Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
As “X-Men: First Class” continues to glean first class reviews, it’s worth noting that the mutant saga is perhaps the most Jewish superhero film to grace the silver screen: which makes sense considering the movie marks the return of producer Bryan Singer to the franchise. (He directed the first two “X-Men” films, but not this time. Now he gets a writing credit.) As a gay and Jewish filmmaker, his work has long reflected his own outsider-group status.
The Marvel Comics saga depicts the origins of the rivalry between telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender)—who can manipulate magnetic fields—from their very different childhoods in the 1940s. While Xavier grows up privileged, Erik spends his boyhood in the Warsaw ghetto and, ultimately, is tortured by a sadistic doctor in a concentration camp. As the adult Lensherr tracks down that physician—who now has Armageddon on his mind—the movie becomes the best Holocaust revenge fantasy since Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Here are some of the movie’s top Jewish moments, which chronicle Erik’s journey from tortured child to his transformation into the villainous Magneto. [SPOILER ALERT]
1. As the film opens in 1944 Poland, Erik and his parents are herded in the mud and rain to the gates of a concentration camp, where the boy is forcibly separated from his family. When the gates of the camp slam shut, Erik is restrained by guards who are shocked when his screams and gestures actually bend and twist the iron gates to the compound. As the guards finally wrestle him to the ground, the camera zooms in on Erik’s yellow Star of David—a branding that will follow him for the rest of his life.
2. In an office gleaming with knives and other instruments of medical torture, the concentration camp’s sadistic doctor, Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), orders Erik to demonstrate his telekinetic talents on a Reich coin adorned with a swastika. “Blue eyes, blond hair, pathetic,” the doctor tells the boy of the Nazi’s genetic goals. Schmidt is far more interested in mutant powers. “Genes are the key that unlocks the door to a new age…a new future for mankind, evolution,” he tells the terrified boy. “A little coin is nothing compared to a compound gate,” he adds, encouragingly, referring to the gate incident. But when Erik cannot move the coin via brain-power, Herr doctor changes his tactics. Reflecting that while the Nazis don’t always have the greatest ideas, their methods seem to produce results, he gives the boy an ultimatum. Unless Erik can move the coin by the count of three, he will shoot Erik’s mother, who is brought into the room for the occasion. It’s only after the shot rings out that the enraged Erik practically destroys the office with his anger-induced magnetism. Dr. Schmidt is pleased. “So we unlock your gift with anger; anger and pain,” he says. “We’re going to have a lot of fun together.”
3. It’s Geneva, Switzerland, in 1962. While extracting information about Schmidt’s whereabouts from a smug Swiss banker, Erik makes his point by also extracting (via magnetism) one of the man’s tooth fillings. “This gold is what remains of my people,” he says of the bank money.
4. More ironic mayhem awaits German expatriates in a bar in Argentina who resist Lensherr’s questions about Schmidt. “Let’s just say I’m Frankenstein’s Monster,” he tells them. “I’m looking for my creator.”
5. As Xavier helps Erik unleash his powers without the use of anger, Xavier (via telepathy) unearths a tender memory from the Holocaust survivor’s brain: Lighting the chanukiah with his deceased mother. “I accessed the brightest corner of your memory,” he tells the baffled Erik, adding that there is so much more to the survivor than pain and anger. To discover his full powers, Erik must “find the point between rage and serenity.”
6. At a crucial moment before Erik’s transformation into the evil Magneto— and in one of the most powerful sequences in the film—human soldiers attacking the mutants were “just following orders,” a fellow mutant tells Lensherr. It’s not exactly the best thing to say to a man who has survived a concentration camp. “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders,” Erik replies. “Never again.”
The film opens on June 3. For another point of view about the movie, check out Geek Heeb.
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May 31, 2011 | 6:47 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
It’s impossible to watch Chris Weitz’s transcendent new film, “A Better Life,” without wondering about the struggles of every immigrant laborer in Los Angeles. The drama — which will premiere this month at the Los Angeles Film Festival before hitting theaters June 24 — spotlights the heroic, if quiet, travails of a Mexican illegal immigrant gardener to eke out a living and to keep his teenage son out of the gang culture. Entertainment Weekly has already suggested that the film, which Summit Entertainment will release essentially in the same slot as its Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker,” could be the first awards movie of 2011.
The lengths to which gardener Carlos Galindo (Mexican star Demián Bichir of “Che” and “Weeds”) will go to achieve that goal is evident from the beginning of the film, which depicts his exhausting days toiling for clients in affluent suburbs, only to return to his one-bedroom home in Boyle Heights so drained that he falls asleep, fully clothed, on the couch.
His son Luis (José Julián), who gets the bedroom, scorns his father’s dronelike existence and looks up to the gang leaders who appear to promise their own version of a better life. All this creates a palpable desperation in Carlos, which is greatly exacerbated when his gardening truck, in which he has invested his life savings, is stolen. Father and son embark upon a dangerous journey to recover the vehicle, which brings them together in unexpected ways — a story reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist classic “The Bicycle Thief.”
“The movie, in a sense, is about both of the characters finding a way to talk to one another,” Weitz, 41, said recently during an interview in a Venice cafe. “Carlos sees his life as work, and he is not evolved in an Oprahesque way. And while Luis is streetwise, he is also rather ignorant. He doesn’t understand what his father has done for him until the scene in which they go to what is essentially a flophouse, where 15 people sleep in shifts — a sequence we filmed in a two-bedroom apartment with bunk beds set up in the kitchen and everywhere else. That’s the point when Luis realizes this was probably the life his father led when he first came to this country, and begins to understand the sacrifices he made.”
The film turns a lens on Angelenos who are often devalued, Weitz said; the cafe’s Latino busboy, as if on cue, poured him another glass of Pellegrino. “Actually, the story isn’t even about your gardener — it’s about the guy who works for your gardener, the one who is genuinely invisible.”
Bichir, who is best known in this country for playing Fidel Castro in “Che” and a Tijuana gangster on “Weeds,” worked with real gardeners around Los Angeles in order to physically and emotionally prepare for the role. “My previous characters were powerful and larger-than life,” Bichir said in a phone interview. “The challenge with Carlos was going all the way to the opposite direction. All he wants is to go through life as quietly as possible, not drawing anybody’s attention.”
Weitz shot one telling scene during a real mass protest against the harsh new Arizona immigration law: “ When Luis asks what is happening, Carlos replies, ‘Nothing.’ He doesn’t have the luxury of debating the politics of his situation, because he’s too busy surviving,” Weitz said.
Not that Weitz intends the film to be a screed for “bleeding-heart liberals,” as some online critics have accused him of being. “No one is depicted as a villain, not even the guards at the detention center,” Weitz said. “I don’t see this film as chest-thumping — it’s really just a movie about human beings.”
“A Better Life,” originally titled “The Gardener,” was inspired by a true story of a gardener whose truck was stolen but was unable to call the police because he was undocumented. The script, which has gone through several screenwriters, came to Weitz several years ago, when he was a new father and somewhat reluctant to return to the director’s chair after making “The Golden Compass” in 2007. (He is also known for the 2002 “About a Boy.” His vampire saga, “Twilight: New Moon,” became a blockbuster in 2009.)
The screenplay may have appealed to Weitz ,albeit unconsciously, because of his own relationship with his late father, the legendary fashion designer John Weitz. “He was a strong personality, and his psychological influence remains strong on me,” said the filmmaker, a Cambridge University graduate whose first major success was directing “American Pie” with his older brother, Paul. “My father had a very sort of combative outlook towards life, and in reaction, I’m much more theoretically easygoing; yet I was very driven to excel as a young person, probably to impress him. And so my academic history and my ambition that fueled everything since is due to him.” Complex relationships between father figures and sons have also fueled many of Weitz’s films, from “Pie” to “About a Boy,” which earned Weitz a screenwriting Oscar nomination in 2003.
Weitz was so moved by “A Better Life” that he quickly signed on, but not without trepidations. There was some white liberal guilt — yes, he’s privileged and lives in Malibu, the location where Carlos, in the film, climbs a palm tree without proper equipment in order to trim its branches.
Concerned that his film could be perceived as exploiting an underclass he knew next to nothing about, Weitz hired a mostly Latino crew, took Spanish lessons, read myriad books on East Los Angeles and migrant laborers and, most importantly, earned the trust and assistance of Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program based on the Eastside.
“I told him we wanted to shoot in real places, but we didn’t want to be a movie that buys itself into a location, has heavy security, shoots what it wants and then leaves without any connection to the community,” Weitz said.
Boyle’s second-in-command, Hector Verdugo, a former gang member, introduced the director to residents of the Ramona Gardens project in Boyle Heights: “You might assume Hector was there to protect me from the people who lived there, but it was kind of the opposite,” the director recalled. “It was Hector assuring people that I wasn’t some gabacho who was going to make a movie about guys selling drugs and shooting each other.”
Weitz’s own family is a testament to the American dream. His maternal grandmother, the actress Lupita Tovar, was plucked from obscurity in Oaxaca at 17 by a talent scout searching for a lovely Mexican actress to star in Hollywood silent pictures. She eventually married the famous Jewish agent Paul Kohner, an Austrian Jew who came to represent luminaries such as Dietrich and Garbo.
Weitz’s father, John Weitz, meanwhile was a son of wealthy, assimilated German Jews who fled Nazi Germany to Shanghai. Although he arrived penniless in the United States at age 17, by 19 he was an OSS spy and, after the war, reinvented himself as a pioneering designer who starred in his own ads, raced cars professionally and, in his later years, wrote best-selling books about Hitler’s Germany.
“My father loved America because he genuinely felt anything was possible here for somebody who works hard enough,” Weitz said. “And, of course, that makes me think of the characters in the film. Its title comes from the fact that if you talk with anyone from any immigrant family, the phrase that comes up time and again is that they came here searching for a better life.”
For information about “A Better Life” at the Los Angeles Film Festival, which runs June 16-26, visit lafilmfest.com. For stories about actors Bichir and Julián, as well as producers Jami Gertz and Stacey Lubliner, visit jewishjournal.com/the_ticket.
May 31, 2011 | 3:36 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
At the opening of “Tim Burton,” the ghoulishly charming filmmaker’s retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Saturday, the wild-haired auteur held court at the Resnick Pavilion, where more than 700 pieces of his movie and personal artwork will be on display through Halloween. My husband, Ron Magid, and I were eager to attend—not only for the chance to meet this master of the macabre but also because one of our own pieces is on display. It’s a scarecrow head from Burton’s 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes,” a three-foot-tall, skeletal visage that signals to Mark Wahlberg (in the film) he is entering forbidden yet sacred territory.
Ron, a collector and purveyor or high-end movie memorabilia, essentially saved the head from the garbage (it hadn’t sold at auction and its owner didn’t want to shlep down to the company’s warehouse to pick it up), but the exhibition’s originating curators thought it was vintage Burton when they visited our home while preparing the show. “The minute I saw that scarecrow head I knew it was going to be in the exhibition,” Ron Magliozzi, one of the show’s organizing curators, told me when I interviewed him for my story on the retrospective—which will grace the cover of The Journal’s summer preview on June 3.
Those perusing the exhibition—and our scarecrow head—included Burton’s favorite film composer, Danny Elfman, who wrote the score for “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” among other Burton films such as “The Corpse Bride” (which, as I outlined in this 2005 story, was inspired by a 16th-century Jewish folk tale). Elfman also penned music to accompany the exhibition. Also on hand was Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, Winona Ryder, who starred with Depp in “Edward Scissorhands” and was also in “Beetlejuice;” Crispin Glover and Martin Landau (who won an Oscar for portraying Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood”).
Ron and I met the affable Magliozzi once more at the opening, along with organizing curators Jenny He and Rajendra Roy—and Burton himself. He was far sunnier than one might expect of cinema’s reigning gothic director: Ron told Burton how much he had admired the scene from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in which the children finally enter Willy Wonka’s lair; as it turns out, that very sequence is the one that inspired Magliozzi to create the exhibition. “I was watching ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ in the theater and there was just this magical moment when Willy Wonka opens the door, bringing the children into the chocolate factory for the first time,” Magliozzi said. “Somehow I thought: We should be doing an exhibition of Tim Burton.”
Ron’s reaction to the scene was perhaps even more dramatic—he actually teared up —and Burton seemed genuinely touched by that revelation, even putting his hand to his chest in response. He thanked Ron for rescuing the scarecrow head from the garbage. And then he was off to the performance by Jane’s Addiction in front of the pavilion, where a real topiary deer from “Edward Scissorhands” stood amidst other Burtonalia.
The show will be on display through October 31.
Check out my full story on the exhibition:
May 18, 2011 | 10:52 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Before Justin Bieber stepped onstage in front of 40,000 radiant fans at Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park last month, Dan Kanter, Bieber’s musical director and guitarist, took the spotlight to deliver a Jimi Hendrix-style rendition of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. “It was one of the most memorable moments in my whole life, and it was definitely one of the proudest,” he said from his hotel room during a break from Bieber’s My World tour in Melbourne, Australia. “The fans were singing so loud they were almost jamming up my guitar; some people were crying and it was quite emotional.
“Justin could feel the appreciation and the love from the audience, because his Israeli fans have been supporting him on the Internet from the very beginning, especially on Twitter and Facebook,” Kanter added. “They have been a really strong presence and they had been writing and begging him to come to Israel for a couple of years now. So many other acts have canceled concerts there, so for Justin to go and put on a show – there was a vibe in the air that night. It’s always loud at Justin Bieber concerts, but this was one of the loudest concerts [fan-wise] that we have ever played. And it was definitely one of the most exciting audiences he has ever played for.”
Kanter 29, has been with Team Bieber – his self-described “dream gig”—almost from the beginning. He was a doctoral student in musicology at Toronto’s York University, in 2009, when a Universal rep suggested him to perform guitar for Bieber on a popular Canadian TV show. “Justin had quite a following just from YouTube and Twitter at that point, but it was more at the grassroots level. He hadn’t yet blown up in the mainstream,” Kanter recalled.
Since then, Kanter has not only had a front row seat to Bieber’s rise to global heartthrob status, he’s also musically guided the teenager, who – according to Rolling Stone – wouldn’t sound the same without his musical director. Kanter has performed with “The Bieb” everywhere from Madison Square Garden to the Philippines—where the poor Bieb was sick and vomited onstage. At the time of this interview, Kanter was planning to continue on with Bieber to Japan (some members of the crew reportedly have refused to follow due to fears of radiation poisoning).
Kanter was prominently featured in the documentary, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” (just out on DVD); he has schmoozed backstage with fans such as Johnny Depp and sat in cars with the munificently-coiffed teen as manic fans climbed atop the vehicles. With Bieber’s Jewish manager, Scott “Scooter” Braun, Kanter is the reason Bieber, a devout Christian, recites “The Shema” before every concert.
Bieber has just been named number three on Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list, after Lady Gaga and Oprah. But for Kanter, the most surreal “fame” moment came when Japanese fans wished him “mazel tov” after viewing Internet photos of Bieber at Kanter’s wedding in October 2010. (Kanter met his wife, Yael, when both attended the Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel for Jewish young adults in 2003.)
During our recent conversation, the affable Kanter spoke to me about his own musical (and Jewish) journey, including the Tel Aviv concert that so far, has been a highlight of his own life and career.
NPM: In a previous story, I profiled Justin’s manager, Scooter Braun, whose Jewish background is quite extensive. How about yours?
DK: Growing up in Ottawa I went to a school called Hillel Academy until grade 6 or 7; I was bar mitzvahed and used to perform in Jewish community society musicals – I was a pirate in “Peter Pan!” But the biggest part of being Jewish for me is that I went to a Jewish sleepover camp for 15 summers – I was the guy with the acoustic guitar playing Dave Matthews songs around the campfire. I got my first guitar, an electric guitar, for my bar mitzvah.
NPM: What was your first impression of Justin Bieber?
DK: I had come in to play acoustic guitar with him on that [Canadian] TV program, and we just really hit it off. We got on quite well because we were both Canadian and we could talk about hockey and Canadian bands that we love but no one in the United States had ever heard of. We started jamming and for 15 years old he could play very well. But not only that – he was like a sponge. If I played something, he could sit and watch me and then play it right back to me. Musically we had a lot of chemistry, and it’s grown since then. I was also quite impressed that he played drums and piano and had a beautiful voice and he was just such a nice kid; he was really excited about everything. And together, Scooter and Justin collectively believed in me and brought me on board and made me part of the team.
NPM: Scooter told me that besides acting as a father figure to Bieber, he at times imposes discipline, such as taking away Justin’s cell phone. What are your responsibilities, as Justin’s music director and beyond?
Dan Kanter performing his Jimi Hendrix-style rendition of “Hatikvah” at Bieber’s concert in Tel Aviv last month
DK: I form the band, rehearse and work closely with Justin, our tour director, the lighting and video people and the choreographers to make the show; and if we’re on an awards show like the Grammys, it’s my responsibility to work out if we’re going to do a medley and things like that. I don’t really ever discipline Justin. But since we’re all older than him, we all feel—or at least I feel—not only a responsibility musically but also personally to be a good influence on him and steer him in the right direction. I do put a lot of pressure on Justin, musically, which he likes. Before each show, I do 30 minutes of vocal warm-ups with him, and we’re doing scales and I can test his range every day. It’s very important to take care of his voice. In “Never Say Never,” there are scenes where Justin is losing his voice, but on this tour, it’s getting stronger every day. Also, I’m really into making sure we’re learning new songs and he’s learning new guitar licks and practicing. Justin is an amazing songwriter. Backstage, before a show, we’ll have some guitars lying around and he’ll write songs.
NPM: What kind of new songs has he been composing?
DK: The songs I’ve heard him writing are much more personal, about what’s going on in his life, and I think a lot of his fans will relate to them. That’s the secret – for his audience to grow up with him, not grow out of him. I think we’ll see issues of traveling, of being away from home, and being in the spotlight, in songs on his next album.
NPM: How do you see him evolving musically? Could he ever go the alternative rock route?
DK: I don’t know about alternative music, but he’s definitely going to evolve musically.
NPM: So no punk rock Justin Bieber?
DK: I don’t know about that, but he loves all styles of music. So who knows if he’ll record a heavy metal record one day. But I think it’ll continue to be these great, danceable sing-along songs.
Justin Bieber and Dan Kanter onstage
NPM: Can you see his music getting edgier?
DK: I’m not sure, but right now I can’t see that just because his music is definitely a reflection of his personality—and he’s so genuinely happy and nice and easygoing. I don’t think there’s a reason now to be edgy.
NPM: I saw photos of Justin at your wedding, wearing a kipah.
DK: It was a traditional Jewish wedding, and Justin came and brought his mom [Pattie Mallette] as his date. I couldn’t believe when I was in the middle of the Horah with all my boys that I’d grown up with and there was Justin. And when I was being flung around in the air, to look down and see that Justin was there, holding one of the legs of the chair. I think that was his first Jewish wedding. And he performed with the band and myself, his song, “Baby”—we all just rocked out with the band.
NPM: I had heard that Justin was upset by the paparazzi in Israel.
DK: We didn’t think it would be that extreme, but he still had an amazing time and he was able to see everything that he wanted to see in the end. He was able to go to Yad Vashem, and the Western Wall, and Tiberias, and he had an amazing trip. He did meet with those kids [affected by Gaza rocket fire], who were invited to the show. And at the concert he gave a special shout out to Scooter’s mom, who is a Holocaust survivor, and everyone applauded and it was very emotional. Just at the same day to be at Yad Vashem and then to be at a Justin Bieber concert with 40,000 kids, must have been quite incredible for her.
NPM: What happened during the concert in Sydney, when someone pelted eggs at Justin? Some news outlets reported that he became angry and stormed offstage as a result.
DK: No, not at all; he left the stage at the same point that he normally does for a costume change. We were all onstage and thank God none of the eggs hit anyone—I’m not even sure where they came from. But it was actually quite amazing how Justin and the dancers communicated and danced around them. I’ve since read about it on the news, but for Justin and the rest of us onstage, it was all very quick. It happened, it was cleaned up, the show went on, and we didn’t even think about it afterward. It’s never happened before, and I hope it never happens again.
NPM: What are your plans for after the tour is over?
DK: Justin will be working on his new album and hopefully we’ll be doing some stuff together on it, and I’m going to get back to school, and also take some time off to see some concerts. I’m going to go follow the band, Phish, around a little bit. And there will hopefully be some other tours coming up shortly.
Dan Kanter and Justin Bieber
May 11, 2011 | 11:22 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The closing night film of the 2011 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, “Who Do You Love”—starring Alessandro Nivola and David Oyelowo (of the upcoming “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”)—will screen on May 12 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino. It’s a biopic about Leonard Chess (Nivola), the Polish-Jewish immigrant who founded Chess Records with his brother, Phil (Jon Abrahams), brought Southern blues to the mainstream via black artists such as Muddy Waters (Oyelowo) and eventually helped birth rock ‘n’ roll.
Leonard Chess was such a larger-than-life figure that he has recently inspired not one, but two biopics – 2008’s “Cadillac Records” being the other. “Who Do You Love” was selected as a gala film at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and was firmly backed by the Chess family; its filmmakers, including director Jerry Zaks, had access to the family archives and Leonard’s son, Marshall, served as a consultant to the production.
The somewhat fictionalized film – whose title comes from the Bo Diddley song, “Who Do You Love” – begins with Leonard’s scrappy childhood in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. It goes on to recount his preoccupation with the music and culture he observed in nearby black neighborhoods; his sale of the family junkyard in order to purchase the brothers’ first club, the Macomba; Leonard’s discovery of a young Muddy Waters in 1946 and his risky venture into the realm of “race records.”
Oyelowo—a British thespian of royal Nigerian descent—impeccably portrays the Mississippi born Waters, who was so impoverished upon meeting Chess that he had to borrow a guitar for the audition. Talk about versatile: Oyelowo, who previously starred as Dr. Junju in “The King of Scotland,” will next appear in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” opposite James Franco, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis and Brian Cox in the Rupert Wyatt film hitting theaters on Aug. 5. In this “Planet of the Apes” prequel, set in modern-day San Francisco, Oyelowo will play Steve Jacobs, a corporate head pushing for further clinical trials on lab apes—genetic engineering that will eventually create intelligent apes and a war for supremacy with humans, according to metacafe.com. “I basically bring about the end of the world,” he told me.
Oyewolo will appear in several more films through January, including Dreamworks’ “The Help,” and George Lucas’ “Red Tails,” about World War II black aviators—and will also portray the American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King in Lee Daniels’ upcoming drama, “Selma.” His British-born character in “Rise of the Apes” is “the first time I’ve used my own accent in five years,” said the London-born actor.
In “Who Do You Love,” Oyelowo’s Mississippi-bred character of Muddy Waters develops a close but complex relationship with Chess; we learn of Chess’ complicated relationship with other artists, who earned relatively low wages while the brothers made a mint. The film also hints at Leonard’s womanizing, which in the film is condensed into a single affair with a heroin-addicted singer named Ivy (Megalyn Echikunwoke). While Ivy is a fictionalized character, some critics have perceived her to be a stand-in for the singer Etta James, with whom Chess was rumored to have had an affair.
“Who Do You Love” will screen on Thursday, May 12, 7:30 p.m., at Laemmle’s Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd. in Encino, followed by a question-and-answer session (moderated by myself) with actors David Oyelowo (Muddy Waters) and Jon Abrahams (Phil Chess), as well as producer Jonathan Mitchell. For tickets and information, call (818) 981-9811 or visit www.lajfilmfest.org.
Here are excerpts from my recent conversation with Mitchell about why he wanted to tell Leonard Chess’ story; the more controversial aspects of the character; why Chess was crucial to the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, and more.
NPM: How was it that you decided to make a film about Leonard Chess?
JM: I was interested in how rock ‘n’ roll came about as a result of the partnership between blacks and Jews. I discovered that Chess Records was the first rock ‘n’ roll record label; that the Chess family were Polish immigrant Jews and that Leonard Chess, the head of the family, loved black music and eventually decided he would record it. It was very unusual for white people at the time to record black music; it just wasn’t done, and he broke that barrier, if you will.
NPM: Did Chess’ Jewish background have anything to do with his willingness to break that barrier?
JM: At the time, blacks and Jews didn’t live far apart in Chicago, which is where the Chess brothers grew up, and Leonard used to go over into the black neighborhoods and listen to the music.
Leonard was an interesting character; he carried his Jewishness throughout his life, he spoke Yiddish often. But when he got into black music and wanted to get involved in that community, he started to use their vernacular and their way of speaking—you almost couldn’t tell the difference. He identified with African-Americans, and he wanted them to feel that he was a part of their community.
NP: There’s one scene where Leonard shows his brother the location that will become their future club. Phil says, basically, that no white people are going to venture into that neighborhood – and Leonard responds with something like, “F—- ‘em. We don’t need those rich white people from the suburbs.”
JM: He resented the rich, white community because early in his life he had experienced [anti-Semitism]. Maybe part of the reason he got involved in the business that he did was to kind of get back at those people; he thought he was sticking it in their eye.
NPM: Because he was responsible for bringing black music into the mainstream?
JM: He was the one who got black music onto white radio, which was critical. Black music previously just wasn’t accepted in the white world.
NPM: Why did you focus on Leonard rather than Phil?
JM: Leonard was the driving force, if you will. Phil was certainly a partner, and Leonard probably would not have been able to do it alone, but [the business] was Leonard’s concept.
NPM: In the film, Leonard has an affair with a talented but tragic African-American singer, a heroin addict, to the chagrin of his wife, Revetta (Marika Dominczyk) .
JM: In fact, he was very active with the ladies. Yet he was never divorced; he lived with his wife until his death, at age 52, of a heart attack. But he always had a roving eye.
There is only one character in the film who is a completely fictional character, and that is Ivy Mills [Leonard’s African-American mistress]. We decided to do that because we needed to let people know that Leonard wasn’t exactly the most faithful man in the world, and he developed close relationships with women who were musically inclined. In real life, he had a very close relationship with Etta James – that’s why we have Ivy sing James’ song, “At Last.” People always questioned whether or not Leonard and James had a romantic relationship; but when Marshall actually went to her and asked the question, she said they did not. Because of that, we couldn’t say the character in the film was Etta James. We took the position that he didn’t have a romantic relationship with her. But he did have romantic relationships with other women.
NPM: What about the charges that the Chess brothers exploited their black artists?
JM: Leonard was a very clever, very smart businessman – and it’s true a lot of people have charged him with taking advantage of his musicians. The fact of the matter is, nobody in the white world wanted to have anything to do with black people when it came to music. But Leonard started recording black music and trying to get it on white radio when nobody was willing to take that kind of financial risk. I also remember hearing Little Richard interviewed on VH1 and when they asked him about Jews exploiting blacks, Little Richard said, “Thank God for the Jews. If it wasn’t for the Jews, nobody would ever have heard our music.”
NPM: Were you concerned that Chess could be perceived as a kind of Shylock character?
JM: He was perceived that way by everybody. But not so much during his lifetime. Muddy Waters never, ever, felt he was exploited. After all, Leonard Chess was his champion…. He and Waters developed a very, very close relationship; in fact I don’t think Leonard Chess had a closer relationship with any other human being.
NPM: How did you get Marshall Chess involved in the film?
JM: I just picked up the telephone (laughs). I said we wanted to make a film about his family, about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and what they’ve done for the music industry and really, music worldwide. Our screenwriters interviewed Marshall and Phil Chess, who is still alive, in his 90s and living in Arizona.
One of the most important things that Marshall ever did was to create the Rolling Stones, and he managed them for quite some time. “Rollin’ Stone” was a song that Muddy Waters did, so he took that name and applied it to the group, calling them the Rolling Stones.
Marshall told me a great story about his bar mitzvah. Leonard didn’t really know many white people; most of his comrades and the people he went around with and knew were black. And so the congregation was filled with black people, sitting there with yarmulkes on top of Afros. Marshall said he got up there and started to laugh, because it was such an unusual scene in a synagogue.
May 10, 2011 | 4:31 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Thirteen was a key age for writer-director Spencer Susser.
It was the year he became fascinated by the kind of classmate who would inspire the antihero of his debut feature film, “Hesher,” staring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which opens on May 13: “They were guys with long, greasy hair, smoking cigarettes, who hung out in the shadows,” Susser, now 34, said.
Thirteen was also the age at which Susser attended a “rough” public school in Sacramento, where drug abuse and teen pregnancy were de rigueur. One of the few Jews in his class, he recalled that several of his teachers were baffled when he took time off to become bar mitzvah at his grandparents’ synagogue in Los Angeles, because they had never heard of a bar mitzvah.
Susser was also 13 when a drunk driver hit and killed his oldest brother, London, then 18, an event that is still so raw for the director that he declines to discuss it.
The filmmaker has channeled those memories into “Hesher,” the story of a 13-year-old named T.J. (Devin Brochu), who is left reeling after his mother’s death in a car accident. Enter Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a maniacal, tattooed drifter who moves in with the boy and his mourning family and shocks them out of their stupor. Natalie Portman — who selected “Hesher” as the first film to be released by her production company, Handsomecharlie Films — plays a broke cashier who befriends T.J. while confronting losses of her own.
In a recent interview, Susser, who lives in Los Angeles, spoke with the relaxed parlance of a skateboarding fan, while declaring an affinity for the characters of one of his directing heroes, Woody Allen. “Hesher” is dedicated to his late brother. “While T.J.’s story is not my story, the film definitely shows some of the feelings I experienced,” he said.
T.J. is overwhelmed by anguish and rage — not just that his mother has died, but that his father (Rainn Wilson) is so paralyzed by grief that he is emotionally unavailable and barely leaves the house. “Sometimes what happens is that the adults around you shut down,” Susser said. “Kids are more malleable; you function with what you’re given. I often think about kids in war-torn areas; how they’re going to be kids no matter what. They still want to play and ride their bikes; they just do it in a blown-out building. There was actually a scene I ended up cutting out of the film in which T.J. says to his dad, ‘Why is it fair that you get to stay home and numb yourself, while I have to go to school and keep functioning? What’s your excuse?’ T.J. is absolutely furious at the world, but it’s not the right way to look at things, and Hesher tries to point that out in his own way.”
Gordon-Levitt (“Inception,” “(500) Days of Summer”) describes his character, in part, as a kind of “mystic fool.” “It’s a beautiful thing that Spencer wrote such a personal story,” added the actor, who lost his own older brother, Dan Gordon-Levitt, a fire-spinning artist and performer, in October 2010, two years after shooting “Hesher.” “I definitely think that’s part of what lent it that weight and made the movie so much more than just a comedy and a shtick. … It’s a pretty brilliant story to tell about loss.”
The hyper-violent Hesher, who has a proclivity for blowing things up, represents the anger and other emotions that T.J. himself cannot articulate; he is a raging life force, but, Susser said, “He also represents death in a way. He is like this terrible, scary thing that shows up at this family’s door and moves in, and there’s nothing they can do about it. But once they learn how to function with Hesher around, in a sense, he goes away.”
Gordon-Levitt — who will star in the third “Batman” sequel, “The Dark Knight Rises” — was not Susser’s first choice to portray Hesher. “Joe is the opposite of Hesher in a lot of ways — he’s like this nice Jewish boy,” Susser said.
“Spencer turned me down; he didn’t want me to do the film,” Gordon-Levitt recalled at the Luxe Hotel, looking decidedly un-Hesher-like with his clean-shaven face and cropped hair. “I had to convince him to let me come in and audition. ... The surface of my character is really intriguing and fun: this bad-ass rocker guy,” he added, “but what really got me about the script were the layers underneath.”
Susser invented a backstory for Hesher, based on the experience of a childhood friend whose drug-addicted parents rejected him and who ultimately committed suicide. “It’s really intentional that none of that information is in the movie, though,” Gordon-Levitt said. “The character is shrouded in mystery, which is part of his power.”
For Susser, making the film was a powerful experience, one he describes as “like a big therapy session. ... When I was writing the movie, I was remembering it and processing [my brother’s death],” he said. It happened a long time ago, but the feelings don’t really go away.”
May 5, 2011 | 7:09 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Nobody loved Phil Rosenthal when he first flew to Moscow to help develop the Russian version of his hit CBS sitcom, “Everybody Loves Raymond” – an endeavor he recounts as both the director and subject of his documentary, “Exporting Raymond,” now in theaters.
Never mind that the original sitcom – based on Rosenthal’s real family life, as well as that of its star, Ray Romano—was one of the most beloved television comedies of all time. During his first meeting with the Russian writers, they told him the character of Raymond was unlikable, essentially because they regarded him as a wuss. “They said, ‘We don’t like this Raymond, this man who is being told what to do by the women in his life. He’s not a Russian character,’ ” Rosenthal told me in my story from the April 22 issue.
Then there was the head of comedy for the Russian network who told Rosenthal he liked reading scripts of “The Nanny” and “Married With Children” – but “Raymond” wasn’t funny. ““I was having dinner with the guy,” Rosenthal recalled. “What was I supposed to say? So I just endured the rest of that meeting.” In private, the American showrunner remarked that the executive didn’t really look like a head of comedy: “He looked like a character from ‘Schindler’s List,’ and not the ‘List’ part,” he said.
How did Rosenthal, the lauded sitcom expert, the maven, feel about being dissed by the Russians? “I found it frustrating as I would here, but I also found the humor in it,” he said. “I knew that I was the butt of the joke and I’m fine with that.”
Story continues after the jump.
While editing “Exporting Raymond,” Rosenthal realized he had become the central character of his own documentary. “People have asked me, ‘How do you edit yourself? How do you look at yourself when you’re in this movie and you’re directing it?’” he recalled. ” Obviously, there are people before me who have done this, but the only way I could get through it after the initial, Uch, look at that guy,’ was to realize OK, calling myself ‘that guy,’ was already a good place to start. I was removing myself personally and treating ‘that guy’ on the screen as a character.
“I think the movie is about a guy who thinks he’s an expert who goes to a land where nobody cares, and therein lies the comedy,” Rosenthal added. “I think we all have experienced that, by the way: We think we’re experts in our own house, but we’re not listened to. In my house, my wife is the expert. And by the way, my 13-year-old daughter is the expert, too.”
April 26, 2011 | 3:25 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
One of the best films of 2011 is still “The Adjustment Bureau,” George Nolfi’s sci-fi romantic thriller that has at its core a boggling theological question: How much are our lives predetermined by a higher power, and how much comes about as a result of free will? The movie, which is still in theaters, comes out on Blu-ray and DVD combo pack from Universal Studios Home Entertainment on June 21.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story, “The Adjustment Team,” the film revolves around David Norris (Matt Damon) a politician bent on pursuing the woman of his dreams (Emily Blunt), though angel-like figures in fedoras strive to keep them apart. These members of the Adjustment Bureau can even stop time to thwart the lovers, lest their affair foil the cosmic plan designed by The Chairman, an entity who could either represent God or Big Brother.
I decided to track down the film’s writer-director, George Nolfi, after reading Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin’s thought-provoking review in the Journal, titled “Finally, an Action Thriller for Religious Thinkers:” “Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing God who controls everything that happens in the world,” Korobkin writes. “What, then, is the role of our own decisions? Does man truly possess free will, or does he only have the “appearance” of free will? …The best line of the movie for me was when the Damon character is finally confronted by one of the higher up angels, who tells him that he must conform to his predestined fate. Damon looks at him and says, “What about free will?” The angel’s response (I’m paraphrasing from memory) is classic: “We tried giving humans free will and look what we ended up with: wars, pogroms, the Holocaust. That’s why we’ve been forced to take it away. You think you have free will? You only have the illusion of free will.”
Nolfi – a former academic whose screenwriting credits include “Ocean’s Twelve” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”—told me the Adjustment Bureau and its Chairman could represent God and His angels – or not. And he declined to outline his own religious beliefs, except to say that his father was raised Catholic while his mother was an Episcopalian.
“My own beliefs don’t matter in terms of the movie,” Nolfi said by phone from his Los Angeles home. “What matters is the question of how much we’re determined and how much we’re free, which – no matter how you look at the world – is a pressing one. If you look at the movie through a theological lens, that’s fine; it’s just that you don’t have to.”
Here are some further excerpts from our conversation:
NPM: You have quite an academic pedigree for a filmmaker – studies in philosophy and political science at Princeton and on a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford; and a master’s degree from UCLA. It all makes sense when you consider the themes of “The Adjustment Bureau” —but how did you first become interested in these issues?
GN: After my parents split up when I was a [child], I lived with my mother, who was pretty interested in religion and was also a fairly regular churchgoer. I became interested in philosophy as a way of looking at the world. But for most of human existence, philosophy and theology have been merged, so on those two fronts I became fascinated with this issue of how much do we get to choose our own path through our actions and choices, and how much do outside forces set us on a path or constrain us. You can view those larger forces as societal, like the culture you were born into, the language you speak, your religion, your parents—or as biological, such as how healthy you are and what kind of biochemistry you have. And/or you can view things through the lens of some larger plan that a universal God has for you. Whatever the lens you choose, I’m fascinated by this question of how much do you get to rise above or challenge the circumstances that have set you on a certain course.
NPM: You certainly did that yourself when you decided to leave academia for Hollywood.
GN: While near the end of my college experience, I started watching movies really for the first time in my life, and was really impressed by the ability of the best films to leave you thinking about its issues long afterwards. I realized that… if I pursued academia, the very issues I was most interested in would have to be studied in a very narrow way and talked about amongst a very small group of people. But I was more interested in a conversation with the public at large, which is what appealed to me about films. I got an agent, who basically said it’s almost impossible to break into Hollywood from 7,000 miles away. So I left Oxford, [transferred] to UCLA, and started writing scripts.
NPM: How did you come to read the Philip K. Dick story?
GN: I was not an avid science fiction reader, but my producing partner was, and he pitched me the premise: the notion of fate not as an abstract issue but as a group of individuals – fate personified as a bureau of agents. I thought that was a great original premise for a film – I hadn’t seen it done before, and it would allow me to get into those areas I find most fascinating.
NPM: What are some of the differences between the story and the movie?
FN: The concept of a higher power is in the story, but with a much more cynical attitude toward it, which is what one might expect from Philip K. Dick and his concerns. [Dick – whose work inspired the 1982 film, “Blade Runner”—drew on his personal experiences with drug abuse, paranoia and schizophrenia to explore social and metaphysical issues in stories that often featured authoritarian regimes and corporations.] I optioned the short story in 2003; one day, my business partner suggested that we could transform the narrative into a love story, where it’s a guy fighting fate for the woman he loves. We were talking on the phone and I said, “I want to do that; I think I can tell that story.” I was intrigued by the potential to cross genres; in this way, the film wouldn’t just be a dark, dystopic science fiction movie—it would stand outside of the genre but use elements of it.
NPM: Have you come to any conclusions of your own about free will versus predestination?
GN: I think it’s both: We are both completely constrained and we’re also completely free, which is paradoxical, but that’s what makes it interesting.
NPM: In the movie, it is also both. Not just because David Norris chooses to fight his own predestined fate. A high-ranking “angel” tells him that The Chairman backed off and allowed humans to run things during certain periods in history; but The Chairman took back control when those periods resulted in catastrophes such as World War I, the Depression and the Holocaust. Was that scene in Dick’s story?
GN: No, that was a complete invention. The story is tonally very different from the film; the concerns are much more: “Is this reality or is this a sort of mental construct? Is this really happening to the main character, or is he going crazy?” Also, it seems to me that Dick believed that no matter how much time you spent philosophizing or trying to use religion to grapple with these issues, it wasn’t going to get you anywhere.
NPM: You’ve pointed out that the free will debate is a recurring theme in Judaism, Christianity and Islam—as is the question of suffering and pain.
GN: Again, I’m not saying that people must put a theological lens on the movie, but if you do, then immediately you run up against the problem of evil—certainly in any monotheistic religion I’m familiar with. You very quickly get to, “If God is benevolent, all-powerful and all-knowing, why do we feel thwarted all the time, and why do all these bad things happen?” The movie gives a potential answer to that which is, we wouldn’t be able to understand, appreciate or use our free will if we didn’t also encounter obstacles to it.
NPM: I can’t imagine that studios were dying to make a movie that tackled such heavy theological questions. Did anyone challenge you on this?
GN: Shockingly, no. People were incredibly supportive—partly because there was the script I had written, so they could see how it played through.
NPM: Matt Damon championed you getting signed on as the director – giving you the chance to make your directorial debut with a major studio film.
GN: I showed the script to Matt right after I did “Ocean’s Twelve” with him. He was going off to do “The Bourne Ultimatum,” which I had been called in to [rewrite]. I went to England and worked on the script as they were shooting it for a long time, so he was very familiar with my work.
NPM: You’ve done panel discussions with clergy after screenings of the film – what did you find most interesting about those conversations?
GN: The most profoundly interesting thing was learning that Judaism and Islam have strong strands of thinking both in terms of a deterministic view of God, and a free will view. I had known more about that in the Christian tradition, so it was interesting to hear the historical arguments within other religions as well.
NPM: One theological argument opines that angels have no free will, because they were created by God only to be good. But members of the Adjustment Bureau are more complex.
GN: Call them angels or call them agents— if they embodied just pure good, they wouldn’t be very interesting as characters, and furthermore you wouldn’t be able to set up a conflict between them and the [protagonists]. The trick was to make David’s agenda one that viewers could buy into and see as good—and to make the Bureau’s agenda contrary to that, but then come around to seeing that their agenda was “good” as well. That was an incredibly complicated screenwriting problem for me.
NPM: The first “person” you thank in the credits is The Chairman. You’re obviously very good at what you do, but the Chairman has been with you – or at least, the studio’s chairman.
GN: That was definitely one of the tongue-in-cheek aspects of thanking The Chairman.
“The Adjustment Bureau” is currently playing at theaters such as the Culver Plaza Theatre and the Pacific Sherman Oaks 5. Check listings for more details.