By Joe Bendel. In 1981, the New York Republican Party supported lifelong Democrat Ed Koch’s re-election bid. He has since returned the favor, periodically endorsing Republicans like Pres. George W. Bush, Sen. Al D’Amato, Gov. George Pataki, and Andrew Eristoff. Throughout his public life, Mayor Koch has been something of a maverick and he is always good for a lively quote. Neil Barsky documents the triumphs and controversies of the iconic mayor in the simply but aptly titled Koch, which opens this Friday in New York.
If one thing comes through loud and clear in Koch it is the animosity between him and Mario Cuomo. It all harks back to 1977, when the Cuomo mayoral campaign allegedly gave winking approval to the guerrilla campaign urging New Yorkers: “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Shrewdly capturing the center and the right of the electorate, Koch ultimately vanquished Cuomo running as the Liberal Party candidate. However, questions about Koch’s private life would persist. In fact, Barsky’s only real misstep is the inordinate about of time spent on this is-he-or-isn’t-he question.
For those New York transplants arriving during the Giuliani or Bloomberg eras, Koch is a briskly entertaining primer on the City’s 1970’s and 1980’s history. Recognizable names like Bess Myerson and Donald Manes, the late Queens Borough President, whose corruption scandal also tarnished the Koch administration, are put into full context. There are also plenty of his “how’m I doing?” greatest hits and the frequent media appearances that established a new template for New York mayors.
Barsky scored top-shelf access to Hizzoner, but the Koch of today comes across a bit sad, clearly uncomfortable with his status as a New York political graybeard-gadfly. Viewers can tell he misses the action.
While Barsky examines his legacy warts-and-all, his documentary will easily convince viewers Koch was the right no-nonsense man for the job, like a pre-Giuliani Giuliani. Koch is funnier, though. Shrewdly, Barsky emphasizes his humor whenever possible. The results, gently prodded along by Mark Degli Antoni’s peppy underscore, are compulsively watchable. One of the most entertaining documentaries of the young year so far, for both political and pop culture junkies, Koch the movie opens this Friday (2/1) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza uptown and the Angelika Film Center downtown.
LFM GRADE: A
Posted on January 31st, 2012 at 12:18pm.
By Joe Bendel. Ilan Ramon was the Yoni Netanyahu of his generation. A charismatic military officer, he planned and led the daring 1981 bombing raid on Iraq’s nearly complete nuclear reactor. The son of Holocaust survivors, when chosen to be the first Israeli astronaut, he hoped to use the mission to bring a remarkable true story to the world’s attention. Unfortunately, though, he was assigned to Columbia’s tragic, final 2003 flight. Daniel Cohen documents the man and the history that inspired him in Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope (promo here), which airs tonight on PBS stations nationwide.
Ramon was an ace F-16 pilot. He half expected not to survive the then-controversial Operation Opera. Yet all planes came back unscathed in what quickly came to be considered the most successful Israeli military operation ever. At the time, it was duly, if reluctantly, condemned by the U.S. government. Twenty-two years later, he became the only non-American citizen to win the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
As if the Columbia disaster was not heavy enough, Mission of Hope is also profoundly concerned with the Holocaust. While Ramon was just one generation removed, Joachim “Yoja” Joseph, the senior scientist supervising Israel’s Columbia experiments, had survived Bergen-Belsen as young boy. Thanks to a courageous Rabbi, Joseph had his bar mitzvah in the camp with the aid of a tiny Torah. Knowing his time was short, the Rabbi gave the boy that Torah for safe keeping. Decades later Ramon carried it into space, along with several other surviving concentration camp artifacts.
Although Ramon’s story would seem to be one of bitter irony, Cohen wisely emphasizes the inspirational aspects of his life and mission. Featuring interviews with his widow and commanding officers, as well as candid video footage shot by his Columbia mission comrade Dave Brown, Hope conveys a strong personal sense of Ramon as an individual. To his credit, Cohen is not afraid of idealism or patriotism. Hope reminds viewers of the pride and optimism inspired by the early days of the space program. Appropriately, Cohen does not delve into the causes of the disaster. There are better venues to explore such issues. Instead, he focuses on Ramon and his crewmates.
It is hard to imagine anyone watching Hope without getting a catch in their throats. Frankly, it is rather baffling the film has not screened extensively on the festival circuit before its PBS debut, especially considering Hollywood space booster Tom Hanks’ role as executive producer. Educational and unexpectedly uplifting, Mission of Hope is enthusiastically recommended for general audiences when its screens tonight (1/31) on most PBS outlets, with a rebroadcast of Nova’s Space Shuttle Disaster scheduled to follow.
LFM GRADE: B+
Posted on January 31st, 2012 at 12:17pm.
By Joe Bendel. India Stoker is sort of a female Hamlet. After her father died under mysterious circumstances, her mother is all eyes for her uncle. However, Uncle Charlie is more interested in replacing his brother as a pseudo-father-figure for India in Park Chan-wook’s first English language film, Stoker, which screened during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
India Stoker and her father were always very close, having bonded during their regular hunting trips. Yes, she is a gothic protagonist who can handle a firearm. Her relationship with her mother is another matter. Evelyn “Evie” Stoker is a woman so chilly and severe, by law she has to be played by Nicole Kidman. When Uncle Charlie shows up after the funeral, the widow turns to him for “comfort.” India is not impressed, rebuffing all her Uncle’s overtures of friendship. Kindly Aunt Gin appears quite alarmed by Charlie Stoker’s presence, but she disappears before she can explain why. People seem to do that around the Stoker family.
Stoker is exactly the sort of film Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows should have been, but totally wasn’t. Park’s mastery of mood is reflected in every scene, particularly in some visually arresting transitions. While the lurid nature of the material often approaches camp, Park emphasizes the repressed, brooding and eerie atmospherics. It also helps that Wentworth Miller’s screenplay tells a fully fledged story that mostly comes together down the stretch (rather than stringing together a series of gags).
It would be spoilery to explain why, but it is safe to say audiences have never seen Mia Wasikowska like this before. Yet in a way, India Stoker is something of a psychologically troubled cousin to Jane Eyre. Matthew Goode holds up his end, bringing all kinds of creepiness as Uncle Charlie. Although Kidman is often relegated to the sidelines, she perfectly delivers some scathing Mommie Dearest lines in the pivotal third act confrontation that audience members were quoting immediately after the screening.
Park’s accomplished hands have transformed a V.C. Andrews-ish yarn into an unusually stylish, dark fable. The Oldboy auteur’s admirers should be well pleased with his English debut and it also ought to earn Wasikowska a whole new level of fanboy appreciation. Elegantly sinister, Stoker is recommended for sophisticated genre patrons. It screened as a Premiere selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: B+
Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 11:10am.
By Joe Bendel. The blue Kevlar helmets issued by a Filipino armored car company identify their drivers as targets just as much as they provide protection. It is dangerous work, but it is the best opportunity for one desperate economic migrant. However, he finds himself in the midst of a risky game in British filmmaker Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila, which screened during this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City.
Exploited as rice farmers in the rural north, Oscar Ramirez and his family pull up stakes to seek work in Manila. Unfortunately, they fall victim to a series of cruel scams as soon as they get off the bus. With no other options, his wife reluctantly takes “hostess” work at a sex bar. Just as things look truly hopeless, Ramirez lands a job with an armored car company, thanks to his military background and some timely coaching from his prospective partner, Ong.
The veteran Ong definitely knows how to game the system, but he also seems to take an interest in Ramirez. After a few days on the job, though, it becomes clear the senior driver has a suspicious agenda, involving the recent hold-up that claimed the life of his previous partner.
Metro’s first act is unremittingly grim and naturalistic. Watching the Ramirez family suffer one indignity after another is tough going. Frankly, Ellis maintains the grim tone throughout, but really cranks up the tension as the crime drama takes shape. This is a smart, taut story, but like Ron Morales’ Graceland, Metro portrays Manila as a relentlessly corrupt and predatory metropolis (which some might raise some eyebrows coming from a Brit like Ellis). In a pointed example, the armored car company is just as likely to make deliveries for drug dealers as for legitimate banks. That is where the money is.
Jake Macapagal is very good as Ramirez, the Filipino Job, completely guileless but stretched to his breaking point. Nonetheless, John Arcilla constantly upstages him as Ong with his charismatically garrulous villainy. While completely convincing as a middle-aged ex-cop, he has an electric screen presence that largely pulls viewers through all the teeming misery and inequity miring the characters.
Metro fits a whole lot of plot into about a week’s worth of time. In fact, all the events transpire before Ramirez’s first payday—an important fact to keep in mind, given certain decisions he makes. Dark and gritty as anything screening in Utah last week, Metro will not be to all tastes, but it is a surprisingly powerful combination of class conscious social drama and the caper movie. Highly recommended for fans of Filipino cinema and verité-ish crime-in-the-streets films, Metro Manila screened in Park City as part of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: A-
Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 11:10am.
By Joe Bendel. And now Sebastián Silva presents the second part of Michael Cera’s Chilean vacation. This was the film they intended to make all along, but when the financing temporarily bogged down, they whipped up Crystal Fairy to pass the time. While Silva’s Magic Magic has a darker, more intriguing premise, it was probably too art-house for genre patrons when it screened as part of the Park City at Midnight section of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Alicia has come to Chile so she can visit her cousin Sarah, who is just so gosh-darned thrilled to have her there. Alicia seems a bit high maintenance, which is not what Sarah needs right now. Having some private business to tend to, Sarah pushes Alicia off on her boyfriend Agustín and some friends leaving on a coastal vacation. Something about Alicia brings out the absolute worst in the sexually confused expat Brink, but the shy and clumsy (perhaps deliberately so) Alicia gets on everyone’s last nerve. It is mutual. As Agustín’s friends mock and complain about Alicia behind her back, her mental state begins (or continues) to deteriorate.
Minor spoiler alert: By far the biggest disappointment of MM is the lack of a violent death for Cera’s Brink. Considering how unpleasant he is (just as annoying as his character in Crystal Fairy, if not more so), he really has it coming. In fact, Silva disregards most of the principles of EC Comics, avoiding genre scares in favor of slow brooding atmosphere. Something is definitely off in MM, but Silva lets it all emerge slowly.
In a weird way, MM closely parallels Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, right down to its ambiguous third act. However, the climatic event makes logical sense in the Romanian film, whereas in MM it rather comes out of left field.
As Brink, Cera is bilingually irritating, which is sort of impressive, really. As Alicia, Juno Temple is a perfect portrait of arrested development (if you will) and emotional neediness. She is just all kinds of trouble. She also takes the Sundance honors over Cera and Silva, having appeared in three films at this year’s festival (also including Lovelace and Afternoon Delight). To her credit, Emily Browning brings some presence to the underdeveloped role of Sarah, whereas the Chilean characters are even more undistinguished, seemingly on hand just to rub Alicia the wrong way.
Silva masterfully creates a mood of profound unease, but it never really pays off. Magic Magic is the sort of film that is more interesting to look back on than to watch in the moment. Given the big name talent involved, it is a cinch to play fairly far and wide after its premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: C+
Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 11:09am.
By Joe Bendel. Is technology stronger than social tradition and family expectations? That question will be put to the test when two aspiring filmmakers fall head-over-heels in “like” via online video messages in James E. Duff’s Hank and Asha, an Audience Award winner at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival.
Hank had a short film accepted at a Czech film festival. Asha saw it there. She is studying at a Prague film school for a year, before returning to her regular life in India. Something about Hank’s film prompted her to send him a video message. Something about her question convinces Hank to respond in kind—and so on and so on. Soon their long distance flirtation becomes surprisingly serious. However, the inconvenient realities back in India drastically complicate any future they might have together.
The scenes filmed in Prague nicely capture its beauty and vibe, making viewers want to visit the city again. The New York scenes did not seem to have the same effect (but to be fair, I was only in Park City for a week, hardly enough time to get homesick). Regardless, the sense of place and displacement are a big part of what distinguishes H & A.
H & A is sort of like a hipster updating of sentimental favorites like A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters.Dramatically, it works relatively well because of its realistically appealing leads. Andrew Pastides is not afraid to look silly as the somewhat nebbish Hank. He also forcefully depicts the heartsick desperation of a smitten party with no leverage to make their sort of relationship work. Mahira Kakkar has a pixie-like charm as Asha. However, Duff and co-screenwriter Julia Morrison have her doing things that do not really make sense in light of her full situation. Still, both co-leads definitely convince viewers that each has a deep emotional attraction to the other, despite never appearing in the same scene together.
It is easy to see why Slamdance audiences responded to H & A. It offers some unabashed sentiment for the Facebook generation without feeling out of synch with the times. Small but nice, Hank and Asha is recommended for Williamsburg scenesters as a counter-intuitive date movie. Following its success at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, it should have a long, fruitful festival life ahead of it.
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 11:07am.
By Joe Bendel. When two slackers discover that the house they share is haunted, they try to use this novelty to score with a ghost-crazy chick. If this seems like an inappropriate response, then you are probably not a dude in his 20’s. Or 30’s. Or maybe even 40’s. Intellectually and emotionally, Brad and Sergio are barely adolescents, decidedly out of their depth in Scott Rutherford & Ben Peyser’s found footage horror spoof Ghost Team One (trailer with all kinds of profanity here), which screened during the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.
When Sergio has a strange, unexplained experience during a kegger, Brad assumes he was just drunk—because he was. However, the two decide to become amateur ghost chasers when they learn Fernanda, their very attractive party guest, is obsessed with the paranormal. It turns out that their house was once a notorious brothel, whose madam disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
As recorded by Billy Chen, their unseen Craigslist videographer, the lads go about documenting their ghost, a la Paranormal Activity. However, they are far more interested in putting the moves on Fernanda. It is not exactly Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, but there are plenty of laughs to be mined from this basic premise, with Brad and Sergio essentially serving as the horndog versions of Scooby and Shaggy.
As Brad and Sergio, Carlos Santos and J.R. Villarreal play off each other quite nicely and have a real flair for raunchy stoner humor. Fernanda Romero is a charismatic screen presence, who credibly portrays her namesake’s willing obliviousness to the all the lust focused at her. However, Tony Cavalero frequently upstages everyone as Chuck, the aggressively uptight third housemate.
It probably cost Rutherford and Peyser more to travel to Park City than to make Ghost Team One. Nonetheless, there are moments of genuinely inspired gross-out humor, including a climax so demented viewers have to see it for themselves because words fail. Those who enjoy taste-defying humor with supernatural trappings should keep an eye out for Ghost Team One. It is bound to find an appreciative audience after its world premiere at this year’s Slamdance.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 11:06am.
By Joe Bendel. Big Sur has a long history of inspiring artists, from Henry Miller to Charles Lloyd. Jack Keouac was also one of them, sort of. Adapting Kerouac’s autobiographical novel of his time spent along California’s scenic central coast, Michael Polish conveys an impressionistic sense of Kerouac’s language and the lonesome unspoiled environment in Big Sur, which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
To protect the guilty (most definitely including himself), Kerouac changed the names of the Beat elite who appear in Big Sur. Polish changes them back, perhaps to make the film more commercial, but frankly there is no mistaking Kerouac or the Cassadys (or Ferlinghetti for that matter). Only a few years have passed since the publication of On the Road, but Kerouac is not dealing with success well. The literary rock star has come to California with the intention of holing up in Ferlinghetti’s Big Sur cabin to purge his soul. However, a typical Kerouac bender delays his arrival at City Lights.
Eventually, Ferlinghetti ensconces Kerouac in Big Sur, hoping his time spent in isolation will recharge his creative drive. For a few days Kerouac enjoys communing with nature, but he gets antsy quickly. Before long, he is reconnecting with Neal Cassady, launching into a doomed relationship with his friend’s soon-to-be-former mistress, and generally carousing with the usual suspects.
As plot goes, Big Sur leans to the sparse end of the spectrum, making it a real cinematic challenge. However, Polish arguably captures the rhythm and vibe of Kerouac’s language better than any other filmmaker, directly incorporating generous excerpts from Kerouac’s novel, read by Jean-Marc Barr in the persona of the author. Accompanied by images of natural beauty and underscored by a subtle but stylistically diverse score, Big Sur is not unlike a cinematic tone poem at times.
Yet the film is surprisingly peppy. Rather than hold one striking image for an interminable length of time, Polish shows the audience one after another, and yet another, in rapid succession. As result, Big Sur always feels like it is getting somewhere, even when it has little narrative business to show for itself.
A rich visual feast, Big Sur functions as a heck of a show-reel for cinematographer M. David Cullen (whose extensive credits include Jennifer’s Body). Barr also sounds great reciting Kerouac, but dramatically his work is something of a mixed bag. He lacks Kerouac’s considerable physicality and charm, but he certainly expresses the restlessness that defined the author, as well as his aura of danger and dissolute inclinations. Cullen’s lens also loves Kate Bosworth. Nonetheless, she is largely wasted as Kerouac’s increasingly exasperated lover Billie, but Anthony Edwards adds an appealing human dimension to the proceedings as Ferlinghetti.
With the choice to see one Beat Generation-related film from this year’s Sundance, it should be Big Sur rather than the over-hyped Kill Your Darlings. Granted, it might not completely pull it off, but Polish’s film comes far closer to translating Kerouac to the big screen than other recent attempts. There are even surprisingly playful moments that suggest the Pull My Daisy spirit. Recommended for Beat fans, Big Sur screened as a Premiere selection of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 3:37pm.
By Joe Bendel. The post-Ewing era has been tough for Knicks fans. Time and again they have watched the organization bring in over-priced under-performing free agents, assembling a mismatched Frankenstein team with no room to maneuver under the salary cap. The only hope was for an unheralded bench player to explode out of nowhere. In February 2012, Jeremy Lin answered Knick fans’ prayers. Evan Jackson Leong follows his long hard road to overnight success in Linsanity, which screened during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
There are not a lot of undrafted Harvard alumni playing in the NBA. Lin is one. He is also obviously Asian American—a fact many in the professional basketball establishment have trouble getting a handle on (to put it generously). In fact, Lin faced adversity at every stage of the game. Casual fans might be surprised to learn that Lin’s prep career ended with a Hoosiers like upset state championship, largely powered by his playmaking. Yet, despite his stats, Lin was never recruited by an NCAA program.
Leong probably should win this year’s right-place-at-the-right-time award at Sundance, having begun to document Lin well before he became a Garden sensation in that fateful February. Clearly, he won over the trust of Lin as well as the player’s parents and brothers. As a result, viewers get an intimate look at the central roles Lin’s close relationships with his family and his Christian faith play in his day-to-day life. In a sport filled with show-boaters, Lin emerges as one of the good guys.
However, Leong seems a little too diplomatic in his coverage of the many problematic responses to the sudden outbreak of “Linsanity,” as it was soon dubbed. While the filmmaker lumps it all together, there seemed to be a peculiar resentment from some commentators, reflecting an attitude of racial proprietorship over the game of basketball that allowed for goofy looking Euro players like Dirk Nowitzki but not homegrown Taiwanese-American talent like Lin. Those are indeed torturous waters to navigate, so Leong understandably takes the better part of valor. Still, he forthrightly addresses the overtly racist taunting directed at Lin from supposedly tolerant Ivy Leaguers during his Harvard away games.
Linsanity pulls off the near impossible, getting viewers to root for a Harvard grad. He captures the electric excitement that swept through New York, re-awakening the City’s passion for basketball. It was short, but intense and we still appreciate Lin for it. Even those who do not follow the NBA will understand why after watching Leong’s doc. Recommended for basketball fans and those who enjoy Horatio Alger stories, Linsanity screened as a Documentary Premiere selection at this year’s Sundance.
LFM GRADE: B+
Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 3:36pm.
By Joe Bendel. She was paid $1,250 for a film that reportedly grossed $600,000,000 and that paltry sum was entirely pocketed by her husband-manager. That might sound like the deals musicians usually get, but she was the original porn star, whose cautionary tale is told in Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman’s Lovelace (clip here), which screened as part of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Linda Boreman had the profound misfortune of marrying Chuck Traynor, an aspiring pornographer who could turn on the disingenuous charm when he wanted to. Submissive by nature, Boreman, under the stage-name Linda Lovelace, was forced to perform in explicit films, including Deep Throat, which surely everyone reading this only knows as the inspiration for the code name of Woodward & Bernstein’s Watergate source. However, at the time it was quite zeitgeisty, becoming a major pop culture phenomenon of the 1970’s.
Initially, Epstein & Friedman portray the dirty movie business relatively benignly, but in the second half of the film they reveal the physical and emotional abuse Traynor employed to bend her to his will. Much has been made of the decision to cut Sarah Jessica Parker’s appearance as Gloria Steinem, implying that the film ignores Lovelace’s later anti-porn activism (like, say, ending Schindler’s List when the German industrialist decided to open a factory exploiting camp labor), but this really is not the case.
Frankly, cutting SJP as Steinem sounds like a perfectly defensible call from multiple standpoints. Regardless, the film clearly casts Lovelace as the victim of Traynor and culminates with a cathartic media appearance in which she tells all. Hardly another Boogie Nights, porn is bad in this film, plain and simple.
It is hard to tell from her Wikipedia page, but the brunetted Amanda Seyfried looks like an okay but not uncanny likeness for the tragic Lovelace. She radiates vulnerability, almost suggesting Lovelace was mired in a state of arrested development. Peter Sarsgaard’s Traynor might just be the most unsettling white trash figure seen on film in years. With his mullet and tank tops going on, he might be the least pleasant to look at, too.
However, much of the ensemble seems to think they are in some groovy period piece, such as James Franco’s blink-and-you-miss-him appearance as Hugh Hefner. Hard on the heels of About Cherry, Franco also produced two other Sundance selections this year: kink and Interior. Leather Bar. Hmm, don’t you wonder what he collects? Still, T2’s Robert Patrick has some fine moments as Lovelace’s confused ex-cop father. Conversely, though quite unrecognizable, Sharon Stone is still way over the top as her shrewish caricature of a mother.
Despite its tonal inconsistencies, Lovelace mostly feels earnest and well intentioned. It does not make viewers curious to check out Deep Throat, which is a real test of such a potentially sensationalistic film. Former documentarians Epstein and Friedman keep it all moving along relatively briskly enough. The end product is highly watchable with little resulting guilt, but hardly essential. Recommended for those with a deep personal interest in the subject, Lovelace screened in Park City as a 2013 Sundance Premiere.
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 3:34pm.
By Joe Bendel. Ushio Shinohara knows how to show a canvas who’s the boss. His wife Noriko knows how to do the same with Shinohara. However, it was not always thus. Their relationship has evolved over the years. Zachary Heinzerling documents the artists as they prepare for their first joint show in Cutie and the Boxer, which screened during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Ushio Shinohara’s unique brand of abstract expressionism involves paint soaked boxing gloves. One of the more cinematic artists to watch at work, Shinohara created several of his boxing paintings live in Park City for suitably impressed festivalers. He also has a considerable body of sculpture, but it is the painting for which he is best known. Alas, “known” is a relative term. Despite a burst of media attention when he arrived in 1969, lasting success has eluded the boxer.
Meeting Shinohara in New York as a naïve art student, Noriko put her career on hold to raise their son and to serve as her husband’s assistant. However, she is poised to eclipse his limited renown with her autobiographical comic art depicting the tempestuous relationship of the often naked “Cutie” and her alcoholic husband “Bullie.” “Ushi” is the Japanese word for “bull,” but the name perhaps holds a double meaning here.
Life with the Shinoharas sounds much quieter now that he has sworn off drinking. Unfortunately, their adult son seems to have picked up his father’s bad habits—a not uncommon phenomenon for children of alcoholics. Their interfamily dynamics are definitely complicated, but Heinzerling gives viewers enough contextualization to pick up on most of it.
Ushio Shinohara’s working process is interesting to watch. Noriko Shinohara’s work is interesting to read and absorb. That gives Heinzerling quite a bit material to shape into a film, particularly by the standards of most quietly contemplative art docs. Just Ushio Shinohara’s status as an eighty year old struggling artist lends the film ample dramatic tension.
Serving as his own cinematographer, Heinzerling gives C & B the straight forward observational doc treatment. However, the music of experimental/jazz/classical composer and Bach interpreter Yasuaki Shimizu adds a layer of aesthetic richness to the film, while sensitively accompanying the on-screen action. Whether or not the film will make Ushio Shinohara’s art more collectible, it should move quite a few Shimizu CDs (or downloads).
C & B examines the downside of hipsterdom, but it has a strong element of hope that will surely resonate with audiences. The Shinoharas keep doggedly plugging away, remaining faithful to their artistic visions. Hopefully, Heinzerling’s film will help spur wider recognition for them. Recommended for patrons of art documentaries and contemporary Japanese art, Cutie and the Boxer screened in Park City as part of the U.S. Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on January 30th, 2012 at 3:33pm.
By Joe Bendel. If you were to list corporations arrogant enough to initiate the Terminator franchise’s Skynet apocalypse, Google would have to rank at the top. In fact, they might be the entire extent of the list. Ben Lewis documents enough characteristic weirdness and secrecy surrounding the company’s controversial book-scanning initiative to provoke all sorts of paranoia with Google and the World Brain, which screened as part of the World Documentary Cinema Competition during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
It sounded innocent enough during the early stages. Google approached some of the greatest academic libraries, offering to scan their collections. For librarians, it offered the opportunity of digital preservation, without taxing their institutional budgets. However, many were surprised to find Google selling the resulting e-books online, including a considerable number of titles that were out-of-print, but not out of copyright.
To the considerable number of authors affected, this constituted theft of intellectual property. Yet, many tech tea leaf readers were even more concerned about the big G’s ultimate aim. Although not confirmed by the company, the book-scanning project is largely considered to be part of a larger undertaking to create a “World Brain” artificial intelligence.
Lewis employs the words of World Brain proponent H.G. Wells to introduce the concept, but you do not have to wear a tin foil hat to be uneasy with his “paternalistic” rationalizations. Likewise, given the big G’s history of collaborating with the Chinese government (briefly addressed in the doc), one does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to be uneasy with the company potentially keeping tabs on what books people read in the future.
Of course, it is hard to say just what the big G’s intentions are because they are not particular talkative about that. Despite his efforts, Lewis only gets a bit of corporate flackery from an official spokesman and some less than illuminating comments from the rather confused sounding head of Google Books in Spain (who evidently did not get the memo). One thing comes through loud and clear in G & WB:f you want to talk to the big G about a cup of coffee, you will quickly find yourself signing non-disclosure forms.
While not exclusively about the court challenge to the big G’s settlement agreement with the Authors Guild, this is unquestionably Lewis’s strongest material, becoming the dramatic backbone of the film. Plenty of those objecting to the arrangement talk on-camera about the complex court case and their wider reservations. We also hear from the usual futurist suspects, essentially picking up where they left off in Welcome to the Machine.
Further distinguishing it from other tech docs, G & WB sports some surprisingly cool graphics that nicely serve the film’s narrative clarity. In a minor quibble, the film commits a fallacy of composition when it lumps together several ongoing court cases related to e-books that are really more about commercial practices than control of information.
It takes guts to question a company with the resources and self-righteous image of the big G. In doing so, Lewis tells a great David vs. Goliath story and raises some pertinent ethical issues for the information age. Well thought out and lucidly presented, Google and the World Brain is recommended for the Wired set and book publishing dinosaurs as it makes the festival rounds following its world premiere at this year’s Sundance.
LFM GRADE: B+
Posted on January 29th, 2012 at 8:26pm.