All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)



Charlie Victor Romeo (Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels and Karlyn Michelson)
Charlie Victor Romeo is a 1999 play by the Collective: Unconscious theatre group that has now been adapted into a feature film. Or more properly, we should say that it has been “transcribed” onto film; there is no attempt to expand on the stagebound, black-box origins of the piece, and this refusal to create a more obviously cinematic atmosphere is just one part of CVR’s conceptual project. The subject matter that comprises Charlie Victor Romeo is widely available to anyone who cares to discover it. This, too, is part of the overall structure of its intervention as both a performance work and an experimental documentary. In succession, with no overarching narrative or interstitial connective material, CVR features a rotating troupe of players reenacting the final moments in the cockpit before six separate airplane crashes. The dialogue and actions are taken from the cockpit voice recorders (“CVR,” which is translated into NATO alphabet code for the title), which were recovered following each disaster.  In essence, we are watching as airline crews work to stave off probable or certain death. Or, to be more precise, we are watching actors turn these real-life events into a form of docudrama.


Naturally, one has to ask why the producer-directors of CVR felt that this was necessary, much less ethical. As I mention above, the six flights selected for the project are available to any interested party. Not only are they part of public record, but are generally subject to what we might generously call a glut of nonfictional material now widely accessible through the 24-hour cable TV cycle or reality programming, as well as the unbridled circulation of the Internet. The actual black-box recordings of, say, Aeroperú Flight 603, during which the pilot and copilot struggled with faulty and contradictory instrument readings and warning alarms (some accurate, it turns out), can be heard on YouTube in its entirety. Two of the four crashes featured in CVR have been profiled in the Canadian air and rail disaster program Mayday. However watching and listening to the CVR troupe as they perform these moments of crisis -- in several cases, the very last moments of the subjects' lives -- elicits a completely different set of emotional responses than listening to the actual flight recordings. Part of this is attributable to the psychology of cinematic spectatorship, which tends to regard a (false) present-tense existence to the people and events onscreen. (In the theatrical version of CVR, this isn't even illusory.) By contrast, listening to the flight recorder, by dint of what that particular "medium" signifies and the dire circumstances in which any such recording enters the NTSB archive, is automatically an engagement with the past.


But even more than this formal disparity, there is a certain visceral freedom that the performers of CVR afford their viewers, a capacity to identify with the dead or with those who are near death and fighting to stave it off. The distance that the film provides from the actual recorded texts permits us to connect with the cockpit scenes as if they were narrative events, rather than whole-cloth, all-encompassing traumas. That is, we are permitted to watch a disaster unfold in real time without fear of being ghoulish or perverse. Rather, we are able to take events which we had previously understood only as massive singular events (the crash of a plane) as unfolding human events, as stories. This is not trivializing the humanity lost in these crashes; rather, it is pulling particular moments, choices, even identities out of the "wreckage" of trauma and allowing them to come into focus. In short, CVR returns to us our understanding of human beings in linear time, instead of permitting the moment of impact to engulf, and retroactively nullify, the Being of these very ordinary individuals. The disasters may provide a terminus for their lives (and CRV is interested in why the accidents happened, and how similar crashes can be avoided in the future), but it is their duty, their fears, and their "movement-towards" that defines them. That is to say, none of these people arrived at their final destination, but CVR nevertheless shows us how they completed their journey.


The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, U.K. / Germany)
In the land of Zubrowka, a resplendent modern hotel plays host to crowned heads and the ultra-rich. High in the mountains, virtually a rebuke to the humble Eastern European environs that surround it, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a beacon of luxury and civility in a world poised on the brink of war, just about to topple into barbarism heretofore unknown. Set apart on its mountaintop, the Grand Budapest is virtually a symbol of, if not a microcosm for centuries-old ideals, our collective ability to carve culture and comfort out of the harshness not only of the elements but also of the worst aspects of human nature. This hardly sounds like a Wes Anderson film. However, part of what is unique about The Grand Budapest Hotel is the fact that, in channeling the concepts and moods of the fiction of Austrian modernist Stefan Zweig (in particular his semi-fictionalized memoir The World of Yesterday), Anderson is able to revisit a crisis point in modernity – specifically the outbreak of World War II – with an insouciance and a bemused distance that in no way approaches irony or a mocking historical presentism. Instead, Anderson treats the “world of yesterday” a bit like Stravinsky adopted Pergolesi, if not quite attaining the ideal of Pierre Menard’s “Cervantes.” That is to say, Anderson occupies this period from a distinct distance but with an undeniable sincerity and curiosity.

How could the Grand Budapest, and the grand dream of urbane modernity it exemplified, fall so dramatically into disrepair? In order to foreground these questions, Budapest employs a triple-embedded, almost Dutch-doll structure with regard to the receding past. In a 1985 timeline, we see a young girl reading a book by “the author,” who we will meet in two different guises. As an elderly man (Tom Wilkinson), he will begin to tell us of his arrival at the decrepit Grand Budapest Hotel in 1960s Zubrowka (a fictional country of the Austro-Hungarian empire), where he will meet the aging Mr. Moustapha (F. Murray Abraham). This meeting will occasion the flashback that serves as the film’s main narrative, as Moustapha recalls his youthful apprenticeship at the Hotel in the 1930s run-up to World War II, with the legendary concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). With the use of this structure, which Anderson sheds like a multi-stage rocket, we are allowed to definitively enter the past, but are always reminded of the presence of a semi-diegetic scrim, an interpretive frame that forbids transparency. In other words, this is not a “period work,” in the conventional sense.What’s more, Budapest makes these frames a matter of physical vision. This can be seen in the decision by Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman to utilize three different aspect ratios to represent each of Budapest’s different timeframes – 1.85:1 for the 1980s, 2.40:1 widescreen for the 1960s, and 1.37:1 Academy ratio for the 1930s. This is indeed an impressive bit of formalism, since Anderson is doing more here than simply mimicking the visual proportions of movie images contemporary to the scenes depicted. He is creating a material match between the diegetic history Budapest depicts and the cinema’s means for depicting it. In this regard, Anderson is sculpting with memory.


[This is an excerpt from a full-length review in the Summer 2014 issue of Cineaste.]


How To Disappear Completely (Raya Martin, The Philippines)

Hats off to Raya for a stellar 2013, pulling off the enviable two-fer of La última película and the very distinct, equally bracing How To Disappear Completely. This is a film that I wish I'd written about immediately after seeing it, because it is both complex and evanescent, operating in a formal register of moods and motifs that hover and coalesce quite clearly around certain key ideas (particularly visual ones), and then break apart again. It is a constellational film, one of moving parts and multivalent concept-fragments, and as such any astute or responsible critic ought to be carefully keeping track of the ley lines so as to better trace the various paths opened up by the work. (By contrast, LUP is fairly grounded in a few master themes, despite its unusual manner in addressing them. Like the sacrificial heart excised near the end, LUP is a work you can hold in your hand, even if you can't catch every messy drip.) HTDC is the first Martin film I've seen that borrows so directly from the vocabulary of contemporary Asian art-horror. On the most basic level, it struck me as a riff on certain Kiyoshi Kurosawa gestures (particularly from his Cure / Pulse heyday), situated not only in the tropical locale but in the ambiance of Lav Diaz and Apichatpong. That is to say, Martin establishes particular crises in the family unit, and those crises are reflected in material manifestations of unconscious or even supernatural elements. The forest is magical and dangerous, but in a way no more so than the bedroom. Every site is fraught with a different sort of unknown anxiety. We also observe roving bands of children, left on their own to form social bonds and make evaluations about proper behavior (e.g. the cemetery scene), in the absence of adult supervision / interference. The "absent" is all these cases could be read as a palpable spectral presence, the pressure of what is in fact always there -- the parental or cultural superego you internalize, or the presumption of social surveillance. But as the film goes on, this vague force (which does in fact want to kill, and kill the older generation for sure) comes to be understood as supra-individual, something endemic to the Filipino Condition. The fact the Martin begins in a semi-Westernized household is crucial here. The children are haunted by the great repressed: their actual identity, Filipino history, the inheritance that trails them regardless of their particular upbringing. And so the title, borrowed from Radiohead, refers to the Philippines itself. Capitulation to colonial logic is "how to disappear completely," as well as trying to shut out its consequences for the generations that follow. ("I'm not here . . . this isn't happening.") The kids, who seem to be summoning the forces of historical revenge, could perhaps answer their parents' fantasies of whiteness with another Radiohead song, "There There." Just cos you feel it doesn't mean it's there. [NOTE: For a much more thorough take on Martin's film, I humbly refer you to Noli Manaig.]


The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, U.S. / Australia / Denmark)

Blindsiding the critical establishment during the February doldrums, The Lego Movie inspired hysterical reams of hyperbole. And, since I am behind in my capsule-review duties, it's a perfect time to revisit this issue. As the Giant from "Twin Peaks" said, it is happening again. (Lord and Miller are back in (live) action with 22 Jump Street, proving that cheeky nostalgia riffing is the 21st century's poetic license to mint money.) As far as The Lego Movie goes, well, it's good. It's certainly smart, and like semi-related "properties" before it -- the Toy Story films, or even "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" -- the film insinuates itself into the only classy high road left for this sort of high capitalist kiddie art. It displays its sheepish ambivalence about the fact that its raison d'être is the promotion and sale of toys. It generates a story that makes the experiential fact of playing with the toy in question central to the plot. And it exists in a post-romantic sphere of heroism, less Steven Spielberg than Howard Hawks in that it's teamwork and collective assembly that saves the day rather than a lone visionary coming into his own. What Lord and Miller do with this template (a new Tradition of Quality for kids' cinema) is impressive in that its minor didacticism sneaks up, and can even be missed completely if you're not looking for it. Emmet (Chris Pratt), the dull-witted construction drone who is mistaken for the Master Builder (i.e., the Neo / messiah figure who will lead the minifigs out of tyranny), gets mixed up in the Resistance only because he likes the rebel grrrl Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), and because he does what anyone tells him. But in the end, he's the only one who has ever actually cooperated with others on a project, followed a blueprint, or really held a single communitarian thought. (The Resistance is crippled by bourgeois liberalism and the fetish for individual "expression.") So ironically, the "master builder" is an affable managerial type. (What, you were expecting Lego Castro?) The film's most jarring twist (and its most affecting moment) takes us out of Lego Land and into a third level of representation, something much closer to our world. The "Lego Movie" scenario, it turns out, is wholly allegorical, and Spielbergian / individualist to boot. If we think about The Lego Movie's consideration of father / son, parent / child conflict on its own terms, it's not just about play. It's about work, and the future of work as a form of play, "thinking outside the box," moving things around, flexible problem solving and all that jazz. Lord and Miller, whether sincerely or with tongues in their cheeks, have produced a kind of training film for the future, a story about how gluing things down will make you a dull, hopelessly obsolete boy.


The Lonely Life of Debby Adams (Karen Yasinsky) [v/s]

There is something intriguingly mysterious about all of the Yasinsky work I've seen, and even as I type that statement it feels like a cop-out, a highfalutin way of saying "I don't get it." Which I don't, in some respects. Vaguely sharing a minimalist-perfomative sensibility with artists like Jesse McLean and Laura Parnes, but tending to prefer stasis to drama (Parnes) or fragmentation (McLean), Yasinsky seems to want to work with the promise of portraiture, in particular the cultural assumption that female existence is some kind of emotional open book. We return again and again to the image of a teenager seated before the camera, staring, brushing her hair, inhabiting a mid-sphere between self-consciously "ignoring" the gaze and performing for it. She never offers any direct contents of an interior self; the portrait Yasinsky provides is one of someone of a certain age (in both senses: years on earth, and epochal) who is accustomed to minor-league surveillance as an all-encompassing habitus. There is no "normal" interior self, in the sense that our modernist or Romantic concepts of portraiture would recognize. The shots of "Debby" (we are never sure) alternate with other images, most notably a closing bedroom door. The matte paint and neutrality of tone match perfectly with the flattening provided by Yasinsky's videography and lighting. This closed door marks "Debby's" private boundary, but it is as blank as her expression. Or, rather, the door "performs" privacy, even though our ongoing gaze at the girl indicates that there may be nothing to keep private (or no real "privacy" in the senses we would understand, those of us still clinging to outmoded notions of the bourgeois self, with its surface / depth model). In this context, Yasinsky's title may actually be ironic. What would it mean in this context to be lonely? Is being alone enough to provoke the emotion, if one's affective life is rhizomatic and nodal, rather than a rooted point with a plunging core? "Lonely" here may simply mean offline, in the digital sense of "my connectivity is down, but soon it will be back up." No harm, no foul? I really don't know.


Nymphomaniac Vols. I & II (Lars Von Trier, Denmark / Germany / France / Belgium / U.K.)

Reviews have tended to treat Volumes 1 and 2 as separate films, which I chose not to do. (I watched both parts back to back, which made a lot of sense to me; not sure how this film would play if you had to wait a week or two for the "conclusion.") History may prove that I was in the wrong, but I can't help that now. I must say I am surprised by the widespread critical attitude that Vol. 1 is puckish and intriguing and Vol. 2 is ugly and ill-shapen. I find it hard to believe that anyone failed to see that things would turn ugly. The only question was how. And, well, to what degree. While I do concur that Joe's stint as a mob enforcer is pretty half-baked, I found most of the rest of the film consistent in its knotted episodic vignette structure. If Antichrist was Lars' position paper on misogyny, Nymphomaniac is his graphic novel. Or something. My review for Cinema Scope.


The Pervert's Guide To Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, U.K. / Ireland)
My review for the Nashville Scene. Unlike Fiennes' previous outing with Zizek, which at least had cinema as a kind of anchor, this one is really a bit like a greatest hits package, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Formally, it's comprised as a series of semi-related smippets or blackout sketches, and really, there's nothing Zizek says or does that wouldn't fit under the umbrella of ideology critique. So it's a bit of a free-for-all. More entertaining than enlightening; probably for Slavoj completists only.

The Square (Jehane Noujaim, Egypt / U.S.)

This is a perfectly serviceable documentary about the Egyptian Revolution, the election and deposing of Morsi, and the utterly confusing aftermath. I can't say that it breaks any boundaries but considering that Noujaim was capturing events as they unfolded, it's an impressive piece of journalism. I think it would have benefited from her presence, from her position being a bit more obvious in terms of what she was experiencing, but that means asking for a different kind of film. So maybe it isn't fair. My review for Cinema Scope.



Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? (Michel Gondry, France)

Unlike the Zizek film, there's very little humor in Gondry's film-portrait of Noam Chomsky. Even the director's decision to convert the images into "whimsical" animation in post-production doesn't add much levity to the entry-level precis of the Language Acquisition Device, generative grammar, or other fundamental Chomskian concepts. Part of the problem is that Gondry is way out of his intellectual depth, so his interview style is just north of utterly awestruck. I mean, his curiosity is commendable, to say nothing of his bravery. But for a third-person observer, it's quite difficult to penetrate the Chomsky-Gondry back-and-forth, not because it's too dense but because it's rendered in such an oblique manner. It's like there was no thought given to the fact that anyone would be watching this. My Nashville Scene review.

Mitt (Greg Whiteley)

As I remarked on Twitter, this "fly on the wall" profile of Mitt Romney and his family, shot during his two presidential bids, is about as realistic a portrait as Katy Perry: Part of Me, and moderately diverting in the same way. No, Ann doesn't put plastic lollypops on her boobs. ("Darn...?") But both films purport to offer a warns-and-all behind the scenes look at a world famous figure, and they most certainly do not. Mitt is a fully authorized production, meaning that Whiteley never shoots the Romneys in a truly compromising position, nor does he engage in any hard-hitting journalism. This is ultimately a fluff piece designed to show the man behind the starched collar, and in that regard it works fairly well. Mitt and the other Romneys come off as decent, likeable individuals, Ann in particular. We do see that the Romney sons seem to behave as though there's a kind of pecking order, even though they obviously love and respect one another. In other words, Mitt treats us to a lot of stilted, patent-leather WASP family dynamics, and avoids most political questions with the scrupulousness of an outside directive. Yes, we see Romney doing debate prep, and he spends exactly eleven seconds shrugging off the illicitly captured "47%" comments. But even when the Romneys are having a brainstorming session about how to alter the public perception that the candidate is a "Mormon flipper," it's never a crisis of how to better relate to people, much less how to better clarify his own values. It's posed as a branding problem, and a fundamentally decent as the Romneys may be, Mitt is just another tool in their attempted stage management. And it's also an indication of why so much of America wasn't buying the product. Ninety minutes with the Romneys is a bit like an evening at your boss's home. You're shadowed by the sense that dinner and drinks are really some sort of test that you're not passing.


Le Week-End (Roger Michell, U.K. / France) (0:55)

Maybe I wasn't capable of gazing into the unpleasant future of marriage, or something. Although despite conventional wisdom, I hardly think that generalized resentment is a foregone conclusion in the final leg of a long-term partnership.But all this was was bickering and sniping, and an almost willful refusal to enjoy Paris. And gee, I wonder if that was a set-up for a kind of revelation in the third act? Just a slog and a waste of time, and I can only assume its relative success is due to its being pitched down the middle of the plate to the Graying of America's Arthouse. It takes a special kind of effort to make Jim Broadbent so obnoxious. Final confession: I've never understood the big deal about Hanif Kureishi. His writing leaves me ice cold.