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

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By Govindini Murty. Locke may just be one of the best films of 2014. Superbly written and directed by Steven Knight and featuring a dazzling performance by Tom Hardy, Locke is a must-see for anyone who believes that human character is still the most compelling subject of the cinema. I saw Locke earlier this year when it played to rave reviews at Sundance, and spoke with Knight about his innovative and deeply personal film which is expanding this week to theaters nationwide.

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In the film, Tom Hardy plays construction engineer Ivan Locke, a man who takes as much pride in the firm foundations of his buildings as he does in his unshakeable code of personal responsibility. One night, Locke leaves a construction job to drive from Birmingham to London to fulfill a mysterious promise. Along the way, he makes and receives a series of wrenching phone calls that bring his sense of personal duty into conflict with everyone and everything he loves.

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I’m a big fan of films that use new digital tools to experiment with the traditional structure of the movies. , Locke succeeds at being both formally inventive and emotionally gripping. The entire movie, with the brief exception of the opening and closing shots, takes place in the interior of a car and features only one actor on-screen, Tom Hardy. At the Sundance premiere of Locke, director Steven Knight told me that he and his talented team used Red digital cameras to shoot the film continuously from beginning to end each night, like a stage play.

Stripped down to the bare essentials as a result, Locke focuses on what matters most: character, emotion, and story. The film proves that even in the contemporary cinema, with its obsession with surface visual effects, movies can still delve below the surface and capture something essential about human nature in much the same way literature can.

In Locke this is largely done through the power of the close-up. In the best movies, the close-up serves to bring emotional transparency to a film, whereby the candor of an actor and the attentiveness of a director work together to draw out the inner life of a character onto the big screen. And it’s there on the big screen that the human face takes on mythic qualities, elevating specific human experiences into universal truths. On the big screen there’s no place to hide as an actor – but if one is as talented as Tom Hardy, one doesn’t need to. Hardy sensitively pulls off Ivan Locke’s volatile and heartbreaking mixture of machismo, passion, humor, anger, and doubt – depicting Locke like a bear trapped in a cage of his own making.

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From "Locke."

I spoke with Steven Knight (Academy Award nominated screenwriter for Dirty Pretty Things) at the Sundance premiere of Locke and asked him how he pulled off such a technically complicated and emotionally wrenching film. The interview has been edited for length.

GM: I’d like to ask you about the innovative way you made the film. Why did you choose to do such a tight character study and film it in these continuous takes? Tell me about your process.

SK: I just finished making a film with Jason Statham the conventional way [2013's Redemption]. And two things occurred. One was: anything we shot from the car at night was beautiful, and I thought the thing to do would be to make an installation of that – make it as a piece of art with just the moving traffic patterns.

And then, I also asked the question of myself: the basic task here is to get a lot of people into a room, turn the lights off, and get them to look at a screen for 90 minutes. That’s the basic job you’re doing. [But] are there other ways of doing it? So I thought that maybe that beautiful frame of the moving road could be the theater. And … it would need to be one man, and if you’re going to get one man, it better be Tom Hardy. So I approached him and I said I want you to do a play, effectively. I want to shoot it as a play, but in the environment of a car. He was really keen, read the script and the next weekend we were shooting it. The whole point all the way through was to shoot it in sequence so that it’s an actor’s performance. Don’t split it up, don’t turn it into a conventional way of shooting it. And I think the rewards are immense, because the actors feel like they are in control of their own performances. 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 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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[Editor's Note: the post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]

By Govindini Murty. Hollywood is in the midst of a science-fiction boom, yet few of its sci-fi movies are based on real science. That’s a shame, because the scientific discoveries emerging from NASA these days are as exciting as any Hollywood blockbuster. Whether it’s the stunning images from the Mars Curiosity rover, or the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes’ observations of a dazzling array of exoplanets, or the announcement that Voyager 1 has become the first human-made object to leave the solar system, NASA is daily generating storylines that provoke the imagination and expand our horizons.

What makes these developments intriguing for adaptation into sci-fi movies is that they are real. At a time when audiences are increasingly jaded by computer special effects, there’s something fresh and engaging about a sci-fi movie that might actually have some basis in reality. Isn’t it time that we see more sci-fi films that explore the real mysteries of the universe all around us?

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NASA deep-space imaging.

As a case study for a sci-fi movie inspired by NASA science, I recommend that people take a look at Sebastian Cordero’s Europa Report. With a cast that includes Sharlto Copley, Anamaria Marinca, and Michael Nyqvist, Europa Report is currently playing in select theaters and on VOD, and will be available on iTunes starting October 8th. The movie is one of the few sci-fi films in recent years to offer a realistic depiction of a manned mission to outer space – in this case, to search for life on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

I chatted with NASA- JPL astrobiologist Steve Vance, one of the science advisors on Europa Report, at the film’s LA Film Festival premiere. Vance expressed to me his enthusiasm about the movie:

“I’m just thrilled that I got to be part of something that is bringing Europa more into the public eye. I’m really excited about how this movie captures the passion of exploration and also the science.”

Europa has been the focus of much attention in recent years because it may harbor life in the liquid water ocean that is theorized to exist under its icy crust. Vance, who studies the interiors of icy moons like Europa and who is acting staff scientist on NASA’s Europa Project, told me that he and his colleagues are “pre-formulating a mission that we hope will fly to Europa to address the same kind of questions that were addressed in the movie.” The most pressing of these questions is whether life independently developed on another body within our solar system.

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Concept image of Europa.

Although Vance noted that a manned mission to Europa isn’t currently feasible, due to the difficulties of even sending a human as far as Mars, he explained that NASA is assessing plans to send a robotic spacecraft to Europa (see NASA artist’s concept above): “The mission we’re looking at right now is [that] we’ll do multiple flybys to orbit Jupiter, and do thirty or more flybys of Europa and completely map the surface.” (See this paper in the August issue of Astrobiology on future missions to Europa, co-authored by Vance).

And this brings me to a larger point: whether it’s robotic spacecraft taking photos of the surfaces of distant moons like Europa – or movies that draw on that imagery to dramatize outer-space exploration – visual representation plays a crucial role in bringing science to life.

For example, the photos taken by the Galileo space probe as it orbited Jupiter and its moons from 1995 to 2003 gave the public the most detailed images yet of mysterious Europa and its icy, cracked outer shell. These photos (see below) then inspired the filmmakers of Europa Report. In turn, NASA scientists like Vance hope that movies like Europa Report will inspire public support for future missions back to Europa. In short, art and science play a surprisingly reciprocal role today.

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NASA images of Europa.

Given how important photos and imagery have been to NASA, I was amazed to read in a recent NASA blog post that in the 1960s, NASA debated whether to even put cameras on board spacecraft. Fortunately, with the Mariner 4 mission that brought back the first close-up photos of Mars in 1965, the agency realized how crucial images were to advancing scientific knowledge and inspiring the public. Continue reading »

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

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From "And While We Were Here."

By Govindini Murty. It’s a welcome development to see more women directors emerging in the indie film scene and it’s my hope that this will soon translate into more women directing studio features, as well. We all know the statistics: the most recent studies reveal that women only direct 5% of the top 100 studio features – and yet in the indie film world, they direct 18% of the narrative features and 39% of the documentaries.

One indie woman director whose work I’ve enjoyed in recent years is Kat Coiro. Coiro’s latest film, the stylish, Italy-set romantic drama And While We Were Here, opens this weekend in select theaters and is also available on VOD. The film stars Kate Bosworth, Iddo Goldberg, and Jamie Blackley and features a voice-over by the great Claire Bloom.

Shot on location in beautiful southern Italy, And While We Were Here tells the tale of a neglected wife, Jane (Bosworth), who falls for a bohemian American youth, Caleb (Blackley), when her emotionally-remote viola player husband Leonord (Goldberg) is invited to perform in a concert in Naples.

The film is the latest in a tradition of stories about travelers whose lives are transformed by Italy. Bosworth and Goldberg give strong, sensitive performances as the troubled couple Jane and Leonard, while Blackley is disarmingly amusing as the Dionysian youth who disrupts everyone’s carefully ordered lives. Bloom (Jane’s Grandma Eves) provides a poignant voice-over commentary through tape-recorded interviews that recount her loves and losses during WWII.

I caught And While We Were Here at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012 and had the chance to chat with Kat Coiro a few months later at the LA Film Festival where she was screening her charming short film Departure Date. A romantic comedy starring Nicky Whelan and Ben Feldman, Departure Date (see photo below) is the first film shot and edited entirely at 35,000 feet – an innovative effort made possible by Virgin Produced and highly worth viewing the next time you’re on Virgin Airlines.

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Director Kat Coiro filming "Departure Date."

Coiro and I talked at the LA Film Festival about the importance of emotional honesty in storytelling, the joys of poetry, and the importance of creating films that honor brilliant women both past and present. The interview has been edited for length.

GM: I noticed in Departure Date and also in And While We Were Here that there’s a real romanticism to these films, that they breathe with a heartfelt, poetic spirit. What draws you to these sorts of stories?

KC: I appreciate simplicity and I find that creativity often flourishes within the constraints of doing these very small projects in a very short time – and making them something people can relate to. So I wrote both of these stories knowing I had to keep them very simple and I didn’t have time to get very flashy. You strip it down to what people enjoy: which is human connection, relationships, character-driven pieces. Continue reading »

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LFM’s Govindini Murty participated in a HuffPost Live segment yesterday with Mexican actor Diego Luna, who co-stars with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in this weekend’s new sci-fi spectacle Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp.  Luna was first introduced to American audiences in the critically acclaimed Y Tu Mama Tabien.

Govindini comes on to the segment about 23 minutes in, and asked Luna several questions about what it was like for him to work in the sci-fi genre, and how he prepared for Elysium.  Our thanks to the HuffPost Live team for inviting Govindini to participate.

Posted on August 7th, 2013 at 1:06pm.

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