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

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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.

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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.

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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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The supermodel sorority from "About Face."

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

By Govindini Murty. They’re among the most iconic faces of the second half of the twentieth century. Isabella Rossellini, Beverly Johnson, Paulina Porizkova, and their supermodel sorority helped to shape public perceptions of beauty and womanhood at a time of rapid expansion in the mass media. Their faces graced thousands of magazine covers and they were role models to millions of young women.

But was the rise of the supermodel a sign of female empowerment, or of female objectification?

About Face: Supermodels Then and Now, an insightful new documentary by director and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders available on HBO on-demand through September 3 and HBO Go through 2013, interviews sixteen of these supermodels about the true nature of beauty in an age of consumerism and mass media.

As alluded to in About Face, the irony that underlies the modeling profession is that it should lead to both the empowerment and objectification of women. On the one hand, the mass distribution of images of female models through fashion magazines, ads, and other media in the past century has led to women becoming quite literally more visible in today’s world – with that visibility being an affirmation of their femininity and right to exist as women in the public sphere. In contrast to this, from the Puritans to the Taliban, misogynistic societies through history have restricted sensual or beautiful images of women as a prelude to denying their basic right to participate in public life, citing women’s beauty as a “corrupting” influence on social morality. The predominance of beautiful images of women in Western culture has thus affirmed the broader right of women to exist in public as feminine and not as neutered beings.

On the other hand, modeling has also had the effect of objectifying women by focusing on external surfaces, and at times unnatural standards of beauty. In About Face, Isabella Rossellini asks of the pressure for women to undergo plastic surgery: “Is this the new foot-binding? It’s misogyny to say that older women are unattractive.” Objectification can also lead to racism by dehumanizing people and imposing narrow standards of ‘beauty’ or ‘normalcy.’ Model and agent Bethann Hardison describes in About Face trying to book African-American models for runway shows in the ’70s and ’80s, only to be told by the casting agents that such models weren’t their “aesthetic.” As Hardison explains “‘Aesthetic’ is borderline for racist.”

I spoke with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders about some of these issues at the LA Film Festival’s screening of About Face. The interview has been edited for length.

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Model Beverly Johnson.

GM: What drew you to these ladies? I know you met them initially at a party in New York, but what did you find so magical about them?

TGS: I think when I met them at that party … I immediately got a sense of how smart they were. You know, the cliché is that you either have brains or beauty, but you don’t have both. Well, they seemed to have both. It really makes it an interesting film. And I thought that people weren’t aware of that. I have two young daughters who knew who they were. But many young people today who are so interested in fashion, they don’t know the history of it and of these iconic women.

GM: What has changed about modeling? You mentioned in the screening that these models were so unique, whereas today the models and their careers seem more transient. Why is there this disparity today versus back then?

TGS: I think that it was a smaller world then. I think there was a warmer relationship between the models and the designers and even the businesspeople involved. It was not so cut-throat and not so corporate. And I think today it’s just big business and big money, and I don’t think the human relationship is there as much. I think it’s very changed.

GM: Do you think a big part of that is the issue of covers – that the actresses are taking over magazine covers?

TGS: Yes.

GM: It’s such a striking change. What has that done to the morale of the models? Does it make a big difference behind the scenes?

TGS: I’m not sure I can answer that because it’s not my world, exactly. But I know certainly it was huge in those days to have covers, because covers were the definition of success. And the cover of Vogue was the ultimate success. So when Beverly Johnson got on the cover of Vogue – the first black woman to do so [in August, 1974], that was a big deal. And today – that doesn’t happen for models.

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Model Paulina Porizkova.

GM: I thought it was very interesting what Dayle Haddon said that it wasn’t just that she thought she was the prettiest – in fact she didn’t quite fit into the physical type that was popular at the time, but that she brought something else to the picture.

TGS: She brought something else. And Dayle Haddon had to struggle because she wasn’t the look of the moment. She was a very smart woman and she figured out a way to add something more to the picture.

GM: Do you think the reason that those models from that era were so powerful – we’re talking the ’70s and ’80s, was because they were often muses for the designers they were working with?

TGS: Yes, exactly.

GM: I think of Yves St. Laurent and models like Khadija Adams, or even Catherine Deneuve in the ’60s who was dressed by St. Laurent for Belle de Jour. I think of Calvin Klein and Brooke Shields, they were so intimately tied together. Continue reading »

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[Editor's Note: the full version of the article below appears today at The Atlantic.]

By Govindini Murty. Jake Schreier’s debut feature Robot & Frank is a smart and funny look at serious issues: the ethics of caring for the elderly with robots, the dichotomy between nature and technology, and even the dangers of eliminating physical books in favor of digital media. Opening nationwide on August 24th, the indie sci-fi drama written by Christopher Ford is set in the near future and depicts a wily, aging con man (Frank Langella) who is given a domestic robot by his son (James Marsden) as a caregiver, only to use the robot to plan heists. The film also stars Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, and Peter Sarsgaard as the voice of the robot.

Robot and cat.

At Sundance earlier this year, Robot & Frank charmed audiences and was honored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for “raising profound questions about the role of technology in our collective future.” I spoke with director Jake Schreier at the LA Film Festival this summer about some of those questions. The interview has been edited for length.

What appealed to you about the subject matter of a relationship between a human and a robot?

On the surface level, it was the image of this old man in a rural environment with this very clean, white piece of technology. There’s a certain visual interest that this starts from that is pretty fascinating. Chris Ford, who wrote it, [got] the idea from this real technology that is being developed to deal with the Baby Boom generation that’s aging in Japan, and they’re looking to robots to take care of their elderly. That was the genesis of it, and Ford took it from there and really fleshed it out into the script.

And you mentioned that this was based on a short that you had produced back in film school with Ford.

[Laughs.] I used that term “produce” loosely because we shot it in my uncle’s cabin. Ford made the movie and I helped him out. We were friends in film school. We put [the short] away, and Ford and I had kept working together along with some other friends. Then about four years ago we were looking for something to develop into a feature and I just thought if there was any way he could write it into something longer it would be a great thing to work with.

Frank Langella did a fantastic job and he’s obviously the heart of the film. How did he work with the robot?

Frank doesn’t need anything. He’s such a pro. Not only does he have an amazing amount of talent, but he has the ability to shape that talent and modulate it. It was amazing to watch on set. And Rachael Ma—the girl who’s in the robot suit—went through hell to do that thing, and was there for all of it, but there were times when she didn’t need to be so he’d just be acting with the torso of the robot or an apple box in the foreground. It really didn’t matter. He was locked in, one way or the other. He said to me that he just had a thing that he’d pictured in his mind and he didn’t really want to say what it was but it was all that he needed to trigger the performance. So, I was very lucky to have that.

From "Robot and Frank."

>>>TO READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE, PLEASE VISIT THE ATLANTIC.

Posted on August 24th, 2012 at 10:38am.

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By Govindini Murty. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild has garnered much acclaim on the film festival circuit and is one of the top indie films in theatrical release right now, having already earned $5.9 million at the box office. The story of a little girl and her father struggling to survive in the flooded bayou of southern Louisiana, Beasts of the Southern Wild won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the Camera D’Or at Cannes, and the Audience Favorite Award at the LA Film Festival. There is already talk that it may be nominated for an Oscar for Best Film, and that Quvenzhané Wallis, the film’s remarkable eight-year old lead, may be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress.

We had the opportunity to attend the premiere of Beasts of the Southern Wild at the LA Film Festival this summer and enjoyed the Q & A conducted afterward by John Singleton with director Benh Zeitlin and the film’s stars, the irrepressible Quvenzhané Wallis (who utterly stole the show) and the charming baker-turned-actor Dwight Henry.

We spoke briefly with Benh Zeitlin after the screening and also met John Singleton, who expressed repeatedly what a fan he was of the film. Here’s the conversation I had with Zeitlin, followed by excerpts from the Q & A that Singleton held with Zeitlin, Wallis, and Henry.  While there were a variety of topics discussed in the Q & A, my focus here is on the comments that Zeitlin made about the creative and practical aspects of translating his vision to the big screen.

Director Benh Zeitlin at the LA Film Festival.

GM: I was curious about your influences. Were you quoting anyone specific in the film? What inspired you – either in classic or contemporary film?

BZ: The big one for me is this film called Underground by Kusturica. That’s the one that made me most want to make films when I was growing up … the way that the fantasy and reality worked in that film I think was a big deal. And then we watched a lot of documentaries – we watched a lot of Les Blank documentaries. This one called Dry Wood – and all those ‘70s films that he made – were kind of how we came up with the cinematography. But you know, I studied the way that Cassavetes directs actors and Mike Leigh directs actors – and looking at narrative from Disney movies, like Bambi [Zeitlin himself has a background in animation and his parents are folklorists]. So, really, it was from all over the place, from all eras – from high-brow to low-brow – sort of a broad world.

GM: That’s interesting. You mention Les Blank – did you see Burden of Dreams, about Werner Herzog making Fitzcarraldo?

BZ: Oh yeah, of course. Werner Herzog, absolutely.

GM: Because [Beasts of the Southern Wild] just reminded me – the atmosphere – the organic feeling of being in the mud with the animals and the wilderness all around -

BZ: Definitely, yeah. He was a huge inspiration for me. The first time I saw that film I was like “This is what I want to do.”

GM: I interviewed Werner Herzog a few months ago and there’s some great footage from that film [Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams] that’s online. But you know, I was curious, because the film has that blend [of reality and fantasy] that you were mentioning. But I didn’t know about Bambi, that’s going to be interesting to throw in there -

BZ: [Laughs.] You got to go back to Bambi, always got to go back to Bambi.

GM: Well thanks so much, that was fun to see.

BZ: Thanks very much, nice to meet you.

Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year old girl growing up on an island off the coast of Louisiana known as “The Bathtub.” The story follows Hushpuppy and her widower father, Wink (Dwight Henry), as they eke out a living on their small plot of land – with the little girl caring for their farm animals and living in tune with the rhythms of the natural world. Her father, who has a mysterious illness, almost like a latter-day Fisher King, teaches Hushpuppy how to fish and emphasizes that she needs to learn how to take care of herself so she can succeed in the world and climb to the “top of the ladder.”

The island community of the Bathtub might lie in the shadow of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain, but its rural lifestyle feels a world away. To emphasize this, Beasts was shot in a documentary-verité style on 16mm film, which, when blown up on a large screen, creates a grainy, mysterious image that paradoxically heightens the mythological and poetic themes of the film. Hushpuppy’s view of the world is thus depicted in an alternately realistic and fantastical manner that Benh Zeitlin called “a heightened world built out of very real parts.” For example, Zeitlin noted that though there is no place called the Bathtub in Louisiana, it was based on the real Isle de Jean Charles, an island that is slowly falling into the Gulf and that has gone from 200 families to 20 families in recent years. As Zeitlin explains, “we took elements of things and swirled them together – almost like a folk tale.” Continue reading »

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

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.

American basketball player Kevin Sheppard in Iran.

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. Continue reading »

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