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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Robert Baker and Mark Hamill in "Virtually Heroes."

By Joe Bendel. There was one film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival 100% guaranteed to turn a profit. We can tell this by the fact Roger Corman serves as its executive producer. Although Corman was the subject of Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel which was a selection the 2011 edition of the festival, director G.J. Echternkamp’s Virtually Heroes marked Corman’s Sundance debut as a filmmaker this year in Park City.

Sgt. Books is a fully aware character in a Rambo style video game, who is getting increasingly frustrated with the futility of his existence. His sidekick, Sgt. Nova, is far less so; the impulsive Nova still enjoys the in-game killing as well as the post-fight preening.Books is only interested in Jennifer, the “sexy lady reporter” who has been captured by the Viet Cong, or whoever. Unfortunately, she is always plunged back into jeopardy right every time she and Books start to share a moment.

From "Virtually Heroes."

VH largely repeats the same one-joke premise over and over, as Books and Nova work their way through successive levels of the video game. Still, it is rather clever to have Mark Hamill, Mr. Videogame Voice-Over, appear as the mysterious Buddhist Monk. And from Corman’s perspective, it was a brilliant opportunity to re-use his old jungle exploitation action footage, with no need to worry about pesky continuity issues.

Obviously Corman was not about to fritter away good money on name actors, either. At least Robert Baker looks the part of the brooding, square jawed Books. And for his part, Brent Chase earns a lot of points as the over-the-top testosterone-charged Nova, understanding full well his role in the mayhem. Katie Savoy’s reporter is about as down-to-earth as is possible in a film like this, while Kiana Kim, the future Mrs. Pete Rose, adds further cult-camp appeal as a sleazy stripper (believe it or not).

This is definitely a meathead movie, but it tries hard. Screenwriter Matt Yamashita clearly gets the gaming mentality, but too often VH resembles the first-person shooters it is lampooning. While the film maintains it energy, the wit and originality flag over time. A so-so midnight offering, Virtually Heroes still holds the distinction of bringing the Corman brand to Sundance. Expect to find it coming soon to a Syfy Channel near you.

LFM GRADE: C-

Posted on January 29th, 2012 at 8:25pm.

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By Joe Bendel. To this day, French is still more widely spoken in New Orleans than people realize. Unfortunately, an expecting married couple is not fluent. If they were, they might have picked up on the neighborhood’s macabre names for the fixer-upper they just purchased. They soon learn just how grossly they overpaid in Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon’s Hell Baby, which was a Park City at Midnight selection during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Vanessa is pregnant, so we know what that means. As soon as she and Jack move into the House of Blood, she starts to act like Signourney Weaver in Ghostbusters. Not yet panicking, Jack takes her to see her psychiatrist, who is brutally murdered and crucified shortly thereafter. This is certainly a suspicious turn of events, but Jack is preoccupied by the house’s supernatural box stacking, a desiccated old lady who will not stay dead, and F’Resnel, the friendly derelict crashing in their crawlspace. Help, dubious as it might be, is on the way. Vanessa’s Wiccan sister Marjorie is determined to perform a cleansing ritual and the Vatican has dispatched two investigators.

Veterans of MTV’s The State, Garant & Lennon recently exposed a bit of the Hollywood system’s sausage-making in their bestseller How to Write Movies for Fun & Profit, so they might be doing some short-term indie-genre penance. While Hell Baby primarily goes for dumb gory laughs and is hardly shy about returning to the gag-well over and over again, it is safe to assume it is funnier, smarter, and more aesthetically rewarding than the latest Wayans’ horror “spoof,” sight unseen.

Indeed, Hell Baby’s comedy scatter gun is loaded with blood, vomit, nudity (both the hot and gross varieties) and the violent deaths of a fair number of major characters. Still, Garant & Lennon find clever ways to poke fun at genre conventions, such as the practice of compulsively startling the protagonists.

As hapless Jack, Rob Corddry is very funny while venting and whining. He was also a joy to work with, according to Hell Baby’s impish Sundance junket send-up. Garant & Lennon are strictly shticky as the Italian priests, but Keegan Michael Key has some amusing moments as the ever present F’Resnel. However, Riki Lindhome probably deserves the most credit for being a good sport during her scenes as Marjorie, which must have been chilly – even in New Orleans.

Almost entirely shot in NOLA, Hell Baby’s demonic story might not sound like the best advertisement for the city, but Garant & Lennon compensate with some big time Po’ Boy love. Hearing a bit more from the local music scene would have been even better, but so be it. Its broad comedy hits the target more often than it falls flat and the wild exorcism scene should satisfy horror fans. Sure to find a theatrical afterlife given the names attached, Hell Baby delivered what midnight patrons expect at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on January 29th, 2012 at 8:22pm.

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LFM Reviews Padak

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Jan 282013

By Joe Bendel. Even in a restaurant aquarium, the law of the jungle still holds. However, one mackerel has different ideas, preferring the hope of freedom to a life playing dead. Obviously riffing on Pixar’s fish story, Lee Dae-hee’s Padak (trailer here) is surprisingly serious stuff that might be better suited to older animation fans when it screens tomorrow as part of the Korean Cultural Service’s regular free movie night.

Even before she reached the restaurant (more of a coastal greasy spoon), the young mackerel did her best to flip and flop back to the ocean. In the tank, she compulsively darts and dives, trying to break through the invisible walls. Somewhat amused at the futility of her efforts, the other fish dub her Padak (meaning “flappy”). They have adopted the survival tactics of the old flatfish, playing dead whenever humans approach the tank and cannibalizing their sickly neighbors.

Padak refuses to follow this strategy. She would rather take her chances with a desperate escape attempt than the cringy existence proscribed by the flatfish. In fact, Padak rather powerfully suggests the ultimate price of freedom is still favorable to an undignified security. That is a laudable message, but it might be a bit much for some youngsters to handle. Parents should note, there is also a fair amount of filleting and gutting in the film. Clearly, those tanks are not in front of the restaurant for decorative purposes.

Padak’s animation is very strong, approaching the level of recent Dreamworks Animation releases. The fish are quite expressive and the scenes with humans have a dark, almost expressionistic flavor. However, the strongest, most complicated character is the hard-bitten old flatfish rather than the plucky but not particularly well fleshed out Padak.

Given its anthropomorphic fish, viewers will probably come into Padak with a certain set of expectations. However, the film works towards a bittersweet and somewhat tragic ending that is quite mature and thoughtful. For grown-ups, it pays off handsomely. While there is absolutely nothing in Padak that could be considered objectionable, it is still recommended as an adult fable for older animation fans. It screens—for free—tomorrow (1/29) at the Tribeca Cinemas, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service in New York.

LFM GRADE: B

Posted on January 29th, 2012 at 8:22pm.

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