LFM’s Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty at The Huffington Post: Voices Raised in Resistance: Powerful Defiant Requiem Premieres on PBS Sunday, April 7
[Editor's Note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post.]
By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. If a hallmark of great art is its ability to transcend the limited circumstances of its creation, then there is no more heartbreaking realization of this than the 1944 performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Catholic Requiem by Jewish prisoners at the Nazi concentration camp Terezín. The story of Terezín and of the Requiem is told eloquently in director Doug Shultz’s powerful new documentary Defiant Requiem, which premieres this Sunday, April 7, on PBS at 10 p.m. ET/PT (check listings for additional screenings on local PBS stations).
It was at Terezín in 1944 that imprisoned Czech conductor Rafael Schächter led a chorus of his fellow Jewish prisoners — most of them doomed to the gas chambers at Auschwitz — in brazenly performing Verdi’s Requiem before the very Nazis who had condemned them to death. One of the most complex and demanding of chorale works, Verdi’s 1874 Requiem was originally intended as a musical rendition of the Catholic funeral mass. Rafael Schächter took Verdi’s music and transformed it into a universal statement, one proclaiming the prisoners’ unbroken spirit and warning of God’s coming wrath against their Nazi captors.
Defiant Requiem tells two parallel stories: the first takes place during World War II, when Jews throughout Europe were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Terezín as part of an elaborate deception to convince the world that Germany treated its prisoners humanely. Among those arrested and dragged to Terezín in 1941 was the young Rafael Schächter, a courageous and steadfast Czech opera-choral conductor.
Distinguished American conductor Murry Sidlin, who discovered the history of Schächter and the Terezín performers in the ’90s, and who went on to found and conduct the Defiant Requiem concerts, notes in the film that “Schächter would have emerged as a great conductor” had his life not been cut short by the Nazis.
Within the confines of Terezín, Schächter lifted the spirits of his fellow inmates by creating a musical program for them to perform — a program that inspired an astonishing outburst of cultural activity, which would eventually include almost a thousand different performances of chamber music and operas, oratorios and jazz music, theatrical plays, and some 2,300 different lectures and literary readings. Included in this were 16 performances of Verdi’s emotional and musically challenging Requiem. As Terezín survivor Zdenka Fantlova explains in the film: “Doing a performance was not entertainment. It was a fight for life.” She later adds, “If people are robbed of freedom, they want to be creative.”
This flurry of activity within the walls of the prison camp — achieved under the most trying possible circumstances of starvation, disease, and abject cruelty — would culminate in a performance on June 23, 1944, of the Requiem in front of the camp’s Nazi brass, visiting high-ranking SS officers from Berlin, and gullible Red Cross inspectors brought in to verify that the prisoners were being well treated.
It was at this point that Verdi’s Requiem, with its dark, apocalyptic Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) choral passage — evoking the Last Judgement — and equally harrowing Libera me (“Deliver me”) passage took on connotations that Verdi could hardly have imagined. Serving as both a spiritual catharsis for the prisoners, and as a prophecy of the Nazis’ ultimate fate, the Requiem was immediately transformed by Schächter and his fellow prisoners into an anthem of divine supplication and retribution. Indeed, shortly after this final performance, both Schächter and most of his choir would be sent to Auschwitz.
Defiant Requiem’s second, parallel story takes place in 2006, as Murry Sidlin brings a full orchestra and the Catholic University of America’s chorale ensemble — along with surviving members of Schächter’s chorus — back to Terezin to perform the Requiem once more, this time in tribute. (Sidlin continues to conduct such tribute performances of the Requiem, with concerts scheduled for The Lincoln Center on April 29 and Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral on June 6.)
The journey to Terezín is clearly a spiritual quest for Sidlin (who has since founded The Defiant Requiem Foundation), who views the modern performance of the Requiem at Terezín as the completion of something begun seventy years before. As Sidlin says at one point in the film: “I brought the Verdi here because I want to assure these people [Schächter and the deceased prisoners] that we’ve heard them.” Sidlin’s staging of the Requiem in the now unassuming confines of Terezín is powerful and gripping — and serves, one senses, as the perfect tribute to Schächter and his fellow performers.
Highlighting the role that individuals can play in keeping important cultural history alive, it was Sidlin’s discovery of the book Music at Terezín in the late ’90s, and his subsequent championing of the concert series, that has brought the otherwise forgotten history of Rafael Schächter and the Terezín Requiem performances back to life. It is a culmination both of Sidlin’s passion for music and of his own personal history; Sidlin’s grandmother and many of her closest relatives were murdered outside Riga, Latvia by Nazi SS assassination squads during World War II.
This June, Sidlin will be awarded the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Medal of Valor for his efforts to commemorate Rafael Schächter and the Terezín prisoners.
[Editor's Note: the post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]
By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. Freedom must thrive for the arts to flourish. It’s therefore an encouraging sign that so many of 2012’s most acclaimed films – such as Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Les Misérables, or Skyfall – should explore the centrality of freedom to our civilization. As we celebrate 2012 in film, it’s fitting that we honor movies that affirm the very liberty that makes our art, our traditions of free speech, and our democratic form of government possible.
Whether depicting historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, or pop-culture icons like James Bond and Katniss Everdeen, or contemporary dissidents like China’s Ai Weiwei and Russia’s Masha Drokova, the movies below illustrate how freedom only survives when brave individuals are willing to risk their lives fighting for it. These films also depict the virtues that accompany such bravery: a strong individual conscience and empathetic feelings of responsibility toward one’s fellow human beings.
Many of this year’s best pro-freedom films also portray the bravery of women. In a refreshing development, movies like Zero Dark Thirty, Barbara, The Hunger Games, and Putin’s Kiss all feature complex, independent women as their leads – while Skyfall, in the character of “M” (Judi Dench), features a strong woman in a pivotal leadership role. This is another way in which these movies powerfully affirm the democratic spirit.
Here then are our ten best pro-freedom films of 2012:
1. Zero Dark Thirty
A taut and intense account of the almost ten year hunt for Osama bin Laden, director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty captures the emotional and ethical complexity of the War on Terror – while unfolding a vast, investigative mystery that takes audiences from secret CIA bases in Afghanistan, to the corridors of power in Washington D.C., to the urban mazes of Pakistan. Leading this historic manhunt is an indomitable young CIA analyst named Maya, played with steely resolve by Jessica Chastain, who for nearly a decade tracks down bin Laden’s courier on the way to locating the terrorist mastermind. Scrupulously non-partisan, Zero Dark Thirty gives primary credit for bin Laden’s demise not to any politician – but to sober career intelligence professionals as well as military personnel, a tragic number of whom gave their lives in pursuit of Al Qaeda’s leader. Telling their story with a refreshingly understated realism, Zero Dark Thirty honors these largely anonymous men and women who protect our freedom in an increasingly dangerous and chaotic world.
Germany’s official Oscar entry and winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director (Christian Petzold) at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, Barbara is the most compelling depiction since The Lives of Others of day-to-day life in a modern surveillance state – in this case the communist East Germany of the early 1980s. Nina Hoss gives a complex, Oscar-worthy performance as a pediatric surgeon whose desire to leave East Germany puts her under the watchful eye of the Stasi (the secret police), and of a conflicted, would-be lover played by Ronald Zehrfeld. Austere and suspenseful, Barbara is one Germany’s best dramas since the 1970s, and an indictment of any society in which allegiance to a political system overwhelms common humanity.
Director Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln brings the story of The Great Emancipator to life in a way that is both respectful of our 16th President’s achievements and alive to his humanity. In perhaps the richest depiction of Abraham Lincoln since Henry Fonda’s in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Daniel Day-Lewis brings warmth, interiority and conviction to a man charged with the weightiest responsibilities in American history – as both slavery and the fate of the Union hang in the balance. Lincoln also highlights the value of eloquence in free societies; in recounting the sometimes baroque political backstory behind passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Spielberg suggests that it was Lincoln’s poetic oratory as much as any other factor that ended slavery in America for good.
4. The Other Dream Team
One of the best sports documentaries in recent years, and a highlight of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, director Marius A. Markevičius’ The Other Dream Team tells the emotional story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team – a symbol of freedom and Lithuanian national pride after decades of Soviet rule. The film tells the improbable tale of how Lithuanian basketball talents like future NBA stars Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Marčiulionis came to dominate Soviet basketball in the 1980s (even defeating Team USA in the 1988 Olympics) – only to face off against Russia in the ‘92 Barcelona Games, wearing tie dyed uniforms provided by The Grateful Dead (!), after Lithuania had just won its hard-fought independence. A moving and uplifting piece of Cold War history, The Other Dream Team is as much a tribute to the courage of the Lithuanian people in the face of communist tyranny as it is to the inspirational power of sports.
One of the best James Bond thrillers since the 1970s, director Sam Mendes’ Skyfall reinvents 007 as a hero for the War on Terror era – and thoughtfully affirms the value of our intelligence agencies in the post-9/11 world. In Skyfall, information pertaining to NATO penetration of worldwide Islamic terror cells has been stolen in Istanbul, and Bond must retrieve the data before Western agents are exposed and killed – the opening act of an elaborate revenge plot orchestrated by the sociopathic Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). In a film rife with references to Winston Churchill and his legacy, Bond and his colleagues are depicted as reflexively selfless in the cause of freedom – and Dame Judi Dench’s quotation of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” as both she and Britain come under attack, packs an unusually stirring punch for a Bond film.
[Editor's note: the post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]
By Jason Apuzzo. It’s by far the biggest, best and most surprising entertainment news of 2012, yet still no one knows quite what to make of it: starting in 2015 we’re getting a new Star Wars trilogy, beginning with Episode VII, supervised by George Lucas and produced by Disney.
As Darth Vader might say, there’s “a tremor in the Force.” The question is: what will this new Star Wars look like, now that we don’t have Emperor Palpatine to kick around any more?
There’s certainly been nothing like this news in Hollywood in years, with rumors swirling around about the new Star Wars films almost on a daily basis. What will the new storyline be? Who will direct the films? Will Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford make a cameo? Did Boba Fett survive the Sarlacc Pit?
And will SPECTRE or the Miami Heat be the new villains?
It seems incredible that overnight Star Wars has managed to reinvent itself – again – and become the biggest, most talked-about sci-fi franchise around. (Imagine what James Cameron must be thinking right now.) The question on everyone’s mind, though, is what exactly a new Star Wars trilogy will look like with limited involvement from George Lucas, the original cast having hit retirement age, many crucial characters gone, and having to pick up where 1983’s Return of the Jedi left off – i.e., with Ewoks playing victorious drum solos on Stormtrooper helmets.
In other words, what is the ‘essence’ of a Star Wars film now that the series can’t lean on standbys like Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi or exploding Death Stars anymore?
For clues to this mystery, it’s best to go back to the 1970s, the fabulous era – at least, for science fiction fans – when Star Wars was born.
Although the 1950s are justifiably regarded as science fiction’s Golden Age, the era of the 1970s easily rates a close second. It was the period when science fiction finally replaced the Western as the great American movie genre.
To be fair, what we’re calling ‘the ’70s’ here probably began around 1968 with the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, and didn’t end till around 1984, with the release of The Terminator. So maybe we should call this sci-fi’s ‘modern’ era – or simply ‘the Star Wars era.’ Science fiction had a distinctive flavor during this period – it was darker, more realistic, and also more emotional – and Star Wars set the tone for the time.
It was also during this era that science fiction became more popular than ever – more popular even than comic book movies are today – dominating both the box office and prime time television.
Of the top 15 highest grossing movies of all time adjusted for inflation, four are sci-fi films from this period: the original Star Wars trilogy, plus Steven Spielberg’s E.T. A host of other films from this time – Alien, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, just to name a few – are similarly regarded as classics. Plus, television series like The Six Million Dollar Man (and its spin-off, The Bionic Woman), Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century were huge hits – with the Galactica franchise still around with us today.
So how did they do it back then? What made sci-fi of this period so wildly popular?
The key thing to understand about ’70s or Star Wars-era sci-fi was how it revised and updated a genre that had gotten old and slightly creaky (think Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). It did so in three major ways:
1) Science fiction became more realistic.
The big leap forward in sci-fi ‘realism’ came in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Kubrick made after consulting with scientists and engineers at NASA and MIT, and after devising new visual effects techniques like front projection. After 2001, which played out like a Cinerama documentary shot in space, sci-fi films couldn’t afford to look anymore like they were shot in your parents’ garage (even if they were).
LFM’s Jason Apuzzo at The Huffington Post and AOL-Moviefone: What a Surveillance State Looks Like: Barbara Revisits Cold War East Germany
By Jason Apuzzo. Imagine being subjected to 24-hour secret police surveillance, or being surrounded by informers at your place of work – whose mission is to gain your confidence in order to evaluate your loyalty to the state.
Or imagine being subjected to random body searches, conducted by capricious security officials with too much time on their hands. (OK, admittedly we already have that – even if only at our nation’s airports.)
For the most part, however, Americans only have a dim sense of what it’s like to live in a truly repressive society – such as East Germany was behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. And this, ultimately, is the true value of director Christian Petzold’s gripping new film Barbara, which starts its U.S. theatrical run in December and recently screened at the AFI Festival in Hollywood. Germany’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Barbara is the most compelling depiction since The Lives of Others of day-to-day life in a modern surveillance state, in this case the communist East Germany of the early 1980s.
Already the winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director (Christian Petzold) at the Berlin Film Festival, Barbara stars Nina Hoss in the title role as a pediatric surgeon whose promising career at the prestigious Charité hospital in East Berlin is cut short when she files for an Ausreiseantrag, officially expressing her desire to leave East Germany. A terse and enigmatic blonde, Dr. Barbara Wolff also happens to be in the midst of a torrid, secret affair with a West German businessman – who’s quietly arranging for her escape to the West, as he makes officially sanctioned business trips into East Germany.
As punishment for her desire to leave East Germany, Barbara is sent to a rural hospital near the Baltic Sea, where she works under the watchful eye of Dr. André Reiser (actor Ronald Zehrfeld), who heads a modest pediatric unit. André tries to get chummy with Barbara, which she resists – suspecting him of being an informant for the Stasi (the East German secret police), who periodically arrive at her front door to strip search her or otherwise harass her.
Just another day in East Germany’s worker-paradise, you might say.
As the story unfolds, however, Barbara slowly warms up to André, as she gradually comprehends his quiet, understated resistance to the inhumanity around them. She also grows absorbed in her clinical work with children – especially Stella, a pregnant escapee from a socialist labor camp, whose only wish is to raise her child in the freedom of the West. Barbara’s feelings of professional and personal responsibility for Stella complicate her own plans to defect, leading to the film’s suspenseful finale.
‘Understated’ really is the word for Barbara. Don’t expect lengthy speeches about tyranny, or furniture-smashing sex scenes in this film. More like an austere German drama from the 1970s (Volker Schlöndorff’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum comes to mind), Barbara gets most of its mileage out of quiet moments of drama between people who by force of circumstance are incapable of trusting each other.
As such, the film becomes a profound indictment against the type of society in which allegiance to a political system overwhelms common humanity.
Having myself visited East Germany and the Soviet Union prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and having known Soviet dissidents (including one who worked in the Kremlin), my sense is that Barbara gets the details right in terms of depicting the inauthentic, paranoid lives people led behind the Iron Curtain – particularly those with secrets to keep. The film also captures the creepy voyeurism that fuels the modern surveillance state – where the bogus imperatives of political fanatics justify shocking levels of access into people’s private lives.
Nina Hoss is already getting Oscar buzz for her performance as Barbara, and with good reason: she brings a distinctly European mixture of intelligence, world-weariness and discreet sexiness to her role. (It’s easy to imagine Deborah Kerr or Eleanor Parker playing her role in another era.) The rest of the cast fares similarly well – particularly Rainer Bock as the chief Stasi officer. By contrast, Ronald Zehrfeld sometimes seems too soft and cuddly as André, a man ostensibly doing double-duty as head of a clinic and state’s informer – but in the film’s sweeter, more intimate moments he shines.
The main takeaway of Barbara is that we don’t want our own society ever looking like East Germany does in this film – dreary, lifeless and deeply fearful. It’s a punitive, masochistic world lacking any defining features beyond those associated with mindless (and heartless) political conformity.
Of course, the totalitarian society shown in Barbara is also one that was doomed to collapse, in no small measure due to the type of quiet heroism and compassion depicted in the film. That’s Barbara’s other big takeaway – the importance of individual heroism, and fidelity to one’s conscience – and it’s a message that’s as important today as it was when the Wall came down.
Posted on November 19th, 2012 at 12:47pm.
[Editor's Note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post and AOL-Moviefone. I had the opportunity to see Skyfall at a screening of the recent AFI Festival in Hollywood, and wish to thank the AFI Festival for making that possible.]
By Jason Apuzzo. How does James Bond do it? He barely seems to have aged a day. The famously overworked British Secret Service agent, drinker of vodka martinis, and seducer of dangerous women (why are Bond’s girlfriends always pointing guns at him?) is now 50 years old in the movies — yet it hardly shows.
With Skyfall, the latest 007 thriller opening this weekend, it’s now been five decades since the Bond character debuted on screen in 1962’s Dr. No. Since that memorable first film, in which Sean Connery saved the world from a megalomaniac with metal hands — while rescuing Ursula Andress from the confines of a white bikini — James Bond has saved the world from nuclear bombs and space lasers, cheated death using jet packs and exploding cigarettes — and even found time to romance women with names like ‘Plenty O’Toole’ and ‘Xenia Onatopp.’
It’s been a busy, full life for the world’s most famous secret agent — which begs the question of why, as currently embodied by Daniel Craig in the latest film, the character suddenly seems so fresh and relevant to the world of today.
The question arises because the James Bond of Skyfall no longer seems like an exhausted relic from another era, as he often did during the ’90s and early 2000s. Instead, he now feels like a character who has been fully and (for the most part) successfully reinvented as a merciless, sardonic and lethal warrior for our age of terror.
And although Skyfall isn’t quite the classic some critics are making it out to be, it’s easily one of the best Bond films since the 1970s.
On this point, I must confess to having given up on Bond long ago. Until recently 007 was looking like a tired hero — a guy in a middle-age crisis, a character to put in the next Expendables. M needed to send Bond into retirement — maybe ship him off with a fifth of vodka and a Russian mistress (I recommend Anya Amasova, aka Agent XXX from The Spy Who Loved Me) to James Bond Island off the coast of Thailand. Even SPECTRE would probably leave him alone.
After all, with the Cold War long over (despite Vladimir Putin’s best efforts), Great Britain no longer the force it once was, and with women less eager to play characters named ‘Kissy Suzuki’ or ‘Dr. Molly Warmflash,’ you’d think 007 would be quietly boxed away in the attic by now along with vinyl records and your parents’ fondue pot.
Casino Royale in 2006 seemed to change all that, but director Sam Mendes’ Skyfall really confirms it; Bond now absolutely works as a hero for the 21st century. The question is: why?
There are three reasons, in my opinion:
1) Bond has been fully reinvented for the War on Terror era.
This process began in Casino Royale, but Skyfall digs much deeper into the purpose and mentality of our intelligence agencies in the post-9/11 world — and strongly reaffirms their value. Without giving away too much of Skyfall’s plot, suffice it to say that the entire purpose of the film is to re-invent the James Bond mythology to fit the current war, which as Judi Dench’s M memorably states is fought primarily “in the shadows” — with our enemies less likely to be nation states with massed armies than shadowy, sociopathic operators working within hidden networks.
And it’s precisely in this environment that Bond thrives.
As Skyfall opens, information pertaining to NATO penetration of worldwide Islamic terror cells has been stolen in Istanbul, and Bond has to get the data back before Western agents are exposed and killed. As the story unfolds, Bond’s value as an experienced field agent — able to make human judgments in murky situations and act, where technology alone is inadequate — is constantly reinforced, even when his physical and emotional resources are depleted.
Bond and his colleagues are also depicted as patriotic and reflexively selfless, to the point of being subtly associated with Winston Churchill and his legacy. (Look for references to Churchill’s wartime bunker along with visual cues of a vintage British bulldog.) In the midst of this, the tone of the film is more sober — and befitting of wartime — than what we’ve seen from the Bond series in a long time.
LFM’s Govindini Murty & Jason Apuzzo at The Huffington Post: A Conversation With Fashion Icon Ozwald Boateng on Style, Africa, and His New Film A Man’s Story
[Editor's Note: the article below appears today at The Huffington Post.]
By Govindini Murty & Jason Apuzzo. During his meteoric career, Ozwald Boateng’s been called the coolest man on Earth, and the fashion world’s best-kept secret. Yet the candid new documentary A Man’s Story, opening this weekend in New York and Los Angeles, makes certain that the British fashion designer and style icon no longer remains a secret.
In a career already spanning two decades, the 45 year-old Boateng has outfitted celebrities from Will Smith to Russell Crowe, from Jamie Foxx to Mick Jagger. At age 28, he became the youngest tailor – and the first of African descent – to open a store on London’s legendary Savile Row. Boateng’s also designed menswear for Givenchy and bespoke costumes for films like The Matrix and Ocean’s Thirteen, and he’s even been the subject of his own Sundance Channel TV series, House of Boateng. He’s also the recipient of an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his contributions to the clothing industry.
Throughout all this, however, Boateng’s private side – such as his quiet struggles in the rarified world of British fashion, or his efforts to foster entrepreneurial investment in Africa – have taken a back seat in public to his style innovations.
Director Varon Bonicos’ new documentary, A Man’s Story – for which Bonicos filmed Boateng from 1998 through 2010 – reveals much about Boateng’s personal life: from the challenges of growing up as a young man of African descent in London of the ’70s and ’80s, to the abiding influence of his father on his life and career. The result is a warm and often poignant film that humanizes Boateng, while doing full justice to the glamorous place he occupies in the world of men’s fashion.
We spoke with Ozwald Boateng and Varon Bonicos in Los Angeles, where they are promoting A Man’s Story. The interview has been edited for length.
GM: What is your passion for film – and in particular, how are you inspired by the intersection of film and fashion?
OB: Film has always been a really good tool for me to communicate emotion about why I create a collection. I’m probably one of the first designers to make short films. The first time I did it was back in 1994. The invite for my first fashion show was a VHS cassette. And it kind of became part of the language of my designing collections – I was always putting together short films.
Apart from that, I think fashion designers are directors anyway. We spend a year designing a collection for a fashion show that lasts maybe fifteen minutes. We have to design the look of the catwalk, cast the model for each look, work up the sound, the lighting – it’s a lot of work that goes into that fifteen minutes.
JA: Film has been so important in terms of influencing men’s style, men’s self-perceptions. I was curious whether there were film icons, movie stars who have influenced your sense of style?
OB: Sean Connery, of course, since I was a kid – you know, James Bond. Or The Thomas Crown Affair – you can’t beat those three piece suits. The Italian Job with Michael Caine – again the suits. If you’re a designer, there’s got to be some films that you’ve seen that have inspired you creatively. There’s no escaping that. Film is such a very good tool for communicating emotions, and all designers and creative people look to inspire an emotional response.
JA: You mention Connery and Bond, and he was so crucial in selling the Savile Row style here in the States.
JA: You yourself have become an icon on behalf of that style. Was that something you planned from the outset as a designer – to be so out front selling the look yourself?
OB: No, actually, I tried to stay out of it. In the early years, it was because I was a very young guy working in a very old discipline – so really, that’s tough to begin with. And then I was trying to do it in a very modern way – so again, that’s tough. Add me, visually, into the mix of all that, and that just complicates things. So for the first few years, I didn’t let anyone take any pictures of me. Basically, a lot of people had no idea what I looked like. And because my name did not necessarily sound African, a lot of people … just thought I was some kind of middle aged white guy [laughs]. So no-one actually knew what I looked like, and that was the best thing – because it allowed everyone to focus on the work.
LFM’s Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty at The Huffington Post and AOL-Moviefone: Basketball Diplomacy: An American Point Guard Becomes a Symbol of Freedom in The Iran Job
By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. NBA fans know that two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash recently joined the Los Angeles Lakers. Fans are buzzing, because the addition of Nash could soon result in a return to championship glory for the league’s most glamorous franchise. As big as Nash’s impact on the Lakers might be, however, it can’t possibly match the impact that flashy point guard Kevin Sheppard — the former Jacksonville University star and Virgin Islands native — had in 2008 on A.S. Shiraz, a professional basketball team in Iran’s Super League.
The reasons for this go beyond sports, however, because over the course of one gripping and emotional season — a season documented by director Till Schauder and producer Sara Nodjoumi in their extraordinary new documentary, The Iran Job — Sheppard becomes one of Iran’s most popular athletes, and brings a ray of hope into an increasingly repressive and isolated society.
The Iran Job screened last week in Washington, D.C., and had its world premiere recently at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where we had the chance to talk to the film’s creators.
As depicted in the film, Kevin Sheppard’s Iranian odyssey begins in the fall of 2008, when he’s offered a spot on A.S. Shiraz’s roster. Having already played professional basketball in South America, Europe, China and Israel, the voluble Sheppard is unfazed by the prospect of playing overseas — but is understandably nervous as an American traveling to Iran. Coming in the midst of a 2008 election in which Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain all had sharp words for Iran and its nuclear program, Sheppard nonetheless decides to take the plunge out of a spirit of professionalism.
It was a decision that would change his life, as well as the lives of everyday Iranians — and in particular, those of three young Iranian women.
One of the most compelling aspects of The Iran Job is the way it captures the casual details of life in today’s Iran — a closed society that clearly harbors some unusual stereotypes about the outside world. So for example, the moment Sheppard arrives in Iran and meets up with his Serbian roommate (the team’s 7-foot center, and the only other non-Iranian allowed on the squad), Sheppard learns that his cable TV has been custom-provided with hundreds of pornographic channels — the assumption being that because he is an American, he must be sex-obsessed. The irony that such programming is even available in a “strict” Islamic society, of course, is not lost on Sheppard — who can’t help but laugh at Iranian officialdom’s awkward notions of diplomatic courtesy.
Such ticklish moments aside, however, Sheppard immediately begins bonding with average Iranians. A natural show-off with a wicked sense of humor, Sheppard dazzles everyone around him — even when they barely speak English, and are only able to respond to his warm smile and playfulness. The camera follows him early on as he goes out to grab dinner, and we see regular Iranians high-fiving him and snapping pictures with him before he’s even picked up a basketball. His enthusiasm and dynamic personality ignite smiles everywhere.
We asked Sheppard about the rock-star treatment he received from average Iranians:
“The funny thing about it is, once I got over there — people really love America. The government would say, ‘Down with America.’ They have all kinds of signs — ‘America is the Devil,’ ‘Down with the U.S.A.’ — but once you get to the people, they love American culture, they know everything about America, they love all the American sports. So it was a little bit ironic and crazy for me at first. I was like, how can you have all these signs around? But yet, when you speak to the people it’s totally different. So I know it [hostility toward America] was not coming from the mass of the people in general. This was all pushed upon them by the government.”
As The Iran Job proceeds, however, Sheppard’s innate enthusiasm is challenged by his lackluster basketball team, A.S. Shiraz a new and untested squad in Iran’s Super League, and a team sorely lacking in the kind of talent or winning attitude to which Sheppard is accustomed. Viewers basically get the sense that Sheppard has just joined The Bad News Bears of Iranian basketball, and his first task will be to shake up the underwhelming squad.
It’s worth noting here that The Iran Job follows the usual parameters of sports documentaries in depicting how one inspirational player can turn the fortunes of a franchise around by getting his teammates to believe they can win. That’s precisely what Sheppard does, due in part to his on-court heroics (we watch him win several games with buzzer-beating shots), but mostly due to his cocky swagger and high standards. The intense, demanding point guard simply hates to lose — and refuses to let his teammates ever be comfortable accepting defeat.
Snow White and the Huntsman
Some movies look better on paper than they do in theaters, but Snow White and the Huntsman is the rare summer blockbuster that lives up to most of its potential – although one senses that an even better film might’ve been possible with a better script. Elevated by Charlize Theron’s juicy performance as the wicked Queen Ravenna, Chris Hemsworth’s rugged charm (he’s more soulful here than in The Avengers), and some fabulous art design, Snow White basically delivers the goods in revising the Grimm Brothers’ dark fairy tale to the more slick sensibilities of today.
And since girls’ stories are now finally getting the summer blockbuster treatment they deserve, it’s also worth noting that Snow White and the Huntsman is a helluva lot better than much of what the boys have been dishing out of late. (The Avengers was fine, but does anybody remember Green Lantern? Or Green Hornet?) If Snow White and the Huntsman is any indication of what it would be like if gals got equal time during summer blockbuster season, I’ll gladly take it.
What Snow White and the Huntsman does not do, however, is make sense of Kristen Stewart’s Snow White character as being some sort of Joan of Arc-style warrior or mystic visionary. Stewart simply doesn’t have the depth for it, even if she and Hemsworth do make for a wholesome and handsome on-screen couple. Also: the film feels like it’s trying a little too hard to be ‘literary’ in the vein of Lord of the Rings, when it should’ve been campier and fun like Willow. After all, do we really need to take the Seven Dwarves so seriously? The Christopher Nolan template doesn’t work for everything. Snow White needed much more humor and a lighter touch to balance its otherwise dreary Germanic material.
Still, if lavish, old-fashioned costume spectaculars are to your taste, or if you want a good look at either Charlize Theron or Chris Hemsworth in their prime, this is the film for you. Charlize in particular is in a major career groove; she’s suddenly Angelina Jolie, minus the National Enquirer lifestyle. Like Theron’s recent Young Adult, Snow White fetishizes her blonde good looks, turning her into a colorful, raving, age-obsessed narcissist. It’s great fun to watch her strutting around having jealous fits – like a watered-down version of Bette Davis, only taller.
Jason’s LFM GRADE: B+
A travesty! As regular LFM readers know, French director Alexandre Aja’s 2010 horror-comedy Piranha 3D is a favorite of mine – easily one of the best cult/B-movies in recent years. Yet even with cameos from David Hasselhoff and Gary Busey, and with the return of Christopher Lloyd and Ving Rhames (packing prosthetic shotgun legs) from the original, Piranha 3DD is a total disaster – nothing more than an embarrassing, quickie cash-in on the original film that pleased critics and grossed $83 million worldwide.
The basic rule with Roger Corman-style films of this sort is that they have to at least try to take themselves seriously in order to work. Piranha 3DD doesn’t even make the effort. A lame, slapped-together pastiche of inflated breasts, chewed limbs and only intermittently funny jokes, Piranha 3DD is basically just an extended gag reel about a semi-nude waterpark savaged by the same devious, snapping piranhas from the first film … with the noticeably aging Hasselhoff consigned to playing himself, and otherwise winking at the camera every 2 minutes. It doesn’t work.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, not only are Piranha 3DD’s breasts fake, but so is its running time: the movie is barely over an hour long, artificially padded-out to 83 minutes with footage from the original film, plus an extra-long credit sequence featuring goofball outtakes. You’d think they’d throw in some extra skin there, but pretty much all we get is Hasselhoff singing a new tune of his called, “The Love Hunter.” And believe me, in this case “Love” hurts.
Recommended only for Hasselhoff obsessives, Piranha completists, or maybe just fans of Russian swimsuit model Irina Voronina. Anybody else is out of luck.
LFM GRADE: DD
Posted on June 5th, 2012 at 4:26pm.
LFM’s Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty in The Atlantic: ‘Black Lagoon’: The First, Great Pretty-Girl-Attacked-By-Aquatic-Beast Film?
[Editor's Note: the article below appears today on the front page of The Atlantic.]
Chatting with Julie Adams, the star who helped set the formula followed by the new Piranha 3DD.
By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. From piranhas and sharks to brain-eating crabs and giant leeches, Hollywood has provided some frightening and improbable reasons over the years for why pretty girls in bikinis should stay out of the water. Long before this week’s Piranha 3DD or even classics like Jaws, however, it was the lustful Gill Man from 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon who first made young women think twice about going swimming.
A beauty-and-the-beast tale of an aquatic humanoid who falls for a female scientist during a research expedition to the Amazon, Creature helped inspire the 3D science fiction craze of the 1950s. It also made its young star, Julie Adams, sci-fi’s first pin-up girl—and launched her distinguished career in film, TV, and on stage.
Still vibrant and active at age 85, Adams remains a popular draw at sci-fi and classic film conventions, where she’s currently promoting her lively new autobiography, The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections From the Black Lagoon, which she cowrote with her son, Emmy Award winning editor Mitch Danton.
Over her lengthy and colorful career, Ms. Adams has seduced Elvis Presley and Dennis Hopper on screen, played John Wayne’s wife, tussled in a burning basement with Barbara Stanwyck, and played the love interest to James Stewart, Rock Hudson, and Charlton Heston. She’s been directed by Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh—and more recently has appeared in projects like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and TV shows like CSI and Lost.
Yet Adams still remains best known for her role as Kay Lawrence, the sultry brunette in a plunging one-piece pined over by the Gill Man in Creature.
What was your initial reaction upon getting offered Creature?
[Laughs.] Well, I wasn’t thrilled, you know, and I thought I could turn it down, but then I would go on suspension [from Universal Pictures] and wouldn’t get paid … and so I thought, well, the studio wants me to do it, what the hey, it might be fun. And it was!
What was director Jack Arnold like, and how did you two get along?
I got along great with Jack Arnold, and he was a wonderful director. He was very low key, he seemed almost casual—but it was very easy to work with him. Any suggestion he made always made sense.
Did you interact much with William Alland, the producer?
Not that much, because he was not on the set that much—but I liked him. He was always very nice to all of us.
Alland played the reporter in Citizen Kane, and he apparently attended a dinner party hosted by Orson Welles while they were shooting Kane. Welles’s lover Dolores Del Rio was also there, and she brought along Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Figueroa had heard a legend as a child about an Amazon water creature, half-man and half-lizard. And the story went that there was an Amazon village that would bring a virgin to the creature once a year in order for the creature not to terrorize the village.
Right. So Alland went home later and wrote Figueroa’s story down. And then about 12 years later the whole 3D craze started, and at that point he pulled out the story and started to make a movie of it.
That’s a very interesting story—it fits in, in a wonderful, cuckoo way.
>>>FOR THE REMAINDER OF THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE VISIT The Atlantic.
Special Note to LFM Readers:
Julie Adams’ autobiography The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections From the Black Lagoon is available exclusively at her website . Featuring 300 photos of the gorgeous Adams and her famous co-stars, the book provides a charming look at Adams’ experiences working with movie greats like James Stewart, Tyrone Power, Ida Lupino, and many others. While supplies last, the book also comes with a bonus CD of the iconic score for Creature From the Black Lagoon, re-recorded by Monstrous Movie Music and featuring music by Henry Mancini, among others.
Posted on May 29th, 2012 at 10:13am.
By Jason Apuzzo. Here are more of my summer dispatches:
Men in Black 3
After a three year absence from the movies, superstar Will Smith returns to save planet Earth from alien invasion again by traveling back to 1969 to help his straight-laced partner, K – here played by Josh Brolin, in a spot-on, dry-comic imitation of a young Tommy Lee Jones (who also appears in the film). The equivalent of a live action Warner Brothers cartoon, MIB3 showcases director Barry Sonnenfeld’s trademark visual humor, gooey aliens, some light satire at the expense of the loopy 1960s, a nice supporting performance by Emma Thompson, and a great recreation of the Apollo 11 moon launch. Don’t expect any undue brain strain watching this film, however; MIB3 is basically just an expensive platform for Will Smith’s goofy humor – which hasn’t yet grown old, even if this retro-style series probably has.
LFM GRADE: B
The basic message of this generally predictable, by-the-book scream fest from writer-producer Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) is: stay out of Russia. When a group of not-very-bright American 20-somethings indulge in some ‘extreme tourism’ by visiting Pripyat (former home to the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor) with a shifty tour guide named ‘Yuri,’ they get a lot more than they bargained for when something creepy begins attacking them after dark. Peli & Co. keep things tense by never really showing you very much – but the characters are too bland and stupid to care about, like they just wandered in from a Final Destination 12 audition. Still, Russian officialdom comes across pretty badly in Chernobyl Diaries; don’t expect any gala Kremlin screenings of this film, with its hints of dark doings on the part of Russia’s military-scientific complex.
LFM GRADE: B-
[Editor's note: for thoughts on the whole Russia vs. Ukraine issue, please see the comments section below.]
Posted on May 26th, 2012 at 12:37pm.
By Jason Apuzzo. Star Wars was released 35 years ago today. It’s hard to believe it’s been so long! All these years later, the original Star Wars and Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood are still my favorite films of all time. Unlike with Robin Hood, however – which I first saw on TV – I had the good fortune of seeing Star Wars when it first came out in theaters back in 1977. My six year-old imagination was completely overwhelmed, and I was hooked on the movies for good.
If memory serves, the trailer above represents all that many of us knew about the film prior to its release – and it was pretty exciting stuff. And although a lot has changed about the Star Wars universe since that time, it’s worth remembering how fresh, original and imaginative the film seemed back in 1977. I know that watching Star Wars in 70mm Dolby stereo with excited crowds at the then-Plitt Century Theater in Century City (Los Angeles) still represents the most fun I’ve ever had at the movies. And really, the film hasn’t changed that much for me after all these years – the many special editions and digital revisions aside. I still love the film, and I don’t think it’s ever been topped.
Writer-director George Lucas did a marvelous job with this film, breaking a lot of new ground and opening up a whole new imaginative universe to audiences and filmmakers. I’d say even more about the film, but I have to go over to the Toshi station right now to pick up some power converters. Congratulations on Star Wars‘ 35th.
Posted on May 25th, 2012 at 10:56am.
By Jason Apuzzo. I wanted LFM’s regular readers to know that although I’ve been busy of late, I’m still keeping close tabs on what’s happening at your local multiplex. Here are some micro-reviews of important recent releases:
Sparkling interactions among the characters, an electrifying sequence aboard a floating aircraft carrier, cheeky good humor, and another breakout performance by Tom Hiddleston as Loki lift Marvel’s The Avengers far above conventional comic book fare – to the point that it’s already become its own event in pop mythology. Several things hold The Avengers back from being a gold-plated classic, though: trite assertions of moral equivalency between the good guys and the bad guys, cringe-inducing scenes involving goofy aliens, and a third act copied (lamely) from Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Still, you sense that this is what comic book movies were supposed to be like all along.
LFM GRADE: A-
After a dreadful first act involving a soccer game and a chicken burrito (don’t ask), Battleship settles in and delivers some exciting combat sequences – especially when the USS Missouri gets hauled out of mothballs to exchange ear-shattering salvos with an invading alien cruiser. Director Peter Berg – the son of a naval historian – takes the tactical, cat-and-mouse aspects of naval warfare (and of Hasbro’s board game) seriously, although he can’t summon a credible performance out of Taylor Kitsch – assuming that’s even possible. Kudos to Berg, however, for featuring real-life combat veterans in the cast like Col. Gregory Gadson, an inspiring Iraq war vet and amputee who brings an aura of seriousness to the movie’s otherwise over-the-top scenario. And if that’s not enough for you, there’s also Brooklyn Decker in a tank top.
LFM GRADE: B
A treasure-trove of great gags at the expense of petty Middle Eastern tyrants is drowned away in a deluge of mindless vulgarity and gross-out humor, all of which probably should’ve netted this film an NC-17 rating. Writer-director-star Sacha Baron Cohen also throws in an obnoxious closing speech in which he essentially equates America with Middle Eastern dictatorships. Is this guy kidding? Take your dictators-are-brainless-narcissists act to Syria, Sacha, and see how well it plays with the local gentry. A major disappointment, and probably Cohen’s final shot at mainstream success.
LFM GRADE: C-
Posted on May 22nd, 2012 at 5:27pm.