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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Amanda Seyfried in "Lovelace."

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.

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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.

From "Cute and the Boxer."

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.

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