents had stayed in Greece.

Is “Olympia” a perfect film? No. Some of the documentary’s production values, such as the cinematography and editing, probably would’ve been better with a more experienced director in charge. For example, some of the non-archival footage looks like shaky outtakes from home movies. And some of the interior scenes could’ve benefited from better camera lighting.

However, this unpolished look to some of the movie isn’t too much of a hindrance, considering Dukakis’ unpretentious nature. She certainly wouldn’t want a documentary about herself to look too slick or ostentatious. As for the “new” footage that’s several years old, that isn’t too much of a problem either, since Olympia’s personality probably hasn’t changed in the years since that footage was filmed. “Olympia” is a movie that understands that a documentary about a celebrity shouldn’t really be about just chronicling a lifestyle but instead should be more about opening up a window, however briefly, into someone’s soul.

Abramorama released “Olympia” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 10, 2020.

UPDATE: Olympia Dukakis died on May 1, 2021. She was 89. She had been in ill health for quite some time, according to a family statement about her death.

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