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

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By Jason Apuzzo. Sunny southern California rarely gets its due at the movies. Ever since the 1940s, when film noir classics like Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep depicted Los Angeles as a dark urban labyrinth, you might get the feeling that southern California has remained in a permanent Blade Runner nightfall of neon signs, wet streets and detectives pulling fedoras down over their eyes. A world of call girls and corrupt police, of murder and car crashes; a bleak landscape of paparazzi and Black Dahlias, of washed-up actresses and sleazy district attorneys who wear too much aftershave.

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It’s a shadowy, sexy and malevolent vision — except that it’s not really the day-to-day SoCal that longtime residents know and (mostly) love. Actually, the place is a lot brighter and more cheerful than that. And a lot goofier.


From "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

For one thing, southern California is actually huge, wide-open and flat — with endless horizons, whether of the Palm Springs or Redondo Beach variety — instead of the cramped, angular spaces you typically find in crime thrillers. And it’s got color — lots of color, from the saturated blues of the ocean and sky, to the lurid red-and-gold Fatburger signs on Pacific Coast Highway. Whoever dreamt up southern California was clearly dreaming it in 65mm Ultra Panavision Technicolor.

And contrary to popular belief, most people in southern California don’t pack guns or talk like they just stepped out of a Raymond Chandler novel, diverting as that would be. Most SoCal residents are sedate, middle-class people with just a hint of craziness to them — that quiet spark that drove them long ago to pack up and leave the East Coast/Midwest/Deep South to pursue their pot of gold right here in the Golden State.

And this brings us to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

The wonderful folks at Criterion, who are forever saving our cinematic heritage from the ravages of time and neglect, have recently outdone themselves in producing a five-disc set (two Blu-rays + three DVDs) of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, all built around a pristine 4K transfer of the film and a newly restored 197-minute ‘roadshow’ version of the movie not seen in 50 years. (See a video on the restoration at the bottom of this post.)

And this new, authoritative version of director Stanley Kramer’s beloved epic comedy makes one thing abundantly clear: that It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is the ultimate southern California movie.

For those unfamiliar with the film, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World depicts a pack of otherwise unremarkable southern Californians unleashed in a frenzy of greed when they learn that a stash of $350,000 in stolen money is waiting for them, ready to be dug-up in a park at Santa Rosita Beach (in real life, Portuguese Bend in Rancho Palos Verdes). Unable to come up with an equitable way of sharing the loot, the group breaks up into separate teams, frantically racing toward their hidden treasure by land and air — comedian Jonathan Winters even rides a girl’s bicycle for a while — all while the Santa Rosita Police, led by Spencer Tracy, tracks their progress.


From "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

So it’s off to the races, as airplanes smash through billboards (and even a restaurant at one point), cars roar off cliffs and bridges, an entire gas station is demolished, cast members are flung through the air by an out-of-control fire ladder, and every major speed law in southern California is broken. And although the wild conclusion of the film — a Hitchcockian visual effects extravaganza filmed in downtown Long Beach — leaves none of the avaricious group satisfied with their financial arrangement, it does leave everyone with smiles on their faces. (You’ll have to see the movie to find out what that means.)

And that’s really it. The premise of Mad, Mad World — greed — couldn’t be simpler, but it’s enough to power a non-stop, three-plus-hour chase from Yucca Valley to Santa Clarita to Malibu, all filled with dangerous stunts and comic gags performed by the greatest comedians of their time: Milton Berle, the recently passed Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Ethel Merman, Peter Falk and Jim Backus, just to name a few. Mad, Mad World also features spot cameos from the likes of Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, The Three Stooges and more comedy talent than you can shake a stick at. Continue reading »

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

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.

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.

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.


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

By Jason Apuzzo. Computers need to be put in their place. They really do.

That’s why I’ve been looking forward to the DVD release this week of Andrew Bujalski’s cult Sundance hit Computer Chess. Computer Chess finally spills the beans about where these little monsters came from in the first place.

Every time I pick up a newspaper these days – I’m one of the twelve people left who still read physical newspapers – I read about how computers are spying on us, destroying jobs, or infuriating health insurance customers. Like a hungry Rottweiler off its leash, computers are getting out of control and tearing up the neighborhood.

If you believe what you read, computers are also in the process of wrecking the book publishing and music industries, eliminating celluloid photography – and just this week computers claimed their latest victim, one near and dear to my heart: the local video store, as Blockbuster finally succumbed to laptops, smartphones and tablets as the preferred ways of renting all those movies you couldn’t afford to see (or were too embarrassed to see) when they were in theaters.


The demise of the American video store.

No more video stores – who would’ve believed it, even just ten years ago? That means no more pimply teenagers to recommend midnight horror movies to me (“Sir, I definitely recommend C.H.U.D. over TerrorVision“), no more aimless browsing or listening to neighbors argue over which Steven Seagal movie to rent, no more cheap licorice sticks at the checkout counter.

I never thought I’d miss those things so much – but suddenly I do. And it’s all because of our ‘friend’ the computer. Computers are becoming like the Yankees during the ’90s: gobbling up everybody else’s talent, then telling us how good it is for baseball.

The propaganda over the wonders that computers supposedly bring to our lives is getting out of hand. In the very least, it’s out of proportion to the destruction computers are simultaneously causing – that ‘disruptive’ effect Silicon Valley gurus salivate over, like vampires at a blood drive.

So as Twitter – the company currently reducing our public discourse to snarky, 140-character outbursts – celebrates its gaudy IPO right now, I’d like to recommend a new movie out on DVD this week that casts digital technology in a very different light: Computer Chess. Continue reading »

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

By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. Steven Spielberg’s Falling Skies has unexpectedly become one of the best sci-fi TV shows in years – a dark, gritty and emotional look at an American society struggling to survive after an apocalyptic alien invasion.

The show’s third season debuts on TNT this Sunday, June 9th on Father’s Day, which is appropriate, given the show’s focus on fathers and their responsibility toward their children. The series has already been a ratings bonanza for TNT – Falling Skies was last summer’s top-rated drama on basic cable – and having seen the first five episodes of the upcoming season, we can tell you that Season 3 looks to be an even bigger hit.

So why would the success of Falling Skies be unexpected, especially given the involvement of executive producer Steven Spielberg and series creator Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan)? Possibly because when the show first debuted in the summer of 2011 – the long, hot sci-fi summer that gave us Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens – the idea of another movie or TV show about alien invasion seemed redundant.

And after getting their tails (or robot parts) kicked on-screen in recent years by Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise and the U.S. military, you’d think aliens would know better than to invade by now, anyway.


A story of a father and his sons.

Starring Noah Wyle and Moon Bloodgood, Falling Skies (Season 2 of which arrived this week on Blu-ray) has carved out its own niche, however, largely by doing basic things well – telling a classic American story of the fight for freedom, and of families struggling to stay together in wartime. And with its populist vibe and focus on civic duty, Falling Skies is also the sci-fi show for audiences who don’t usually watch sci-fi. Indeed, the series often feels inspired as much by American Westerns as by science fiction.

And, of course, there’s always the magic touch of Steven Spielberg.

“Steven Spielberg is the master of science fiction, and of drama,” Noah Wyle told us recently at Zoic Studios in Culver City, where Falling Skies‘ visual effects were being completed. Series showrunner and writer Remi Aubuchon agreed: “Steven actually is very involved in our show … he certainly reads all the scripts and watches all the dailies, and he’s intricately involved in the design of the creatures and the cool things.”

Season 3 of Falling Skies picks up where the previous two seasons left off, with former history professor Tom Mason (Wyle) and his extended family trying to pick up the pieces of civil society in the wake of a devastating alien attack. Like some grizzled, bearded patriarch out of the old West – and now serving as the acting President of the United States – Mason tries to hold it all together, as his provisional government in South Carolina forges a dubious alliance with a new alien species encountered at the end of last season.

On the home front, Mason also welcomes an unusual new daughter into the world, born to Dr. Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood), his longtime lover and the show’s emotional center. Meanwhile, Mason’s son Hal (Drew Roy) struggles to keep himself from being used by enemy aliens as a spy, all while juggling the two edgy blondes in his life (Sarah Sanguin Carter and Jessy Schram) – one of whom just happens to be the enemy aliens’ new commander.

Such is family life in Falling Skies. Continue reading »

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[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.


Conductor Rafael Schächter.

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.


Conductor Murry Sidlin.

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. Continue reading »

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