“I was going through a quote-unquote midlife crisis to some extent,” says documentary filmmaker Steven Bram, whose spiritual journey is the focus of new documentary “Kabbalah Me,” which he co-directed. A series of traumatic events, among them losing his brother-in-law on 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, caused Bram, a born-and-bred New Yorker who runs a sports film production company, to have some seemingly unanswerable existential questions. “I kept asking, is there more to life than just going through the motions?”
One day, a friend who took him to a New York Rangers game suggested seeking out a rabbi for help. “I never really thought of a rabbi as a therapist like that,” says Bram, who had lived a secular life to that point. One rabbi followed another, and today, he is actively spiritual and has a documentary to show for it. Elyssa Goodman spoke with Bram about documenting his quest for spiritual enlightenment in “Kabbalah Me,” and the role Judaism and Kabbalah now play in his life.
Elyssa Goodman: Why did you decide to make a documentary out of this experience?
“Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart” is a documentary about the 1990 media spectacle of the first televised murder trial. Reality TV was in its infancy. Pamela Smart, 21, was accused of plotting the murder of her husband. The young men who carried out the murder got reduced sentences for serving her up as a black widow. The film explores the impact of TV on the case and on public opinion. The jury was not sequestered and it seems Smart was tried and convicted in the media.
Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar investigated Pamela Smart’s trial and questions arose about the nature of justice, fame and storytelling. Was this trial fair? We talked to Zagar about the role the media played in the outcome of the trial.
Dorri Olds: What was it like visiting Pamela Smart in prison?
Jeremiah Zagar: Meeting her convinced me to make the film. She was different in person than any of the archival footage I’d seen. She’s incredibly smart, funny and warm, not that wooden, cold person on TV. I thought I’d make a film about this person you’ve never met before. The film became about how the camera changes people and changed her trial.
Do you mean she had stage fright?
Irish director Lenny Abrahamson concedes that his latest film, “Frank,” is eccentric. The movie is inspired by British comedian and musician Chris Sievey, who adapted the stage persona of Frank Sidebottom and toured Britain with a band.
Not well known outside the U.K., Sievey was similar to — but never quite as successful as — artists like Andy Kaufman, Pee Wee Herman and Tiny Tim, who also adopted stage guises.
“Frank” stars Michael Fassbender as the title character, Maggie Gyllenhaal as band member Clara and rising star Domhnall Gleeson as a keyboard player and wannabe composer. The band of oddballs composes esoteric music, but finds unexpected popularity via You Tube — popularity that inevitably dooms the group.
It’s not likely to be this summer’s blockbuster, though a laughing Abrahamson says, “That would be nice. Let’s not give up on it.” He quickly added, “It’s more strange when you see it on paper than when you see it in the theater.”
Abrahamson spoke to the Forward about this new film, his first film, and about being the third most famous Irish Jew ever.
Curt Schleier: “Frank” is kind of, well, a weird film. What drew you to it?
Photo courtesy Tribeca Film
Screenwriter Naomi Foner was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her original screenplay for “Running on Empty.” She also wrote other high-profile projects such as “Losing Isaiah” and “Bee Season.” So you’d think the Hollywood establishment would rush to sign on for “Very Good Girls,” her latest script.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
“I wrote this a long time ago, and it’s been in my drawer for many years,” she told the Forward in a telephone interview.
In some ways, it’s not surprising. The film is about two best friends, Lily (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen), who pledge to lose their virginity before they leave for college. Problems arise when they fall for the same guy and he prefers one over the other.
Though it sounds on the surface a lot like typical summer fare, it is an intelligent, affecting movie about friendship, honesty and family. Foner spoke to the Forward about getting the film made, how her grandfather used to write to the Forverts for advice on fishing and how proud she is of her children, Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Curt Schleier: I was really disappointed the other day. I went to McDonald’s and asked them for Lily and Gerry action figures. They didn’t know what I was talking about. I don’t understand. Did you actually make a summer movie without major tie-ins?
Photo courtesy of BOND/360
Carly Simon recently told The New York Times that one of her goals this summer was to see “Alive Inside” again. She calls the documentary, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “an extremely moving depiction of the power that music has.”
She’s right. And so were the Sundance folks who selected the film as a favorite. It’ss a tear-jerker of a magnitude to raise the stock price of Kleenex Corp.
The movie chronicles Dan Cohen’s efforts to bring music to dementia patients in nursing homes and the extraordinary impact his project has had. It’s not just any music, but an iPod full of songs the patients grew up with.
Cohen, 62, posses a master’s degree in social work, but spent most of his professional life working for a tech company. In 2006 he read an article about how ubiquitous iPods had become, and wondered if he’d have access to his iPod if he were ever confined in a nursing home.
Cohen spoke to the Forward about his project, how the documentary came about, and forming the charity Music & Memory.
Curt Schleier: What happened after you read that article?
Director Kevin Asch’s film, “Affluenza,” is about a “disease” that seems to strike people with too much money and too much time but not enough of a moral compass to guide them. Its symptoms are a sense of entitlement and self-indulgence.
The movie is set in Great Gatsby country, on Long Island’s Gold Coast, where an aspiring photographer, Fisher Miller (Ben Rosenfield), from upstate New York, moves in with his aunt and uncle while he applies to college in Manhattan. It is his first exposure to a world seemingly without limits on both wealth and behavior — until the financial crisis hits.
“Affluenza” is an extremely personal film for Asch, 38, who grew up in that milieu. For him, the movie is as much an exercise in therapy as in filmmaking. He spoke to the Forward about the trials of his own Long Island upbringing, how film helped him through his alienation, and why he can now move on.
Curt Schleier: The production notes say growing up you were “grappling with personal questions about my family shattering and how growing up in an affluent community led to such great expectations and such pressures.” Can you give us some more details?
September 1 will mark 75 years since World War II began. Most likely you don’t know the story of one brave man who saved 6,000 lives. When Polish Jews fled persecution, many arrived in independent Lithuania. But as the German army pushed across Europe in the summer of 1940, foreign embassies were ordered to close. While other diplomats turned their backs on the Jewish refugees, one honorable diplomat requested a month-long extension so that he could issue visas that would allow Jews to travel across European Russia and Siberia to Japan. The man was Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara.
“The Rescuers,” by award-winning filmmaker Michael King, focuses on Sugihara and 12 additional unsung Holocaust heroes who risked their lives to help tens of thousands of Jews flee to safety. By doing what he thought was right, Sugihara was dismissed from the foreign office for going against the orders of the Japanese government. He lost his pension and had to work menial jobs the rest of his life.
King’s “The Rescuers” stars renowned Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert; Stephanie Nyombayire, an anti-genocide activist who lost 100 members of her family in the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, and a handful of survivors. One survivor in the film is Sylvia Smoller Austerer, who agreed to an exclusive interview for the Forward. She is alive today, thanks to Sugihara making it possible for her to escape Poland at age 7.
The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Austerer and spoke to her about the experience.
Dorri Olds: You’ve said, “What on earth made Sugihara do it?” Can you expand on that?
“Some working actors lost the best years of their lives and don’t know why.” Those words were written by actress/director Lee Grant in her new memoir, “I Said Yes To Everything.” And she should know. She was one of them.
Grant was the “surprise discovery” of the 1950 Broadway season for her role in “Detective Story.” Shortly afterwards, she was discovered by the House Un-American Activities Committee. For a dozen years, from 1952 to 1964 — essentially what could have been the prime of her career — she could not find meaningful work. Often when she did get a job, it was short-lived.
For example, she landed a role on a TV soap opera, “Search for Tomorrow.” But the network canned her after a supermarket owner from Syracuse, N.Y., told the sponsor’s ad agency he would put up a special display asking shoppers if they wanted to “brush their teeth with a product from a company that employs communists.”
Born Lyova Rosenthal, Grant spoke to the Forward about the blacklist, being her own worst enemy, and sending her adopted Thai-American daughter to Rodeph Shalom Day School in Manhattan.
Curt Schleier: Why did you decide to write your memoir now?
David Wain is a co-founder of two sketch comedy troupes, The State and Stella. He is executive producer and occasional star of the Emmy-winning Adult Swim series, “Children’s Hospital.” He also has his own online show, “Wainy Days,” about his (mis)adventures with women.
But certainly his greatest claim to fame is his 2001 cult classic, “Wet Hot American Summer.” That is, until now.
Wain’s latest, “They Came Together,” will soon claim top billing. It’s a hilarious spoof on the romantic comedy genre that opens in New York, Los Angeles and other markets June 27.
The film stars Paul Rudd as Joel, the typical romantic comedy lead — i.e. “handsome, but in a non-threatening way; vaguely but not overtly Jewish.”
Amy Poehler is Molly the klutzy but cute potential girlfriend. They meet in a bookstore where they discover that they both like — wait for it — “fiction books.” But problems ensue when she discovers he works for Candy Systems and Research, the company hoping to put her little store, Upper Sweet Side, out of business.
Still, they fall in love. They fall out of love. There are complications, but — spoiler alert — there is a happy ending, with shout-outs to everything from “You’ve Got Mail” to “Crossing Delancey.”
“They Came Together” is so funny you don’t need an entire funny bone to find laughs here. A few funny cells are more than enough to see the humor.
Wain spoke to the Forward about his complete lack of preparation for this interview, the low brow-ness of his jokes and how he’s not Pagliacci.
Curt Schleier: Have you prepared enough one-liners to make me look creative and funny to the readers of The Forward?
It’s been said that the Internet both defined and was defined by Aaron Swartz. He co-founded Reddit and co-invented RSS, but it was his fight for free speech and open access to information that was both his legacy and his downfall.
Swartz used Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computers to hack into JSTOR, the academic database. He copied 4.8 million articles and uploaded them for public access to protest the commercialization of information on the Internet. He was arrested for wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and, after a two-year legal battle and facing up to 35 years in prison, Swartz hanged himself at the age of 26.
Brian Knappenberger’s film “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is a personal view into who Swartz was, how much he accomplished, and what led to his choice to end his life. The film also shows how society will suffer if we ignore the relationship between our technological landscape and our civil liberties.
Knappenberger has created many documentaries, commercials and feature films, and is executive producer of the 23-part Bloomberg series “Bloomberg Game Changers” which chronicles figures like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and the Twitter and Google co-founders. His films have explored the changing politics and tensions in the post-9/11 era.
The Forward caught up with Knappenberger to talk about “hacktivism,” Edward Snowden and Net Neutrality.
Dorri Olds: What scenes did you really like but had to cut from the film?
Playwright David Ives got a telephone message from Roman Polanski: “I love your play and want to turn it into a movie.” The two didn’t know each other. Imagine getting a voicemail like that.
It would be an oversimplification to say Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur” is about sadomasochism, but technically it is. It’s about sex and power and humiliation, yet there’s nothing really sexy about it. It’s more a study of the nature of human relationships — to dominate or be dominated. It’s seen through the prism of two lonely people on the edge, played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric, an actor who looks eerily like a younger Polanski.
When you throw Polanski’s name into this story — that of a man who’s successfully avoided prosecution for raping a minor — the project takes on a new significance. But, as with Woody Allen, Polanski’s supreme artistry can overshadow what we don’t know and don’t want to know.
The Forward’s Dorri Olds landed an exclusive interview with Ives, who spoke about his collaboration with Polanski for their “Venus in Fur” screenplay and to elaborate on his time spent with a genius on the lam.
Dorri Olds: Where did you meet Polanski?
“Third Person,” written and directed by Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash”), tells three love stories about passion, trust and betrayal. “In any relationship,” Haggis said, “there is always a third person present in some form.”
Israeli actress Moran Atias, who starred in the TV series “Crash,” pitched the idea of a multi-plotline film about love and relationships to Haggis. “Third Person” is the result, and Atias plays Roman beauty Monika in the movie. Atias stars opposite Adrien Brody as one of the three fraught couples. The all-star cast includes Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Maria Bello and Kim Bassinger.
Atias had worked directly with Haggis and Neeson when she starred in Haggis’s 2010 crime drama, “The Next Three Days.” Born and raised in Haifa, Atias later moved to Italy where she starred in several Italian films including the thriller “Gas.” Additionally, she worked for modeling campaigns for Dolce & Cabana, Roberto Cavalli and Versace. After much success in Italy she returned to Israel. Currently Atias lives in Los Angeles and stars in the FX series, “Tyrant,” an American show that takes place in the Middle East.
The Forward caught up with Moran Atias for an exclusive interview.
Dorri Olds: What inspired your idea for “Third Person?”
Doug Liman made his reputation directing “Swingers,” a film that helped establish the viability of independent film, not to mention the careers of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. His personal favorite is “Go,” a movie he knows “no one saw.”
But certainly Liman is best known as an action director: “Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and now, “Edge of Tomorrow.”
The movie stars Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt and is already the best reviewed of Liman’s films; it will restore luster to Cruise’s career, tarnished recently by “Oblivion,” “Rock of Ages” and “Knight and Day.”
Liman grew up in Manhattan, the son of Arthur Liman, who led the Iran Contra investigation. Liman spoke to the Forward about the art of making action movies, what Cruise is really like, and how Shabbat dinners with his dad prepared him for Hollywood.
Curt Schleier: Is there a secret to making action films?
Photo: Chloe Aftel
Call it a boy-meets-girl-who-thinks-boy-was-born-a-girl story.
In “Adam,” the debut novel from cult graphic memoirist Ariel Schrag, an awkward California teenager named Adam Freedman parachutes into an alien landscape of subcultures and identities when he joins his lesbian sister in Brooklyn for the summer. (Full disclosure: Schrag was featured in “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” a traveling exhibition which I co-curated and the Forward sponsored.)
Obsessed with scoring — with women, not sports — he finally meets the girl of his dreams. The fact that she thinks he’s transgender — a boy who was born a girl — becomes a temporary stumbling block once Adam realizes he’ll get much further by playing along.
Like her great graphic novels “Awkward,” “Definition,” “Potential,” and “Likewise,” “Adam” balances Schrag’s ruthless eye and scathing precision with beautifully humanistic and generous portrayals of complex, conflicted characters.
Schrag, who has also written for the Showtime series “The L Word” and HBO’s hit “How to Make It in America,” spoke to the Forward from her home in Brooklyn.
Michael Kaminer: Is it a stretch to draw a straight line between Adam’s predicament and the moments throughout history where Jews have had to hide their identities?
Courtesy of Joel Warner
Denver journalist Joel Warner and his co-author Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, trekked across the world in search of the answer to a seemingly simple question: What makes people laugh?
Their book, “The Humor Code,” is at once a lighthearted collection of adventures in the world of humor and a serious-minded inquiry into the mysterious mechanisms of what makes things funny across cultural barriers. Across nine chapters, the duo bothers Louis C.K. in a green room, hangs out with scientists who tickle rats in Tanzania and flies into the Amazon rainforest on a cargo plane full of clowns.
Perhaps most daring of all, Warner. 35, and McGraw spent some time in Israel and the Palestinian territories and talking to Holocaust survivors, trying to determine the way that jokes have the power to simultaneously unite and divide people. His favorite post-intifada Palestinian joke describes several heads of state meeting with God and making requests for their people. To each, God says, “Not in your lifetime.” Then Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, asks for his people’s freedom and God says, “Not in my lifetime.” The Forward’s Margaret Eby caught up with Warner by phone.
Margaret Eby: Since humor is such an incredibly subjective thing, did you go into this project with certain metrics? Did you have some sort of more precise laugh-o-meter, for example?
Joel Warner: Laughter is actually a really imperfect predictor of humor. We didn’t go around tracking every example of humor we could track or think of. We thought, “We’re not going to be able to cover everything.” So we decided to organize the book around the most interesting questions. Is humor really the best medicine? Why do we laugh? In many ways, the locations are window dressing. We didn’t have to go to Palestine, we could have gone anywhere.
Michael Maren has lived an Indiana Jones kind of life: Peace Corps volunteer, war correspondent from Africa, kidnap victim of a Somali warlord, author, and now filmmaker.
However, anyone expecting a hard-hitting documentary exposing the troubles of foreign aid (the subject of his book, “The Road to Hell”) is in for a surprise. In fact, if his film, “A Short History of Decay,” exposes anything, it is the frailty of life and the importance of family.
Nathan Fisher (Bryan Greenberg) is a blocked Brooklyn writer in a blocked relationship who heads to Florida when his father Bob (Harris Yulin) has a stroke and his mom Sandy (Linda Lavin), is suffering from early signs of Alzheimer’s.
Maren, 58, spoke to The Forward about why he went to Africa, why he left, and the genesis of the film.
Curt Schleier: You joined the Peace Corps and taught in rural Kenya after you graduated from college in the late 1970s. What prompted that?
In the film “Fed Up,” opening May 9, the untenable reality pours down like a mid-summer rain:
In the United States, more people die from obesity than starvation.
87% of food items on supermarket shelves have added sugars.
Teenagers are having gastric bypass surgery.
We’ve become a corpulent nation, which is not news to anyone who has spent a day at the beach and seen 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds overflow their bathing suits.
The documentary, from filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig, is executive produced by Laurie David, a social activist who served similar duties on the global climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” She’s also the co-author with Kirstin Uhrenholdt of two cookbooks: “The Family Dinner,” about the importance of families eating together, and out last month, “The Family Cooks,” which includes over 100 easy-to-prepare recipes for healthy family meals.
David spoke to the Forward about how she came to the documentary, what she thinks it will accomplish, and how her Shabbat meals honor the homemade food ethic.
Curt Schleier: How did you get involved in this project?
Movies about the army are usually about fighting, sacrifice, a tense atmosphere and people in uniform plotting war strategies. “Zero Motivation,” the first feature film by Israeli director Talya Lavie, shows a different aspect of military life: Set in an army base in the Israeli desert in 2004, it tells the story of a group of girls who spend their compulsory military service doing office work. Far removed from the frontlines and decision-making, Zohar (Dana Ivgy), her best friend Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and the other girls have time to worry about issues such as breaking the Minesweeper record on all of the office’s computers, dating male fellow soldiers and engaging in petty power struggles with their officer Rama (Shani Klein).
One day, a new arrival puts the friendship between potty-mouthed Zohar and fragile Daffi on trial, and events take a turn toward the turbulent.
The coming-of-age-tragicomedy had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 17, and will be released in Israeli cinemas in June. Director Lavie, who was born in 1978 in Petah Tikvah, Israel, first studied animation at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design before attending the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, both in Jerusalem. She won several international awards for her thesis short film, “The Substitute,” which is also about young female soldiers in office jobs.
Like the characters in her film, Lavie was stationed in the desert during her army service. It was the contrast between the beauty of the desert and the aesthetics of the army that served as an inspiration for the movie, she told the Forward. She also talked about how her film reflects changes in gender-segregation in the army, and how hard it was to balance comical and tragic aspects of the movie.
Anna Goldenberg: How much of this movie is based on your own experience?
Irish-born British actor Jonas Armstrong stars in “Walking With the Enemy,” a story set in Hungary during the last months of World War II. Inspired by a true story, it tells of a man who used a stolen Nazi uniform to free hundreds of Jews. It’s an action story about love and courage directed by Mark Schmidt from a screenplay by Kenny Golde. Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley also stars.
Armstrong plays the lead, Elek Cohen, a fictional character who was inspired by Hungarian Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, who was able to steal a uniform from the Arrow Cross, an extreme Hungarian faction responsible for the deportation and death of tens of thousands of Jews.
Just when it seems that the topic of WWII has been exhausted, yet another gripping story comes out about the atrocities of the war and what Jewish people had to do to survive. The Forward’s Dorri Olds sat down for an interview with Jonas Armstrong.
Dorri Olds: How did you prepare for this role?
Ellen Litman dreamed of being a writer when she went to school in Moscow in the 1980s. There was only one problem: She was Jewish, and thus she was advised to focus on something more practical, since in the Soviet Union, Jews couldn’t be successful at writing.
Litman studied math and computer programming, and immigrated to Pittsburgh with her family in 1992. It took her several years to work up the courage to take a writing class; she worried that she couldn’t write in a language that was not her native one. It turned out she could: In 2004, she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Syracuse University. In 2007, she published her first book, “The Last Chicken in America,” which deals with the experiences of a young woman from Russia trying to settle into Pittsburgh.
In March, Litman, who is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut and teaches writing and English, released her second novel, “Mannequin Girl.” Set in a Soviet boarding school for children with scoliosis, it tells the story of a Jewish girl, Kat, and her journey into adulthood dealing with her parents, who teach at her school, as well as unrequited love and latent anti-Semitism.
Litman, 40, lives with her husband and two children in Mansfield, Conn. She spoke to the Forward’s Anna Goldenberg about playing with autobiographical elements and why moving to the United States hasn’t changed her idea of Judaism.