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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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From "American Promise."

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

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

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

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From "American Promise."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Govindini Murty and Shia LaBoeuf at Sundance 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

Shia LaBeouf and Jason Apuzzo at Sundance 2013.

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

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

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

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

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[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.

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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 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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