Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The last time I interviewed Todd Solondz—one of independent cinema’s most acidic provocateurs—he joked that his agents were thrilled with his black comedy “Dark Horse” “because there’s no child molestation, masturbation or rape in it.”
“I was being a little bit flip,” Solondz said more recently, speaking by phone from the Czech Republic, where “Dark Horse” was screening in advance of its July 27 United States premiere. Even so, he admitted, he deliberately avoided the kind of “hot-button” topics that had sparked outrage in some quarters upon the release of his previous cringe-fests: Think sexually charged prepubescent bullying (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”), pedophilia (“Happiness”), abusive interracial sex (“Storytelling”) and a smug Jewish family, obsessed with the Holocaust, whose members are gassed to death by a disgruntled housekeeper (also “Storytelling”).
“I was feeling burdened by all that I had addressed in my films,” Solondz, 52, said with a sigh in his trademark halting whine. “If I were to deal again with these sorts of subject matters, it might feel clichéd, or as if I were trying to shock for shock’s sake. But you don’t need those sorts of subjects to shock and surprise and provoke people.”
“Dark Horse” does provoke, albeit in a gentler way, by introducing viewers to Abe (Jordan Gelber), an abrasive, self-pitying shlub with a sequoia-sized entitlement complex. At 35, he still lives at home with his Jewish parents (played by Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) in New Jersey, in a bedroom adorned with his meticulously maintained collection of action figures and comic books. The story unfolds, framed by a Jewish wedding and a funeral, as Abe meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a depressed beauty who also lives with her parents and who wonderingly remarks after their first kiss, “That wasn’t horrible.” Their often-humiliating courtship is Abe’s attempt to escape his underlying loneliness and despair—until a life-threatening accident violently rocks his worldview.
In some ways, Abe’s disappointments recall the character of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” but Solondz had a different sort of protagonist in mind. “The film is a kind of alternative to the popular man-child genre exemplified by Judd Apatow’s movies and TV sitcoms; he is a tragic, real-life version of someone like George Costanza in ‘Seinfeld’—but he’s not de-Judified,” Solondz said. “Often, the perception of the man-child is someone cute and cuddly, but I didn’t want to sentimentalize it.”
“In a sense, I present Abe as a kind of test for the audience—to test their sympathies,” he added. “To what extent can we connect with those that we would rather dismiss or demonize? Abe is probably someone you don’t want to have lunch with, but in fact, here is someone who has a heart beating, and bleeding at that.”
During rehearsals, Solondz often reminded Gelber of Abe’s vulnerability: “Some people critique Todd for being really mean to his characters,” Gelber said. “But even when they might seem unbearable, you laugh because you can see the ridiculous in them, as well as the humanity.”
Abe’s obsession with collecting is his drug of choice, which “blurs into a kind of idolatry,” Solondz said. And Judaism certainly provides no tonic for the character, who wears a hip-hop “matzo baller” T-shirt and includes among his collectibles a Coca-Cola bottle inscribed with Hebrew letters. “The closest he gets to any religious expression is through this piece of capitalism, or consumerism,” said the filmmaker, who was raised in a kosher home but now describes himself as “a devout atheist.”
Solondz said he didn’t relate to the Jewish milieu in which he grew up in New Jersey, where, he said, “The Holocaust was a lively source of material at the dinner table.” If his films depict the Garden State as a kind of prison, he said, “I certainly felt from early childhood that I needed to escape. My parents’ social life circled around accountants, dentists or lawyers, but my fantasy was to live and work among people in the arts.”
Yet as much as he has critiqued Jewish suburban ennui, Solondz’s humor seems to come from a particularly tribal place, mixing tragedy with hilarity. He recalls attending a celebration of his films in Poland last fall, where, he said, “I couldn’t stop telling Holocaust jokes the whole time. They show you this wonderful, very chic kosher restaurant and, just outside, they say, ‘This is where the Jews were rounded up by the Nazis.’ ” “Oftentimes when terrible things happen, it’s the absurdity that makes one laugh.”
For all of his prickly observations, Solondz appears to have settled into the life of a contented family man. He married several years ago and is now the father of a 3- and a 1-year-old “who give me a great deal of pleasure,” he said. His wife lights Shabbat candles, a practice he respects even though he himself does not practice any religion. He won’t talk about his next film, save to say it is set in Texas, in case, “keinahora, we shouldn’t get the funding.”
But he dismisses the notion that “Dark Horse” reflects any midlife mellowing. “I’m not in therapy,” he said. “I’m not that self-analytical.”
“Dark Horse” opens at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles on July 27. The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will screen the film on July 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, with Solondz in attendance. RSVP required by 5 p.m. July 23 as space is limited. Reply to RSVP@americancinematheque.com; the subject line must read “Dark Horse.” Please indicate your first and last name and whether there will be one or two persons in your party. If you do not receive an e-mail confirming your RSVP, you are not confirmed for the screening.
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July 6, 2012 | 11:04 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
What’s the character of the demon like in John Pielmeier’s “The Exorcist,” adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel, opening July 11 at the Geffen Playhouse? “He’s actually rather inventive and playful, in the sense that he likes to play with people’s lives,” said Richard Chamberlain, who portrays the chief exorcist, Father Merrin. “He likes to frustrate, to oppress, to degrade. He’s everything negative; everything that leads to despair and self-disgust and in its worst form, suicide. There’s a certain dark pleasure he has in harnessing or in some sense having that power over people.”
“He’s both brilliant and a bully,” said Brooke Shields, who plays Chris, the mother of the possessed girl. “There’s that meanness you see in children on the playground, or kicking the guy when he’s down. He’s a terrorist, as we say in the play. He wants despair, because that’s his triumph.”
The beast will be portrayed not as a booming voice emerging from the girl, but by four cast members who don priests’ vestments and speak as a kind of Greek chorus. Teller, of the magic duo Penn & Teller, will provide the illusions conjuring the demon’s tricks, though he’s staying mum about details of his hand – or sleight of hand – in the production. (It’s perhaps safe to say that a levitation scene during the exorcism is on his agenda).
Teller will say that director John Doyle (“Sweeney Todd”) is using church imagery to enhance the sense of the demonic: “What he realized early on is that if you try to do photographic representations of supernatural events onstage, the audience is essentially going to start regarding everything as a magic show, and they’re going to be sitting there thinking, ‘OK, what’s the next trick and how did they do that,’” Teller said. “So what Doyle did was to take some very disturbing images from a sort of Anglican-looking church and every place where there’s a supernatural event, it’s represented through some element of church ritual. Even with something as simple as someone taking off his coat, the coat is suddenly treated like one of the sacred objects in a church service. And as you’re watching you’re enhancing every little bit of this creepy story in your mind by staring at a ritual that can be very creepy in itself.
“The clever thing that Doyle realized is that the church setting can be full of chilling images,” added Teller, who is an atheist. “There are all these rituals going on with often very seductively beautiful music, but overseeing all of this is a man being executed hanging on a cross, bleeding.”
For Shields, who was raised Catholic, acting opposite a demonic character has at times proved exhausting – especially during scenes in which she must convey the fraught emotions of a mother watching her child suffer. “As much as Chris calls herself a non-believer, she’s the one who insists that that thing inside Regan is not her daughter,” Shields said. “Her attitude is, ‘You may not believe it, but I’m telling you it is so, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get rid of it.’”
Rehearsing in a dark room in the claustrophobic milieu of “The Exorcist” “has been harder than I ever imagined, because it’s a place we all strive to avoid,” Shields added. “So it’s hard every day but there’s also such a lyricism in the way that John directs; the whole thing is so beautifully choreographed. And he also knows that his actors are capable, so it’s not like during rehearsal I have to go to [that extreme emotional place] for eight hours a day. We know it’s accessible, and then it becomes ‘Let’s get the logistics down.’”
Chamberlain, as Father Merrin, is charged with some of the most intense dialogue when, during the exorcism sequences, he shouts ‘I cast you out, unclean spirit!” “It’s extremely intense and exhausting, but in a good way,” Chamberlain said of rehearsals. “I have a feeling that that scene in the exorcism is going to be very traumatic and we’ll in a sense feel the presence of the demonic in our imagination—and that the stakes are very high.”
So will the play be frightening? “It’s so creepy,” Shields said. “I’ve got to be honest, just being in that rehearsal room is eerie…But it’s the kind of eerie that you get telling stories around the campfire. We don’t need the head spinning and the vomit [seen in the 1973 film version], because we’re just telling a story, and it’s a story that’s been told since the dawn of time.”
“The Exorcist” opens July 11 and runs through Aug. 12 at the Geffen Playhouse. For tickets and information, call 310-208-5454 or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.
July 5, 2012 | 10:14 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When it comes to canines going to the dogs, trainer Justin Silver has seen it all: the pooch whose owner treated it like a baby, complete with diaper changes; the bulldog named Beefy who refused to take a walk unless he was schlepped down the street on a skateboard; the modeling agency owner who brought her fierce terrier mix to work every day, where it tried to attack everyone in sight. When Silver asked her how many times the mutt had bitten people, she replied, “Are you counting blood bites and non-blood bites?”
Training humans, as well as hounds, how to behave in an urban setting is Silver’s focus on CBS’ “Dogs in the City,” which will air its final episode on July 11 (previous episodes are available at CBS.com). It’s the latest take on how-to-fix-Fido shows, following the success of National Geographic’s “The Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan” and Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog” with Victoria Stilwell. Silver’s angle is that he’s a guru for the more than 1 million dogs in New York City (there are 78 million dogs in the country) — and that owners are often to blame for canine malfeasance. “A dog’s behavior is shaped by the people in its life,” said Silver, who was raised with Shih Tzus in a Jewish home in Queens. “You’re always communicating to your animals, whether it’s directly or inadvertently, through your behavior.”
During a media event on a faux residential street at the CBS back lot in Studio City, the 30-something Silver came off as much like a Manhattan hipster as a canine maven, doling out advice on everything from doggie depression to how to use visual commands to retrain a bulldog who was going deaf. “Go ahead, write your name on the tree,” Silver, who is also a stand-up comic, joked as a Chihuahua relieved itself in front of a fake house. “Nobody lives here anyway.”
In an interview, he said he’s not entirely comfortable with the moniker he’s been given on the show: “I’d be a real moron if I walked down the street saying, ‘Hi, I’m The Dog Guru.” Even so, he’s spent thousands of hours training hundreds of dogs over the past decade, prescribing a range of techniques to train any particular pooch.
“The biggest mistake people make is they think dogs come pre-programmed — like, ‘My dog should come knowing what the word “sit” means,’ ” Silver said. “I’ll ask, ‘What do you do to teach it to sit?’ And they go, ‘I tell it, “sit!” ’ ” Silver said, laughing. The other big doggie no-no: “telling your pet what you don’t want it to do, rather than what you do,” he said.
On the show, Silver helps fiances who were about to nix their engagement because their canine-blended family doesn’t get along.
Then there’s Elli, the owner of the modeling agency who brings her snarling terrier, Charlotte, to work — never mind that bite scars aren’t great for modeling careers. Silver tells her point-blank that the dog doesn’t belong in the office: “I do call people on their s—-,” he told me. When Elli insists, Silver explains that Charlotte feels stressed because the dog feels like she has to protect Elli, hence her penchant for threatening anyone who walks through the door. Elli needs to take on the “guardian” role, rising from her desk to greet visitors who enter the office, as well as keeping Charlotte tethered and rewarding the dog for saying put. Silver empathizes with Charlotte in an on-camera tête-à-tête: “You think I don’t know what it’s like to have a co-dependent mother?”
Silver was raised as a fussed-over only child by his mother and grandmother after his parents divorced when he was 2, which, he said, taught him about “unconditional love — and also how not to spoil dogs.” He has a tattoo that he describes as “a symbol” of his family: “two intersecting M’s that represent his grandparents, Murray and Martha Heller, Holocaust survivors who met when Murray smuggled food into Martha’s work camp. Martha used to be terrified of dogs, because “the Nazis used to sic them on her,” but melted when she met Silver’s gentle pit bulls, he said; now she even cooks for them.
Silver’s journey to doggie mavenship began about 10 years ago, when he was working as a fitness trainer (for humans) as well as a comedian, but would come home from work at 4 a.m. “feeling a bit empty,” he said. “Nothing was on except these depressing animal commercials, and the next thing I knew, I had two rescue dogs and two rescue cats.” He started rehabilitating shelter dogs, learning every training technique possible in order to prepare them for adoption. By 2011, he was running his own training and pet-care company — and that’s when CBS came calling. One of his clients had referred him to producers looking for a personality for their new dog show, and Silver proved so charismatic that they picked him.
“Whatever part of me that’s this neurotic Jewish New Yorker calms down when I’m working with animals; I get incredibly focused, like it’s a meditation,” he said. “I’m always talking about setting the tone, that you’ve got to give calm to get calm, but at the same time I’m thinking, I really should apply my own techniques to my own life.”
The final episode of “Dogs in the City” airs on July 11 at 8 p.m. The show also can be viewed at CBS.com.
July 2, 2012 | 5:49 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
While watching “The Amazing Spider-Man,” I was struck by how much Andrew Garfield-as-Spidey – or rather, his alter-ego, Peter Parker – reminded me of the kind of gangly geeky-cute guys you’d develop a crush on at Jewish summer camp.
And that casting perhaps makes sense, given that Peter Parker is Jewish, speculates Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of “Up, Up and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero.”
Weinstein, of course, mentions that Spider-Man’s comic book creator, Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) is Jewish, and that the character in his opinion personifies the Jewish values of “responsibility and redemption.” “Peter Parker’s a nerd who grew up in Forest Hills, his middle name is Benjamin and he’s motivated by guilt…I see a connection,” Weinstein told Israel National News.
“Just like generations of Jews, his ancestors were wiped away (the character’s Uncle Ben was murdered by a mugger) and whether they had powers or not, they couldn’t do anything to stop it. The theme of Jewish guilt runs as a powerful undercurrent,” he said.
Garfield perhaps can relate. “I feel like I have a really big guilt complex and that if I’m not doing any kind of good then there’s no real reason for being,” the 28-year-old actor said in an interview with IndieLondon. That complex comes from “being Jewish,” he said. “And yes, I’m sure it stems from being privileged. I was brought up in a middle class home. I went to private school. And I was always very aware of me not earning that. I got a very good lot in life.”
Garfield is now using his celebrity superpowers to work toward the greater good: He’s currently the ambassador of sport for the Worldwide Orphans Foundation.
Our mitzvah senses are tingling!
“The Amazing Spider-Man” opens July 3
June 27, 2012 | 3:19 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
William Peter Blatty was a Georgetown University student in August 1949 when he came across a front-page story in the Washington Post titled “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” Blatty, a devout Catholic, was fascinated by the accounts of the 14-year-old’s bed violently shaking and torrents of curses in Latin whenever the exorcist commanded the demon to leave the boy.
Two decades later, Blatty recalled this case and others to create his 1971 iconic supernatural suspense novel, “The Exorcist,” in which a 12-year-old girl named Regan is possessed by a malevolent spirit. The novel became a best-seller and was turned into an Oscar-winning film, an international sensation that had patrons fainting in the theater as the Regan character spewed thick green vomit, turned her head around 360 degrees and masturbated with a crucifix.
Blatty has insisted that he never intended to terrify viewers: “What I thought I was writing was a novel of faith in the popular dress of a thrilling and suspenseful detective story — in other words a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through,” Blatty wrote in a piece for Fox News last year.
Even so, his screenplay for William Friedkin’s 1973 movie adaptation proved so startlingly horrific that it spawned sequels and prequels as well as a genre of films spotlighting the demonic — from “The Omen” franchise to the upcoming “The Possession,” which draws on the Jewish legend of the dybbuk, a spirit that possesses a person.
Now Blatty’s novel has been adapted into a play, “The Exorcist,” by John Pielmeier (“Agnes of God”), which will have its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse on July 11. Starring Brooke Shields and Richard Chamberlain, and directed by John Doyle (“Sweeney Todd”), it revisits the story of Regan; her mother, Chris (Shields), a movie star and self-described atheist; Father Damien Karras (David Wilson Barnes), the Jesuit psychiatrist suffering a crisis of faith; and chief exorcist Father Merrin (Chamberlain), who is called on to cast out the demon in the climactic sequences at the end of the play.
But if you expect the new drama to have the movie’s grisly effects, think again. “From the start I said I have no interest in trying to reproduce the movie on stage — this should be a piece that is very much of the theater,” Pielmeier, 63, said in an interview at the Geffen on a recent morning. “We didn’t want green vomit or spinning heads, otherwise we risked getting into the arena of camp.”
The set is simple — just a table and chairs — and the dialogue spare in order to spotlight the story and to allow viewers to use their imagination. Unlike the casting in the film, Regan will be played by an adult actress, avoiding the controversy that erupted when 13-year-old Linda Blair portrayed Regan in the movie. “You don’t want a child cursing and grotesquely arching her body, because then there are people who are going to say, ‘How come her parents let her do that?’ ” Pielmeier explained. “You don’t want it to break the fourth wall, or rather, the fifth wall, because we’re already breaking the fourth wall in the play.”
Story continues after the jump
Video by Naomi Pfefferman; Edited by Jeffrey Hensiek
Early in the production, Merrin addresses the audience, describing the history of the concept of Satan, which in Hebrew “means adversary, one who opposes,” he says. And while the play is set in the world of Catholicism, its themes should also resonate for Jews and other non-Catholics: “It raises the question of the existence of evil, and certainly Father Merrin comes down very strongly on the side of yes, it does exist,” Pielmeier said. “The opening line of the play is when Merrin says, ‘For anyone who doubts the existence of the devil, as I once did, I have three words: Auschwitz. Cambodia. Somalia.’ Even nonbelievers can accept the devil as a metaphor, for all the bad, dark, horrible s—- that happens in the world,” Pielmeier said. “What interests me is how, in our moments of despair, the demonic — or whatever you want to call it, the dark side — can come to us.”
One nonbeliever involved in the show is Teller, of the magic team Penn & Teller, whose father was a Russian Jew but who is such a staunch atheist that, among other endeavors, he has attempted to debunk religion as well as the supernatural on the duo’s “Penn & Teller: Bulls—-” TV series. As the creative consultant for “The Exorcist,” he may be responsible for illusions such as Regan levitating; although he has to keep mum about his work, he will say that supernatural events will be represented through elements of church ritual, often with a disturbing twist. As for why the atheist was drawn to such a religious story, Teller said, simply, “I’m a nut for a good horror yarn. This story is essentially the supernaturalization of the idea of the play ‘The Bad Seed’ — it really is about how frightening children can be to their parents. The demon child has always been a very powerful image, and you’ve also got the devil here, which is very powerful as well.”
Pielmeier — a compact man dressed casually in jeans, a pink-and-white striped shirt and magenta socks with his sneakers — spoke thoughtfully of his interest in religious themes. He says he was a devout Catholic from childhood until his senior year at a parochial high school in Altoona, Pa., when, while reading Thomas Hardy’s “Return of the Native,” he was shattered by a section of the story in which a woman is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies. “It was a fictional character, but [her death] bothered me deeply and threw me into a place where I started asking why God would allow such things to happen — ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ ” said Pielmeier, who nevertheless went on to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. “I became very worried and depressed for a time.”
Pielmeier stopped attending church while in college and never went back, although, he added, “I’ve remained fascinated with Catholicism and the richness of that tradition, just as the tradition of Judaism is incredibly rich.”
He wrote his play “Agnes of God,” as well as the screenplay for the 1985 film version, in order to explore what might happen if someone who might have been considered a saint in medieval times was transported to the 20th century — would they have been deemed godly or insane? When producers approached Pielmeier to adapt Blatty’s novel “The Exorcist,” he saw another opportunity to examine the argument of faith versus Freud.
Pielmeier traveled to Blatty’s home in Maryland to pitch his idea: “It was basically to have no extraordinary special effects, a small cast who are on stage all the time, very Brechtian in presentation, with the demon present on stage,” he said. “I didn’t just want a voice coming out of a little girl; I wanted the demon to be present, as this is in many ways a debate between the demon and
Father Karras, like ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster,’ ” he said. “And I didn’t want [Karras] debating with some growling voice coming out of an actor who was trying to lip-synch with a pre-recorded voice.”
It was Doyle — who is known for his minimalist productions — who suggested that the demon be portrayed not just by one actor, but by four members of the ensemble, who also play other roles. To embody the fiend, they don priests’ cassocks as their voices boom like a Greek chorus, “which enhances the notion that the demon is faceless, and that he can be anywhere,” Doyle said.
Shields, who is known predominantly for her comic roles, said she was looking for a dramatic piece when “The Exorcist” came her way, even though, she said, “Part of me was hoping I wouldn’t like it, because it’s hardly a light topic to do eight times a week.” She was drawn, however, to the poetry of the text and to the themes of good and evil, faith and doubt, courage and despair, as well as motherhood on the edge.
But rehearsals have proved grueling — “harder than I had imagined,” she said. The atmosphere is meant to be stifling for the audience, with no intermission for respite, and Shields feels the claustrophobia as well.
The exorcism scenes, in particular, have been uncomfortable: “It’s so creepy; just being in that rehearsal room is eerie,” she said. “The language is rough and things are said that are vile. But there is also such a lyricism in the way that John Doyle directs; you feel the power of the characters of faith that allows them to face this horror.”
“Deep down we realize how fragile everything in our lives is, including our culture and our religions — everything in civilization is just skin deep,” Chamberlain said. “It just takes a bit of pressure — not enough food, for example — to turn us into beasts.” And herein lies our enduring obsession with the demonic: “We enjoy seeing the mayhem personified,” Chamberlain said, “because it’s cathartic.”
Tickets to “The Exorcist,” which plays at the Geffen July 11- Aug. 12, are available in-person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, via phone at 310-208-5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.com.
June 25, 2012 | 3:30 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
I spoke to the Grammy-winning hip-hop singer and violinist Miri Ben-Ari a few minutes ago, just as the Israeli-born artist was about to take the stage at Boston Symphony Hall to perform for President Barack Obama and a sold-out crowd of 1,800 viewers at an Obama Victory Fund 2012 reception. Here’s what she had to say about her presidential gig:
Q: How did this all come about?
A: Last year I performed at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama, where I was honored as part of Women’s History Month. I performed a song that was a special request by the First Lady: “The Symphony of Brotherhood,” and we kept in touch. When this campaign and this event came about I was approached to take part in it and lend support.
Q: Why is this event important to you?
A: Because I consider myself as part of the American dream; I came to New York—to America—from Israel, with no money, no family and I hardly spoke any English. I just came here with my violin and a dream and I would like to make sure that Obama is successful, to keep this dream going. And I think that Obama is the only one in this race with a vision of moving this country forward.
Q: Are you concerned about all the criticism the president has received from some in the far-right pro-Israel community?
A: Not at all, because he is a great friend of Israel and he has demonstrated that above and beyond. And what really matters to me is the action he has taken: for example, he has increased Israel security funding, and he’s been working to prevent Iran from compiling nuclear weapons—so his support for Israel is without a doubt. As for any of his critics, people criticize things all the time; you just have to fight for what you believe in.
Q: What will you be performing tonight?
A: I’ll do some of my original music and of course “The Symphony of Brotherhood,” which features Dr. Martin Luther King and his “I Have a Dream” speech. I am so honored and so looking forward to performing for the president and to be a part of this campaign, and helping to bring his message before the American people and also the Jewish community in America.
June 20, 2012 | 12:04 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Alex Kurtzman is one of Hollywood’s go-to scribes for science fiction and superhero fare. Along with his writing partner, Roberto Orci, he’s penned blockbusters like “Transformers,” a couple of “Star Trek” films, one of them upcoming, and “Mission Impossible III.” His office suite on the Universal Pictures lot is filled with mementos of these testosterone-fests: a model of the Starship Enterprise, for example, as well as framed posters of all his movies vying for space on the wall of a screening room. But the 38-year-old filmmaker, whose earnest dark eyes shine behind black-rimmed glasses, is making his directorial debut with an intimate character study titled “People Like Us,” which has nary a robot nor a spacecraft in sight.
“But,” he said “it reflects me in a deeper way than anything I’ve ever done.”
Loosely based on Kurtzman’s own family history, the drama is the story of Sam (Chris Pine), a narcissistic young man who, after the death of his estranged father, a music industry legend, is charged with delivering $150,000 in inheritance money to a half sister, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), he never knew he had. As their relationship unfolds, Sam is forced to rethink everything he thought he knew about his family, as well as his own life choices.
The film’s conceit stems from an unexpected encounter Kurtzman had seven years ago at his aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary party, when a woman suddenly approached him and said, “Hi, I’m your sister.” Actually, it was his half sister, but Kurtzman had never met her before. Even so, he saw his father’s features in her face. “I was in shock,” he said. “My brain just shut down. I couldn’t process what I’d been told, and at the same time I had so many questions I didn’t know what to ask first.”
Unlike the fictional Sam, Kurtzman knew from childhood that he had a half sister, as well as a half brother somewhere out in the world. On his fifth birthday, his father, a dentist, sat Alex down and told him that he had older children from a previous marriage that had ended in divorce. But thereafter, the matter wasn’t discussed in the Kurtzman household in Santa Monica, nor did the half siblings attend the family’s Jewish and other celebrations. “We just never talked about it,” said Kurtzman, who was raised culturally Jewish and who had to think hard to recall whether he had even seen a photograph of his older siblings as a child. “We were separated by age and geography,” he added.
“I spent my life having moments of wondering where they were and what they were like, and at one point I started to feel that more acutely,” he said. “My wife and I were talking about the possibility of children, and that obviously brings up a lot about family and where you come from.”
One day, a cinematic image flashed into Kurtzman’s mind, of siblings who met only as adults discovering home videos of themselves playing together as children, a lost memory.
It was that very night that Kurtzman serendipitously met his own half sister, which sparked a series of heartfelt discussions. “It became about filling in the blanks,” said the filmmaker, who declined to reveal more about his sister save that she is around 50 and “incredibly brave, super-athletic, smart, thoughtful and understanding.” “We compared notes about where we’d been at different points in our lives, so we could do the math and figure out what our trajectories were.”
Kurtzman also asked his relatives why the families had remained separate, but declined to elaborate on the answers in an attempt to protect their privacy. “There isn’t a color of emotion I haven’t felt,” he said, when asked if he had felt angry about the separation. “But the most overwhelming feeling that both my sister and I had was a sense of lost time; we wished we could have been there for each other. And the deep gratitude of finally getting to know each other, with the hope that it’s never too late.”
The experience proved so life altering that Kurtzman instantly knew he wanted to make a movie about it, albeit highly fictionalized, and enlisted Orci and a college friend, Jody Lambert, to help him write the film.
The movie also draws on Kurtzman’s youthful aspirations of becoming a writer of independent films like Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” He said he carried that screenplay around in his backpack at Crossroads School, where he met Orci, in a French New Wave cinema class, during his senior year. Orci happened to have the same script in his own book bag, sparking a friendship and collaboration that led the partners to earn writing positions on J.J. Abrams’ “Alias” while still in their 20s.
Writing “People Like Us” wasn’t easy—and not only because the filmmakers couldn’t just cut to a shot of an explosion to create cinematic tension. Kurtzman feared his own family story simply wasn’t dramatic enough to sustain a feature film.
As it turned out, Orci had his own family secret: His great-uncle had had a clandestine second family—“He even named the children the same so as not to make mistakes,” Orci said in an interview. “So the mixing of our two family experiences seemed like a good way to dramatize the shock of encountering family you’d never met before.”
While Sam’s parents are nothing like Kurtzman’s, the character and his creator share some emotional truths, particularly “the sense of longing, that they’re missing something—it’s like a phantom limb—which is very authentic to my own experience,” he said.
What’s different is that the film’s half brother and half sister have both been made to feel broken by their aloof father, “and they have exactly the same armor to deal with that—humor and lies—they just do it in different ways,” Kurtzman said. “But all their armor turns out to be totally useless against each other.”
Making a movie based upon his own experience has been cathartic for Kurtzman, who with Orci is now penning the sequel for the upcoming “The Amazing Spider-Man” and rebooting “The Mummy” franchise for Universal.
“What I’ve learned is that judging people for their choices is in some ways the easiest thing to do, until you’re in their shoes and faced with the same [dilemmas],” he said, adding that his family has been supportive of the film. “There are so many things in life where people ask, ‘Why’d you do that,’ but the truth is you had your reasons, right or wrong.”
“People Like Us” opens June 29.
June 17, 2012 | 9:05 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Adam Sandler’s raunch-fest “That’s My Boy” hit theaters in time for Father’s Day, starring Jewish icons Sandler and Andy Samberg (“Saturday Night Live”) as the reconciling father and son. And not unexpectedly, critics aren’t exactly embracing the film, while acknowledging the humor will hit the sweet spot for Sandler fans who appreciate his puerile man-child shtick.
The film begins as Donny Berger (Sandler), who names his kid Hans Solo Berger after siring him at 13 with his middle school teacher (Susan Sarandon), reenters sonny’s life seeking cash: If he doesn’t come up with $43,000 pronto, he’s going to jail for tax evasion. Donny immediately wreaks havoc with his boy, now renamed Todd and a rich hedge fund manager, just in time for Todd’s wedding to a high-maintenance princess (Leighton Meester). Jokes ensue about everything from masturbation to feces.
USA Today critic Claudia Puig didn’t appreciate the antics: Sandler “is hellbent on perpetrating and repurposing his annoying brand of moronic, preadolescent shtick,” she wrote. “Worse, his lowbrow comedies seem to be sinking even lower.”
Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman was gentler: “Watching Sandler in …his latest assault on subtlety, good taste, and other values that a critic like me is supposed to trash the star for dumping on, I can’t say that I laughed a lot (though when I did laugh, it was big and loud),” he wrote. “But on some level I marveled at the conviction that Sandler pours into playing a character like Donny Berger, a boneheaded, loud-mouthed alcoholic loser.”
Time’s Mary Pols also admitted she laughed during parts of the film: “The movie is so disgusting it is worthy of the Farrelly brothers,” she opined. “It contains the longest simultaneous joke about child rape and its effects on the victim (drug abuse, alcoholism, etc.) ever made. Call me a prude, but you know, little Donny was raped….But again,” she added, “I did laugh. It’s not so much the jokes as written but the go-for-broke performances.”
The New York Times’ David Dewitt wasn’t entirely turned off, either, noting that the film’s “busily plotted second half approaches involving. It leads to a big payoff wedding, after all, and it has a large ensemble for support…Mr. Sandler manages a frame or so of genuine sentiment, and the caricature is so ugly it’s cute.”
The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan disagreed, describing the comedy as “long, choppy and deadly dull, despite sporadic efforts to defibrillate the audience back to consciousness with jokes about incest, pedophilia, incontinence and geriatric sex…So is the movie itself funny? Some people – including me – managed to appreciate a dumb joke or two. Sandler has his partisans, but the aggressive awfulness of ‘That’s My Boy” seems calculated to test even their patience.”
Some reviewers did appreciate Samberg, whose “sweet embodiment of this poor schlub is one of the few thing here that the script’s general air of hyper-sexed misanthropy can’t spoil,” Justin Chang wrote in Variety. “He even manages to bring out an element of likability in Sandler’s Donny. This is no small feat.”
Chang summed up many of the reviews I read when, while calling the film “a shameless celebration of degenerate behavior… and staggering moral idiocy,” he immediately added: “All in all, it could have been worse.”