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[Editor's Note: The post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]

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By Govindini Murty & Jason Apuzzo. This year marks the 60th Anniversary of On the Waterfront, the winner of the Best Picture Oscar for 1954. In honor of this weekend’s Oscars, we’re taking a look at what still makes this film such a timeless classic. We had the pleasure of seeing On the Waterfront last year at the TCM Classic Film Festival with star Eva Marie Saint in attendance. It was truly a delight to hear the lovely Ms. Saint talk in person about working with such brilliant talents as Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, and Karl Malden – and the full interview featuring Ms. Saint’s discussion with Robert Osborne, followed by screenings of three of her films, including On the Waterfront, will air March 31, 2014 on TCM.

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For those unfamiliar with the film, On the Waterfront tells the story of Terry Malloy (Brando), an ex-boxer turned longshoreman who struggles with his conscience when a criminal investigation into waterfront crime puts him at odds with a corrupt union boss (Lee J. Cobb) and his own brother (Rod Steiger). Inspired by a tough local priest (Karl Malden), and stirred by a touching, guilt-ridden love affair with Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), Terry eventually turns away from his complicity in waterfront crime and sparks a labor revolt against the corrupt boss.

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Embraced by both audiences and critics, the gritty and emotional film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards – eventually winning eight, including the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Saint) and Best Director (Kazan).

Filmed documentary-style in bitter cold on location at the Hoboken docks, On the Waterfront exhibits the kind of earthy realism that many studio-bound productions of the 1950s avoided. As Kazan noted in his autobiography, “[t]he bite of the wind and the temperature did a great thing for the actors’ faces: It made them look like people, not actors – in fact, like people who lived in Hoboken and suffered the cold because they had no choice.”

The film further created a sensation due to parallels between Terry Malloy’s testimony before the film’s waterfront crime commission and Elia Kazan’s controversial appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1952, during which he’d been pressured to ‘name names’ of estranged former colleagues alleged to have been communists. Indeed, On the Waterfront in its day not only became a gritty poem of the American working class, but also Kazan’s plea against conformity – both of the communist and McCarthyite variety.

Whatever one thinks of Kazan’s questionable behavior – the true motivation of which remains obscure – the artistry of his film has never been in doubt. Indeed, controversies over the film’s politics have abated in the sixty years since On the Waterfront’s release, and what remains today is a stark, austere, almost religious masterpiece that derives its strength from the honesty of its emotions – unencumbered by the usual Hollywood trappings of celebrity narcissism, violent action or visual effects.

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Indeed, seeing On the Waterfront on the Chinese Theatre’s gigantic screen during the TCM Classic Film Festival reminded us again of why simple human truth in storytelling – particularly as conveyed by expressive faces in close-up – is always so compelling. On the Waterfront emerged out of the tradition of documentary realism – standing midway between the Italian Neorealism of films like Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Fellini’s La Strada that arose out of the ashes of WWII, and the later avant-garde realism of the French New Wave films of Truffaut and Godard. On the Waterfront found the ideal, humanistic point between these two styles, and in the process created its own, uniquely American idiom – one featuring strongly defined, heroic characters, expressive film noir photography, and a poignant clash between group conformity and individual integrity. Continue reading »

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[Editor's Note: the post below appeared yesterday at The Huffington Post.]

By Govindini Murty. One of the enduring hopes of the digital age is that technology can break down the barriers between peoples and races. Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson explore this idea first hand in their compelling new documentary American Promise. A film thirteen years in the making, American Promise follows two African-American boys (one of them Brewster and Stephenson’s own son) from first grade through high-school, showing the challenges and opportunities young black men face in today’s education system. Currently playing in select theaters nationwide, American Promise expands to additional cities this week and will air on PBS in February of 2014.

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From "American Promise."

Winner of a Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, American Promise follows Idris Brewster and his friend Seun Summers as they attend The Dalton School, an elite private school in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Despite the high hopes of their parents and teachers that Idris and Seun will succeed as part of the school’s diversity program, the boys have trouble dealing with the pressures of their environment. In part this is because Idris and Seun have learning disorders that go undiagnosed for years, and in part it’s because neither boy feels at home in the predominantly WASP culture of Dalton. Ultimately, Idris and Seun must balance their needs for self-determination with the high expectations of their successful, hard-charging parents.

Ever since the pioneering anthropological documentaries of Robert Flaherty and Merian C. Cooper in the 1920s, and Albert and David Maysles ‘direct cinema’ documentaries of the ’60s and ’70s, the cinema has played a powerful role in collapsing the distinctions between peoples and creating a sense of empathy and common humanity.

Michael Apted’s acclaimed 7-Up documentaries took this idea a step further. An inspiration to Brewster and Stephenson, the series documented the lives of a group of fourteen English children at seven-year intervals, beginning in 1964 and continuing through today. The 7-Up series (the kind of project known in sociology as a ‘longitudinal study’) took advantage of the cinema’s ability to master time, using the movie camera as an all-seeing eye to examine human lives over the course of decades.

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From "American Promise."

The observational capabilities of the cinema have been further expanded by the digital revolution, with low-cost digital cameras making possible the kind of lengthy, first-person videography that comprises American Promise. A classic longitudinal study, American Promise draws on an impressive accumulation of thirteen years of footage to distill insights about families and children that otherwise would go unnoticed in the rush of day-to-day life.

As a result, American Promise elicits lessons that apply not just to African-American children, but to all children as they navigate the shoals of childhood and adolescence. As co-director Joe Brewster noted when we spoke at Sundance, “when people see the film, they get so immersed in the characters, these become their kids.”

The monumental size of the American Promise project required a special level of commitment from the filmmakers and their talented crew. As I chatted with American Promise’s editors and videographers at Sundance (in the photo below with Brewster & Stephenson), it became clear what a labor of love the film had been for them. Editors Erin Casper, Mary Manhardt, and Andrew Siwoff and cinematographers Errol Webber, Alfredo Alcantara, Margaret Byrne, and Jon Stuyvesant all deserve kudos for their work. Continue reading »

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[Editor's Note: the post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]

By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. Shia LaBeouf can’t keep still.

That’s what stands out when you meet the voluble 27 year-old star of the new indie thriller-romance Charlie Countryman, which opens in limited theatrical release and on VOD this Friday, November 15th. The hustling young man we’ve gotten to know in the Transformers and Indiana Jones movies – the fast-talking, nebbishy tough guy with a big heart, always improvising, always on the move – is very much the same guy in person.

Charlie Countryman premiered at Sundance earlier this year (back when it was called The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman), where we talked to LaBeouf, co-star Evan Rachel Wood, and director Fredrik Bond at the film’s press day.

Govindini Murty and Shia LaBoeuf at Sundance 2013.

Charlie Countryman takes LaBeouf in a direction familiar to anyone who remembers him playing impulsive teenager Sam Witwicky in 2007’s Transformers: that of a sentimental hot-head on a hopeless quest for a girl, comedically improvising his way into and out of one scrape after another.

“It’s not a humongous departure from my real life,” LaBeouf said at the press day. “This is a guy who thinks with his heart, rather than his mind … and who doesn’t show a lot of caution toward consequences, which isn’t far from who I am.”

Charlie Countryman follows LaBeouf on a wild, hallucinogenic vision-quest through post-communist Bucharest as he pursues a world-weary femme fatale cellist named Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood), while battling over her with a pair of unhinged Euro-mobsters (Mads Mikkelsen and Til Schweiger). Infused with heart-on-your-sleeve sentimentality by director Fredrik Bond, the film is both a coming-of-age story for Charlie and a picaresque, ‘everyman’-style thriller reminiscent of the novels of Eric Ambler (The Mask of Dimitrios, Journey into Fear).

Rounding out the film’s impressive cast are Rupert Grint as one of Charlie’s drug-crazed buddies, Vincent D’Onofrio as Charlie’s depressive brother, and Melissa Leo as Charlie’s hippyish mother – with LaBeouf’s Indiana Jones co-star John Hurt providing narration.

Charlie Countryman’s biggest star, however, may be Bucharest itself – which the film presents as an exotic, old world blend of high culture and low-life gangsterism, still adjusting to the post-Cold War world. LaBeouf’s nocturnal adventures in Bucharest – a darkly glamorous city that somehow seems trapped in a 1990s time warp – often feel like an MTV version of Joseph Cotton’s nighttime journeys through crime-ridden, post-War Vienna in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

Shia LaBeouf and Jason Apuzzo at Sundance 2013.

LaBeouf lights up on the subject of Bucharest, gesticulating and going into one of his typical, animated riffs. “I arrived quite ignorant, you know – I’m an ignorant American,” he quips. “I haven’t really done much traveling beyond my work life. I never really picked up a Romanian book, or decided to study Romanian.

“But you get there, and you hear about [former Romanian communist leader Nicolae] Ceaușescu, you get to the [Revolution] Square, you see where the blood fell, talk to these people – you know, some people who still want communism, who are upset that it’s gone – and you don’t quite understand what that’s about …

“I’ve heard people say that we have dated villains [in Charlie Countryman] – that’s because … Romania is dated – it’s 10 years behind. They’re still playing the ‘Thong Song’ in clubs,” he cracks. “It’s no joke, so this is part of the world of these dudes [the film's gangster villains]. It’s not artificial – this is what we ran into.

“And it’s very sexy,” he smiles. Continue reading »

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By Govindini Murty. This Veterans Day, please take the time to thank our veterans for their service – and also think about how you can honor the ideals of freedom, civilization, and democracy that they fight for.

The first and best way to do this is by learning about history. Knowledge of history is critical for providing a sense of context to our lives and for also offering fascinating parallels that can illuminate the present day.

One of the best WWII historical documentaries I’ve seen in recent years is Murry Sidlin’s Defiant Requiem, which screened earlier this year on PBS and has just become available on Netflix. Defiant Requiem tells the heartbreaking story of the Jewish prisoners of the concentration camp Terezin who, led by conductor Rafael Schächter, defied their Nazi captors by performing Verdi’s Requiem.

The documentary brings home in the most powerful way why it was so important that the free nations of the world fought so valiantly in WWII to defeat the Nazis and Axis powers – and why we must continue to fight for freedom today to make sure such atrocities never happen again.

The courageous prisoners of Terezin themselves might not have fought with arms, but they fought for the human spirit under the most difficult of circumstances by preserving the arts, humanities, and all the civilized values that the Nazis worked so hard to extinguish. They did this by creating an “accidental university” at Terezin, giving thousands of lectures on history, art, philosophy, religion, and science; by writing literature, poetry, and plays; and by creating numerous paintings, drawings, and artworks – and by giving concerts, most notably of Verdi’s Requiem, with its powerful, universal message of justice and redemption.

Renowned conductor Murry Sidlin, who founded the Defiant Requiem Foundation and its Rafael Schächter Institute for Arts and Humanities to bring light to the history of the Terezin prisoners, was honored earlier this year with the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Medal of Valor for his efforts.

We had the chance to speak with Murry Sidlin earlier this year about Defiant Requiem and his extraordinary work to keep alive the memory of Rafael Schächter and the prisoners of Terezin. Every year, the Defiant Requiem Foundation carries out reenactments of the Verdi concert at Terezin and a multitude of other locations. The foundation’s Rafael Schächter Institute also hosts educational activities every summer at Terezin to keep alive the memory of the prisoners’ artistic and humanistic efforts.  As the institute’s website states, these activities “honor the prisoners’ act of choosing to learn, to listen, to discuss, and to be educationally and artistically enriched, amidst brutality, impoverishment, terror, and inhuman deprivation.”

You can seen Defiant Requiem on Netflix and can read more of our Huffington Post interview with Murry Sidlin.

Other excellent historical films worth viewing this Veterans Day include Patton, The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, and Bridge on the River Kwai. These films have an epic scope and intelligence that continues to make them compelling viewing. Watching them has also inspired me to learn more about history. This summer I finally sat and read Ladislas Farago’s superb biography Patton: Ordeal and Triumph, and came to a much better understanding of WWII and how crucial the brilliant tactics, speed, and daring of generals like General George S. Patton were to winning the war. Continue reading »

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[Editor's Note: the post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]

By Govindini Murty. There are few things more important than the energy that powers our civilization. And yet, generating that energy involves difficult trade offs between human progress and the environment. Whether it was Prometheus who stole fire from the gods or Pandora who opened Zeus’ box, the human desire for knowledge and development has often conflicted with nature’s implacable will.

Nothing symbolizes this more in the modern age than nuclear power. Academy Award-nominated director Robert Stone’s provocative new documentary Pandora’s Promise, airing November 7th on CNN, takes a surprising look at this most controversial of energy technologies. I saw Pandora’s Promise earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and interviewed Robert Stone in person about this much-debated film.

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Robert Stone "Pandora's Promise."

Pandora’s Promise interviews a series of notable environmentalists who were formerly anti-nuclear activists but who changed their minds and became proponents of nuclear energy (director Robert Stone himself made this journey). Stewart Brand, Michael Shellenberger, Mark Lynas, and Gwyneth Craven make their case for why nuclear power (which gives off no CO2 emissions) is the best option for fulfilling the rapidly growing energy needs of the planet without increasing fossil fuel consumption.

Although I had a considerable bar of skepticism to overcome given the high-profile nuclear accidents that have occurred, the film did take the time to examine these. Stone and his subjects traveled to the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nuclear plants and examined the design flaws that led to their infamous accidents (Chernobyl, for example, had no containment structure). The film argues that such reactors would never be built today.

Pandora’s Promise also interviews nuclear scientists about what it states are the vastly better fourth generation of nuclear reactors (for which Bill Gates is funding some of the research) that can recycle their own fuel and are impossible to melt down. The film contrasts this with the thousands of coal power plants that are being built in China and the developing world today at enormous environmental cost.

A cube of uranium in "Pandora's Promise."

While I don’t know if nuclear energy is the answer (I’d like to know a lot more first), Pandora’s Promise did open my eyes to the costs of renewable energy, such as with wind and solar (wind uses oil and gas-powered backup generators, solar panels are toxic to manufacture). It also inspired me to think that there may be cleaner, more high-tech options on the horizon to generate energy – options we don’t even know about, but that are worth rigorously investigating.

Beyond the specific issue of nuclear energy, however, the most interesting aspect of Pandora’s Promise is that it highlights the ethical imperative of using science to lift billions of people around the world out of poverty. This focus on improving human lives and alleviating poverty is notably missing from many discussions of the subject.

For example, when I lived a year in Borneo as a teenager while my mother worked on an agricultural development project, the tribes-people we visited in the rainforest would raise the question: why should they remain poor and undeveloped while we in the West enjoyed all the comforts of electricity and technology? Similarly, a bright and idealistic cousin of mine who works in the electric utilities field in India asked me what right the developed world has to demand that India not build more power plants when electricity is crucial to improving the lives of hundreds of millions of their poor? Continue reading »

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From "Gravity."

[Editor's Note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post.]

By Govindini Murty. Gravity is the number one movie in America for the second week in a row and has just passed the $200 million mark at the worldwide box office. It’s a triumph for star Sandra Bullock and for the cause of women in film – and it’s also a triumph for real science-based movies and 3D cinema technology.

Let’s start with the first point: it’s truly refreshing that Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Carter, is depicted in Gravity as an intelligent professional. I recently wrote that we needed more movies conveying ambitious visions for women – movies in which women have the opportunity to carry out significant deeds of intelligence, creativity, and heroism. Gravity is exactly this kind of film.

Gravity establishes from the beginning that Bullock’s character is in space because she has invented a groundbreaking medical imaging technology that NASA has decided to install in the Hubble Space Telescope for astronomical use. A medical doctor and not a trained astronaut, Dr. Carter’s skills are considered so integral to the mission that she has been given six months of astronaut training and has spent a full week in space in order to install the delicate technology in the multi-billion dollar Hubble.

As she carries out this mission and deals with its harrowing aftermath, Bullock’s character repeatedly displays a strength that is of the inner type. She has no superpowers or super-weapons: she is a real human being and when she is faced with extraordinary danger, she finds a stoic, inner self-sufficiency to survive. This is why the film has proven so inspiring to audiences.

Sci-fi has been dominated for some time by monsters, robots, clones, and caped superheroes – but these sorts of movies have underperformed lately and it seems that what audiences may be looking for now is not just surface spectacle (though there is impressive spectacle in Gravity), but inner character. The fact that Gravity has made over $200 million at the box office in under two weeks by devoting itself to the close examination of a female character’s emotional journey is a victory for strong women’s roles in science fiction.

The Hubble Space Telescope.

Second, Gravity is a triumph for sci-fi movies based on real NASA science. NASA and JPL’s programs have proven highly popular with the public, yet Hollywood has made few real astronomy-based movies in recent years. Director Alfonso Cuarón has found a smart way to use NASA’s real space efforts (including the genuine collaboration between medical imaging and space science) as the catalyst for a poignant human story. He and his team have done this through realism: realism in depicting cutting-edge space technologies, realism in crafting detailed, pristine special effects, and most importantly, realism in the film’s characters.

I recently spoke about Gravity with NASA/ JPL Public Services Representative Marc Razze on the occasion of the Theodore von Kármán lecture at JPL. Razze told me that Gravity had proven popular with the scientists at JPL for capturing the emotions that they experience in their own research and missions to outer space. Razze noted: “From the folks I’ve talked to, including myself, we all enjoyed it …[in particular] the psychological component everybody seemed to really enjoy – it puts you in that place, where, if that happened, what would you do?”

And while Razze acknowledged the debate over the location of the Hubble and the space stations in the film – “all of those spacecraft don’t necessarily orbit in the same orbits” – he added that the movie did hew to realism by depicting the lack of sound in space. “I love the way they really made it silent, the way they emphasize that.”

Finally, the enormous success of Gravity shows that 3D cinema is here to stay. Over 80% of Gravity’s box office on its first two weekends came from 3D screenings – an even higher percentage than Avatar. 3D is clearly the wave of the future and is being integrated into the next generation of consumer technologies and much more. News even came out recently that Disney researchers are developing a tactile 3D technology that will allow people to “feel” textures and shapes on flat screens. Continue reading »

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