June 28, 2012

‘People Like Us’ explores meaning of family

Posted in Between Us column, Movies, Relationships at 5:10 pm by dinaheng

For some people, family defines the people you go to when you’re in need of help. For others, family are the people you share your joy and laughter with. For everyone, family relationships are complicated, behaviors are often dysfunctional, and more often than not, there are secrets that lie at the heart of the family unit.

This week, Disney and DreamWorks releases a summer film by writer/director Alex Kurtzman called “People Like Us,” a contemporary tale about a lost soul who discovers he has a sister he never knew. When the secret of his dead father’s second family comes to light, Sam Harper (played by Chris Pine) is forced to look at everything he ever thought about his childhood and parents.

The film, in theaters on Friday, June 29, is a departure from the blockbuster sci-fi and action films that Kurtzman is known for writing, among them “Star Trek,” “Transformers,” and “Cowboys & Aliens.”

“People Like Us” was penned by Kurtzman, his writing partner Roberto Orci, and Jody Lambert, with Kurtzman taking the helm as director.

“Studios rarely make movies these days about what it means to be part of a family,” Kurtzman says. “The message of this movie is that no matter how close you are — or how far you are from your family — your family is who you are. All families are complicated in different ways. They put you in close proximity with people you don’t necessarily agree with. But even broken families can be mended if people face the truth.”

The film features solid performances by Pine (best known for his role of James T. Kirk in the 2009 film “Star Trek”) and Elizabeth Banks (“The Hunger Games” and NBC’s “30 Rock”), as Sam Harper’s half-sister, Frankie Davis. Acclaimed actress Michelle Pfeiffer looked the part of Sam’s mother, Lillian, but spoke with a voice that seems better suited to younger, sexier roles.

While each of the characters have traits that audiences will relate to, the theme that “you are your family” seems nebulous and in need of a deeper point.

“Who you are is defined by how you grew up, and what you had around you,” Kurtzman says. “If you’re moving away from it, your life will be defined by that. We are the sum total of our history, and part of growing up is accepting that’s okay.”

Growing up in a house of lies as Sam Harper does would not be easy for anyone. But as Kurtzman points out, the film also shares the lesson of the Rashomon effect.

“If there’s an event and you ask four people what happened, they’ll each tell you a different version,” Kurtzman says. “There’s no one truth. The truth that matters is the one you believe.”

“People Like Us” will not appeal to everyone, but those who choose to see it will find some thoughtful moments sure to ring true in every family.

June 21, 2012

‘BRAVE’ heroine takes fate in her own hands

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies, Women at 6:40 pm by dinaheng

When a curly, redheaded Scottish lass named Merida shoots an arrow into her mother’s traditional plan to marry her off and keep peace in the Highlands, it’s clear that this heroine is no ordinary fairy tale princess.

“BRAVE,” an animated film from Disney and Pixar out in theaters on Friday, June 22, explores what happens when a teenager struggles to define her own destiny, and must use all of her skills to undo a witch’s curse in order to save the mother she thought was ruining her life.

The original story, as conceived by director Brenda Chapman, stemmed from her own relationship with a headstrong, six-year-old daughter. Chapman, who wondered what the little girl would be like as a teenager, started to imagine an action-adventure, mother-daughter fairy tale set in Scotland, the land of her ancestry.

Eighteen months ago, director Mark Andrews stepped in to simplify the story, and took the helm of the film he’d already been consulting on with Chapman.

“Pixar wanted an outside eye when things got stuck, and I’d been there all the way, so it was a good fit,” says Andrews, who recently co-wrote Walt Disney Pictures’ “John Carter” with Andrew Stanton and served as second-unit director on that film. “I treated ‘BRAVE’ as an adaptation, like I’d done with ‘John Carter From Mars.’ I loved the parent-child relationship, the theme of bravery — external and internal — and the transformation of a girl from child to adult.”

As Andrews notes, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a brave girl who shoots arrows, climbs cliffs and fights bears, but the bravest thing she does is something every adolescent coming of age will recognize.

“The bravest thing Merida had to do was apologize for her mistakes and failings,” Andrews says. “She realized she could be more than what she thought she could be because of what her mom did for her.  So she has to reveal her feelings to her mother, and apologize.”

In life, Andrews says, there is no outside force pushing us to a pre-ordained destiny. We are all in control of our fate, if we’re brave enough to look deeply within and find the right path for ourselves. This is a lesson, the director says, that both mother and daughter learn — together.

Andrews, who is also of Scottish descent, says Merida was deliberately designed not to be a typical Disney princess.

“There’s no love interest in this story,” Andrews notes. “Merida’s not defended by a Prince Charming, and she’s not questing for a happily-ever-after. She’s completely different from any of the Disney princesses.

“She teaches that being a princess has nothing to do with what you are, like gender, race and sexual orientation have nothing to do with what you are. What we all are, are human beings who make our own destinies. Merida’s not a Disney princess. She’s a Pixar hero.”

June 13, 2012

‘Rock of Ages’ will rock you

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 10:59 pm by dinaheng

Small town girl goes to Hollywood, looking for fame and fortune. Girl meets boy. Their famous rock star idol is about to lose his soul. Honest reporter holds up a mirror that reflects the truth of his sad life. But not to worry — a happy ending is ensured. This is, after all, a Hollywood fairy tale.

The story of the two couples intertwine against the backdrop of a political campaign to clean up the sexy and sinful atmosphere of L.A.‘s Sunset Strip in a rollicking homage to the music of the ‘80s in New Line Cinema’s “Rock of Ages,” opening in theaters Friday, June 15.

The film adaptation of the Broadway musical features the same heart-pounding classics of Foreigner, Journey, Poison, Twisted Sister and more that made the stage version a hit. Happily, the actors in this film do a respectable job of belting out the songs, as well as portraying characters who are campy and humorous.

Director and executive producer Adam Shankman, whose directing credits include the feature adaptation of the musical “Hairspray,” “The Wedding Planner,” “The Pacifier” and  “Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” says he wanted to make “Rock of Ages” a film that guys would drag their girlfriends to see.

“It’s got unbelievably beautiful girls, classic rock, and shameless debauchery,” Shankman says. “It’s a film that begins and ends with the word joy. The music was like the soundtrack of my life. My father managed bands from Barry White to Sister Sledge. I was in the recording studios a a lot, and saw careers soar and tumble. My first concert was at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip.”

A native of Los Angeles, the director attended The Juilliard School in New York, and worked as an actor, singer and dancer before becoming a choreographer and director.

“I’m not afraid to try things,” he says. “I breathe, and I do. In my head, the world feels like a musical. The joy of directing a musical is you get more time to rehearse, but then you get bursts shooting the music and dancing. It couldn’t be more uplifting.”

As the characters in the film strive to make their Hollywood dreams come true, they learn how difficult it is to stay on the path to success, and like many things in life, the definition of success changes.

“A lot of people think they’ll find adoration in fame and fortune, and they don’t,” Shankman says. “I don’t think anyone starts out to be superficial. The characters in the film are all fighting for something different, and at the end, they all find it doesn’t mean anything without love.”

The character who teaches this lesson to the famous rock star Stacee Jaxx (played by Tom Cruise) is Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack, portrayed by Swedish-Canadian actress Malin Akerman.

“Malin is like a perfect storm,” Shankman says. “She’s incredibly talented, hilariously funny, a brilliant actor, and stunning. I needed someone in the reporter role who was fearless because the stuff I asked her to do were to be incredibly funny and vulnerable. She has to have sex with Tom Cruise on an air hockey table singing, “I want to know what love is,” and ends up giving him reason and light.”

Ackerman, who’s appeared in films such as “The Proposal,” “27 Dresses,” and “Wanderlust,” says the most challenging part of the reporter role for her was the singing.

“We had an amazing vocal coach for three weeks, and learned some great techniques,” Ackerman says. “We recorded the music before we filmed the scene. It was my first time doing a musical.”

Doing a film about the Sunset Strip was like coming home for her, however, as she met her drummer husband, Roberto, while performing as the lead singer of an alternative rock band, The Petalstones, that performed in the Viper Room and other venues on the Strip in Los Angeles.

“My character in the movie is a journalist, and I wanted her to be a real person, a woman who wants honesty in life,” Ackerman says. “Being a good journalist, she got a lot more than the story.”

She notes that it wasn’t hard to get in the mood for the raunchy sex scenes with Cruise.

“Tom transformed himself into a rock star, and I just had to react,” she says. “He’s there in the moment, and made me look good. We worked to make the scene funny, sexy, and fun, yet grounded. Adam asked me to go to places that are a little risqué, but you just have to trust your director. All of the choreography made me laugh, and I loved it.”

Raised as a Buddhist, Ackerman says she was taught that your life is what you make it, and actions create karma along the way.

“In the movie, you give life your best shot, and hope karma will take care of things, as well,” she says. “If I’m positive, I’ll reflect that to other people, and it’ll come back to me. Stacee Jaxx and Constance Sack were two people on two different sides of the coin, but both were looking for truth and honesty, and that’s hard to find in Tinseltown.”

She jokes that her favorite song in the movie is the one she and Cruise performed together (“I Want to Know What Love Is”), but adds, “For me, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is the epitome of ‘Rock of Ages.’ “

For a raunchy good time, go see “Rock of Ages.” It’ll make you believe in happy endings.

June 7, 2012

Expat still votes as an American

Posted in Between Us column, Politics, Travel at 9:15 pm by dinaheng

An estimated four to six million Americans live abroad. This is one in a series of interviews with American expats, who offer a unique perspective on the world, and a look at life outside the United States that guide books could never capture.

David Balmer cast his vote in the California Presidential primary for President Barak Obama, voting absentee from Wohlen, Switzerland (a town near Zurich) in the European country where he’s lived for the last 23 years.

A former California resident, Balmer fell in love with a Swiss woman who was learning English in San Francisco, just down the street from the bed and breakfast he was managing at the time. When she returned home to Switzerland in 1989, he went with her and the two married.

The marriage didn’t last, but the couple had five children, and Balmer has since remarried. He and his second wife have a nine-year-old son, and the expat American is proud to call two countries home. For in today’s global village, the world is connected in ways large and small.

“Switzerland is very interested in the U.S. election,” Balmer says. “The Swiss did, and still do, like Mr. Obama. They get a bit nervous with the extremely religious, conservative movements trying to get into the White House, so there is lots of interest. There is also lots of skepticism right now with the whole financial situation with the United States and the European Union (E.U.).

“Switzerland is not in the E.U. They voted against it, which turned out to be a very good decision. Switzerland is amazingly stable and secure. With the strong Swiss Franc (stronger than the U.S. dollar) and the Euro getting weaker, you would think that Switzerland would have big troubles, but it’s not. The country mainly exports its goods, so this should all really be hurting, but nothing really bad is happening yet. There’s very low unemployment here.”

Balmer initially worked as an aerobics instructor when he entered the country, then joined Swissair in 1990, going through an unofficial apprenticeship to learn the airport business in the cargo arena. Today, he works for Schneider & Cie AG, a Swiss logistics company, as an air freight operator.

He says Switzerland is a country that enables its citizens to work, offering apprenticeship programs to those who can’t go to college, and maintaining a level of benefits for all that would amaze Americans.

“An amazing moment came when I got that first job with Swissair,” Balmer remembers. “I sat down at a desk and signed a contract that offered me four weeks paid vacation, insurance, extra money for a child, and a 13th paycheck before I even started working. I did not have to prove anything or invest time for two years before getting two weeks unpaid vacation.

“This security is something that American workers should also be getting. After 10 years with Swissair, I had more than $200,000 pension money. I think you get the picture.”

He says that family members in the States are worried about financial cuts in education, public services, retirement funds, and medical insurance, but those kind of problems don’t exist in Switzerland.

“People here pay taxes and those taxes are used effectively and efficiently,” Balmer says. “Every country has its conservative right, or Tea Party. Here it is the SVP Party. Those party members may be a bit extreme against foreigners and crime, but they are also wealthy business owners, employing hundreds of workers.

“Their businesses also have to offer the minimum of four weeks paid vacation, a 13th paycheck, three months full pay after getting fired, etc. They have to offer these wonderful things because it is the law. It is laid in cement, part of the country’s foundation, and that really feels good.”

The cultural differences are many, he says, starting with seeing topless women at the pools and edges of lakes. But alas, he adds, in the 1990s that practice ended as information about sun exposure and breast cancer spread.

“I see it once in awhile now, but only when the woman’s lying on a towel,” Balmer says, with a smile. “They don’t get up and walk around anymore like it was completely normal. Other cultural differences? There’s the old buildings and history. The precision of this small country with its 8 million people. Trains, trams, buses, etc. take you everywhere and are on time.”

All this occurs, he notes, in a country where Germans, French, Italians and Austrians meet and interact with the Swiss, speaking four different languages. Balmer now speaks German (the majority language in Switzerland) fluently, as well as English.

How hard was it for an American to fit in this mosaic? Balmer says he spent much of his childhood moving from place to place with hippie parents who took their large family across America, forcing him to constantly make new friends wherever they went.

“This whole journey has been an amazing experience; better than college, or anything else that I could think of,” Balmer says. “Could you imagine just leaving your home for a foreign country, starting a family, working, raising a family and never, ever returning? It was absolutely unexpected, but my upbringing and my extremely social ways were completely designed for such an adventure.

“I was so fascinated by Europe from the get go that I had very few worries about my decision to stay. I am a professional at fitting in, making friends with everyone, regardless of color or religion. I take great pride in that quality. I’m home now in this country. My kids are here, and I would not be happy leaving them behind. This is where my heart is now.”

If you’re interested in visiting Switzerland, Balmer recommends checking out the canyons of Bern, Chillon Castle in Montreux, Lake Lucerne, The Matterhorn, and more. “My favorite restaurant in Zürich is an Italian pizzeria called Cucina (www.cucinarestaurant.ch). Second would be the fantastic vegetarian family restaurant Hiltl!, right by the world famous Bahnhofstrasse shopping area.”

June 3, 2012

‘Addams Family’ shares love and laughter

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment at 4:27 pm by dinaheng

The creepy, kooky, and oftentimes spooky, Addams Family is touring the country in a musical tale that shares what happens when the characters created by cartoonist Charles Addams face every parent’s nightmare — the day their child falls in love with someone who’s… well, not exactly an ideal in-law.

In this stage version, morbid little Wednesday has grown up to be a young woman who’s fallen in love with Lucas Beineke, a “normal,” intelligent guy from a respectable family. What happens when the two families meet will have audiences laughing in both expected and unexpected ways.

“The basis of any family is love, and how people get manipulated because of love is something audiences will relate to,” says Courtney Wolfson, who plays Wednesday Addams in the national touring company of “The Addams Family.”

“In the show, Wednesday is now between 18 and 20. She’s still a dark, grim, morbid little girl, but is now in love with a guy who doesn’t make her feel dark and grim. He makes her want to wear yellow dresses and play with a yellow birdie. Before she commits to announcing their engagement, she wants the families to meet to see if they’ll get along, and asks her father not to tell her mother about the engagement.”

The show, which runs June 5-17 at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, includes the familiar Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Grandma, Wednesday, Pugsley and Lurch characters, as well as the Addams family ancestors, and the Beineke family.

Originally conceived as a satire on the ideal American family, cartoonist Addams created  an eccentric, wealthy clan that was into the bizarre and macabre, blissfully unaware that their strange ways frightened “normal” people. The characters went on to appear in a hit  mid-1960s TV comedy and 1990s feature films, spoofing the idea of what’s “normal” in society.

In the 2010 Broadway production that ended last New Year’s Eve, Wolfson played the Crazy Bride Ancestor and was the under-study for Wednesday Addams. She has also appeared in the Broadway revival of “Les Misérables” and in the first national tour of “Legally Blonde: The Musical.”

“No matter who you are, or what stage of life you’re in, you’ll find a character in ‘The Addams Family’ to relate to,” Wolfson says. “There’s love, distrust and deceit, like in any family. The creators of the show and the director have been tweaking things every couple of months. It’s been so great to have them involved.”

The tweaks have resulted in the launch of a Brazilian “Addams Family” tour, and a planned Australian version.

Being in the U.S. touring company has been great fun for Wolfson, who says the cast picks up every Monday to travel to a new city.  Each hotel room becomes home for a week, and while cast members are her family on the road, it’s also nice to have her chihuahua along for the journey, as well.

“The scenery’s always changing,” she says. “I just came from Grand Rapids, Mich., where we were on Eastern Time, and flew to San Diego, where I went right on stage for the show on Pacific Time. You just get used to it.

“I did the Broadway production for nine months, and now I’ve been on the road for nine months. We’re so lucky to see the country, and bring the show to audiences who might never have the chance to see a Broadway show otherwise.”

For tour dates and information, check out http://www.theaddamsfamilymusicaltour.com/.