Tower Records documentary photo
Tower Records documentary

Trailer: All Things Must Pass covers the rise and fall of Tower Records

Remembering the big chain record store
Aug 31
// Hubert Vigilla
If you were a teenager before the 2000s and lived in a decently sized town or city, chances are you went to a Tower Records. Tower used to be one of my go-to spots to buy/browse music while I was a high school kid in the Bay ...

Review: I Am Chris Farley

Aug 11 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219746:42540:0[/embed] I Am Chris FarleyDirectors: Derik Murray & Brent HodgeRelease Date: August 11, 2015 (VOD & DVD)Rating: NR  I Am Chris Farley is an interesting mix of interviews and video clips, most of which appear to have been ripped from VHS tapes. They span his time at Second City all the way through his various film appearances. It periodically cuts to an interview with David Letterman which is probably supposed to be representative of his success... but looking at his eyes, I only saw fear. The bulk of the film is made up of interviews. School friends, family, other actors. Big names, small names, no names. There were so many of them that I often forgot who the smaller names were. It seems to be intended for TV (made by Spike), as every so often it decides to reintroduce them with new title cards. Every 20-30 minutes or so, after they're back from the commercial break. I wish they'd done that more, honestly. But at some point, it didn't matter if that was the guy who was with him at Second City or the one who played Rugby. They're not there to serve themselves. They're there to help document Chris Farley. The whole thing is pretty straightforward. It starts with his youth and ends with his death. We're walked through the kind of person he was and the near-inevitability that he would end up a star. He was the entertainer, always looking for the spotlight. Of course he was. He was Chris Freaking Farley. And, as I sort of knew but very clearly learned, he was really flipping funny. But even if you know that, there's a lot of interesting stuff to be gleaned from these interviews. He used to be a jock, for example, super into football and rugby. He was an excellent improvisor but he never wrote any of the sketches he was in. He was the mold that everyone else used to make beautiful sketch sculptures. And oh what a mold he was. [embed]219746:42544:0[/embed] You could argue that I Am Chris Farley is a little on the shallow side. It's not until the last fifteen or so minutes that his death even comes up. Heavy on the happiness and nostalgia and then just a little bit of, "Also, the bad." And it's something I'm sort of conflicted about. By virtue of this fact, I Am Chris Farley is not really an accurate representation of who he was. If he was in and out of rehab, then a couple of mentions towards the end are hardly enough to accurately depict his struggle. This is a whitewashed version of Chris Farley. But I can also appreciate the desire to not dwell on the negative. It makes the film less of a historical document, but I also don't think that makes it somehow less worthwhile. Just go in with your expectations in check. This is how people want to remember him, all of the good times they had together and the laughs that everyone shared. This is about the idyllic version of the man – the myth and the legend. I think that's okay. I honestly do. There's something unfortunate about it, perhaps, but this was a man who just wanted to make people laugh. He wanted to be famous so he could go make sick children at the hospital happy. That's the stuff people want to think about and remember. Everyone has their flaws... but sometimes ignorance is bliss. I think this is one of those times.
I Am Chris Farley Review photo
Some version of him, anyhow
When I went into I Am Chris Farley, I couldn't have honestly said that I was a fan of his work. Not because I didn't like it, but because I didn't know it particularly well. I'd seen some stuff over the years, but I miss...

Review: The Nightmare

Jun 05 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219463:42422:0[/embed] The NightmareDirector: Rodney AscherRelease Date: June 5, 2015 (limited, VOD)Rating: NR Rather than rely on scientific rigor or consultations with medical professionals, The Nightmare is more about the experience of sleep paralysis and what it means to the people who suffer from it. The focus on individual voices rather than experts makes The Nightmare similar in some ways to Ascher's previous documentary, Room 237, which was about conspiracy theories and off-beat critical interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Each segment of The Nightmare is generally the same: a subject recounts his or her experience with sleep paralysis, and Ascher recreates the hallucinations with actors, generally culminating in a mini-horror set piece of some kind rife with Dario Argento color schemes and creepy sound design. What distinguishes each experience is the individual interpretations and descriptions of the sleep paralysis sufferer. In one of the most memorable of these horror tableaux, a giant three-dimensional shadow creature hunches over the bed. It's so tall, this shadow, that it has to stoop in order to fit in the room. The only distinguishing feature about it are red eyes and fangs. In the distorted voice of nightmares, the shadow tells the dreamer, who's frozen and staring up into its eyes, "You're going to die." He's told this repeatedly. He can only listen. It's a menacing moment, and there's something about the angles of the room and the vulnerability of the dreamer that makes it an effective horror spectacle. But it's more than mere spectacle, which comes back again to the importance of the individual voices of The Nightmare. Dreams are so personal, and while therapists and sleep specialists can help uncover the neuroses and the neurology that influences them, the visceral experience of dreaming is always something private until someone chooses to share it, and even that can fall short. Think about when friends recount their nightmares, but the terror seems foreign to you because of the difficulty of relaying the physical and intensely psychological experience. The Nightmare recreates the visceral space of bad dreams, and the voices of the subjects add the personal dimension that heightens the terror of being helplessly at the mercy of our minds--it makes a personal experience participatory. Keeping expert analysis out of The Nightmare also helps relate the personal discoveries and struggles that people with sleep paralysis experience, as if they're finding touchstones and footholds in the real world to make sense of their interior lives. Inevitable references are made to horror movies and science fiction movies with similar imagery--A Nightmare on Elm Street, Communion--and there's brief mention of the various manifestations of sleep paralysis hallucinations around the world. All these people, all over the world, throughout history, terrified but not alone in this helplessness. That's almost comforting, at least until the next episode of sleep paralysis. When I interviewed Rodney Ascher about Room 237, he referred to The Shining as a machine for spontaneously creating synchronicities and coincidences, which also seems like a nice way of describing the way we try to make sense of dreams, in this case bad ones. When confronted with something so existentially dreadful that's rooted in the unconscious and subconscious, there's an attempt to make sense of it somehow. The dream might point to some greater psychological or spiritual need (maybe these aren't separate concerns). We get to ask, "Why did I dream about x-thing?" or "Why did y-person do this to me?" or, ultimately, "What does this mean?" If we couldn't ponder meaning or create meaning from this mental matter, that would be absolutely terrifying.
Review: The Nightmare photo
So much for a good night's sleep
Sleep paralysis is a condition that affects people in a liminal state of consciousness between sleep and wakefulness. When it strikes, a person is unable to speak or move. Several people who discuss their own experiences with...

Not Crying photo
Not Crying

Trailer for Batkid Begins cuts so many damn onions

Also looks like an interesting doc
May 21
// Matthew Razak
All the feels. Batkid Begins opens in select theaters on June 26. You'll probably start crying before the end of the trailer though.

Review: Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World

May 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219427:42372:0[/embed] Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World (Dark Star: HR Giger's Welt)Director: Belinda SallinRelease Date: May 15, 2015 (limited)Rating: NRCountry: Germany/Switzerland Dark Star: H. R. Giger's World is a fans-only sort of film. His art is striking, imposing, especially given the sheer size and scope of it. Even Giger's oversized art books like Necronomicon I or Necronomicon II--essential texts for fans of dark fantasy who came of age in the 80s and 90s--can't begin to convey the scale. In one room of the Giger Museum, the walls are covered in an ornate tableau of pale cyborg women worshiping Baphomet; a recurring motif of columns topped with the heads of babies look like rows of necrotic phalluses, and any gap in a wall is a potential mechanoid vagina. The film doesn't give much of a scaffold of appreciation for non-Giger fans, though, or any sense of his position as a figure in the underground and punk/new wave movement, or just how many people have been influenced by his creations. The archival footage that shows Giger creating his artwork is more illuminating than the comments from friends and family. The commentary about his art is the same series of platitudes that have been said about Giger for years: darkness, a technological and organic blend, ugly eroticism, the night of the soul. Even as a fans-only proposition, Dark Star tells Giger fans things they've known for years rather than adding new dimensions or depth. When we see a young Giger work, there's excitement even if the footage is familiar. He allows images to spray out quickly from his subconscious onto paper through an airbrush. He doesn't sketch ahead of time but simply lets the images flow from him, as if any additional intermediary between brain, ink, and surface would occlude the process of rendering his multi-textured dream world. It's a tragic counterpoint to the elderly Giger. Gargle-voiced and hunched over, his demeanor suggests he's been hobbled by a stoke in old age. He struggles to sign his name, and his speech has a labored quality. He wanders his home, which is domestic in some parts and Giger-esque in others. I wish Dark Star had explored the Giger house and its layout in greater detail since it seems like his home is his entire world; it's not Harlan Ellision's eccentric abode (aka The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars), but it does have a train track and a dining room fit for xenomorph royalty. For some artists, the space in which they work is a manifestation of the interior world that makes the work possible. The only art Giger creates for Sallin's camera is a pencil sketch of a familiar form--the delineation of a phallus maybe, the suggestion of a passage possibly, the general enticement of sex. But the sketch is only a wireframe rather than a fully realized idea. Giger may be in pain as he speaks, which is why so much of the talking is done by others for him in the documentary. He smiles, though, and when Giger smiles, there's a genuine warmth to it. It's like watching the last glimmers of light in a darkening room.
H.R. Giger's World Review photo
A fans-only look at H. R. Giger that may disappoint Giger fans
H. R. Giger passed away a year ago this week. His biomechanical art is instantly recognizable--Egyptian and yet otherworldly, simultaneously erotic and repulsive; a combination of flesh, alloy, suppurations, and vertebral for...

Look of Silence Trailer photo
Look of Silence Trailer

The trailer for The Look of Silence offers a glimpse at one of the best films of 2015

A follow-up to The Act of Killing
May 08
// Hubert Vigilla
Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Act of Killing was one of the best films of 2013. The film examined the Indonesian genocide from the point of view of the killers, and in the process provided a chilling look at the way hi...

Tribeca Review: Monty Python: The Meaning of Live

Apr 26 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219309:42350:0[/embed] Monty Python: The Meaning of LiveDirectors: Roger Graef and James RoganRating: NRCountry: United Kingdom  I'm on the younger side of New York film critics. I'm certainly not the youngest (not anymore), but I know a whole bunch of critics more than twice my age. And that means that many of the people who I saw The Meaning of Live with were alive when Monty Python was big, and a fair number of those were probably old enough to remember them. Those people were laughing at the film for different reasons than I was. Those people were laughing because they were seeing sketches they knew by heart for the hundredth time, though with the added quirk of thirty years. Monty Python is no longer made up of spring chickens. They're older, grayer, and feeling the effects of those first two things. Going between clips from back in the day and the modern iterations, the sketches themselves haven't changed much, but the people definitely have. Seeing John Cleese in a wig as a young man was funny. Seeing him in a wig as an old man is freaking hilarious. The film isn't just about the stage show, though. It's also about the past, about their time in Britain and then going abroad. It's about what led them to split up in the 80s and then return in the 2010s. It's about the entire Python timeline. And it's all fascinating, because they're fascinating people. And they're funny. I mean, of course they're funny, but that doesn't make it any less noteworthy. Watching them talk and interact, seeing how they do this thing and then talk about what they did, it's all enjoyable because they're just enjoyable to watch. Near the end of the trailer, John Cleese is in a hallway and he trips over his own feet. He's on camera, but he's not doing it for the audience. He's doing it for the two workers in the hallway with him. He turns it into a bit, doing it a few times, just to get some laughs out of the people who are doing all of the thankless work to get him up on stage. It's a wonderful moment, and it makes you fall in the love with man yet again. The Meaning of Live feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, even though it's professionally done. The camera people honestly aren't that great at their job, and frequently try to find focus as everyone involved walks around. It looks kind of guerilla, to be honest, and that's unfortunate. Even if the show that's being filmed has some technical hangups, there's no excuse for the film to as well. Moments of brilliance were obscured in a camera operator's inability to find focus. I've filmed things like this before, and I know how difficult it is to do this job, but that doesn't excuse it. They should have been on point. Because everyone else was.  Whether you could recite Monty Python sketches in your sleep or just have vague memories of hearing someone discuss a holy hand grenade, there's something in this movie for you. You don't need to know Monty Python to find their story fascinating. I expect you'll get more out of it if you do, but it's hardly a requirement. Really, the only thing you need to bring is a sense of humor. And that shouldn't be a problem. If Monty Python can't make you laugh, then you're definitely dead inside. 
Monty Python Review photo
Always look on the bright side
Even though Monty Python ended their run in the 1980s, they're still curtural icons. Even for people like me, born after their disbanding, films like Monty Python and the Holy Grain (though less their Flying Circus roots...

Tribeca Review: Thank You for Playing

Apr 22 // Hubert Vigilla
Thank You for PlayingDirectors: David Osit and Malika Zouhali-WorrallRelease Date: TBDRating: TBD Just seeing Joel on screen is heartbreaking. It's the way his eyes cross, which seems troubling, not a routine case of strabismus that lots of kids have. A whole flood of emotions winds up in the content of That Dragon, Cancer. The first-person experiential game allows players to push Joel on a swing, to feed ducks with Joel at sunset, to catch Joel coming down a slide as he giggles--it's his real laugh. There are also visits to the clinic, mournful walks through dark rooms of the house, and even a metaphorical flourish of indoor rain, like something out of a Tarkovsky movie magnified to Biblical proportions. While That Dragon, Cancer offers a space to participate in the life of the Green family, it also conveys a sense of helplessness. There's only one outcome to all of this. Ryan and Amy are people of faith, and it seemed that an underlying pain of their situation is how God could let this happen. I never sensed that their faith was in question--it's something stable--and the game and the documentary convey the frustration of trying to find hope when none seems possible. For instance, in the design of the game, Joel's face lacks features. By not particularizing Joel's face, it opens up the possibility for a more universal experience of the loss. Yet there's also the facelessness of the real Joel. He should be verbal at his age and have more of a personality, but his development has been stunted. Ryan says that he loves his son, but he doesn't really know him and he'll never get to really know him. Directors David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall play a difficult balancing act since their film is both a making-of documentary about That Dragon, Cancer as well as a chronicle of a family's sadness along the lines of Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary. There are times when the making-of aspects of the film feel at odds with the heartache in the Green family, but they're generally all of a piece. Art gets made to address an experience, so the creative process of making That Dragon, Cancer is an essential interpretive component to the movie. There's little division between lived life and creative life. There's a scene in which Ryan records some dialogue for the game. His lines seem like private poetry if you just read them as words on a screen: "Fear is cancer's preservative; cancer's embalming oil. And you, oh Accuser, are Fear's oil salesmen." He reads his lines again, this time with something to wrap his hands around, like he's choking the Devil, or cancer, or his anxieties, or death itself. He reads with so much conviction, and he brings to life all of the ineffable emotional stuff that his words alone can't convey. There's another important function to art that comes across in both That Dragon, Cancer as well as Thank You for Playing: it's to remind others that no matter what, whether in joy or in grief, we are not alone.
Thank You for Playing photo
Love letters, memorials, videogames
There are moments of Thank You for Playing that are so painful because the documentary feels so personal. It's about Joel Green, a boy with terminal brain cancer, and how his parents try to cherish the little joys in life whi...

Tribeca Review: The Birth of Sake

Apr 21 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219229:42341:0[/embed] The Birth of SakeDirector: Erik ShiraiRelease Date: TBD Rating: TBD A second family is essential for the brewers at Yoshida Shuzo. (The brewery has produced Tedorigawa label sake since 1870.) They spend an entire season at the brewery tending to the sake rice, waiting for the precise moment of fermentation, stirring vats or letting them sit still and bubble. They eat meals together, they sleep in on-site quarters, they party together, and they toil. All the while, the camera lovingly considers the winter outside and the activity indoors, making the rice and steam both a counterpoint and a complement to the falling snow. It's not food porn, it's food poetry. The general sentiment from the brewmasters and Shirai is that the brewing process is almost like raising a child. (Hence The Birth of Sake rather than The Making of Sake.) When they're away from their baby, we see the various men in isolation and get to understand the kind of necessary camaraderie that builds through this rearing of sake. At one point, some of the older brewmasters bathe together. In another context, these men ought to be retired, but at Yoshida Shuzo, they're like brothers playing in the tub. There's a generational divide in the sake brewing process, which reflects a change in Japanese drinking habits just as much as the way that most traditions fade generation by generation. The primary seller for Tedorigawa is much younger than the veteran brewers, and he spends his off-season traveling the world to promote the brand. Sake is his life, but he's had to feel his way around the changing market for it. He shares some wine with his fellow brewmasters, and the differences in their palettes are apparent with the first swirl and sniff. The other young brewmasters, when off work, hang out with the other young brewmasters, and they talk about dating women, though maybe "girls" given the teenage tenor of their conversation. The cycle of making sake would get in the way of those plans. It's the difference between a job and a calling, which leaves the future of the craft in question. Shirai captures both the beauty and the melancholy of the sake brewing process, and it's fascinating that The Birth of Sake never feels forced in its various observations. That's probably because the brewmasters have such fondness for what they create, and for the family that's created because of it.
Birth of Sake Review photo
The brotherhood of brewers
At a certain point in Erik Shirai’s documentary The Birth of Sake, it becomes apparent that the film isn't just about the art of making of sake. This is common in movies that are about making something—food, art, ...


First trailer for My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

A documentary about Refn, by Refn's wife
Feb 16
// Per Morten Mjolkeraaen
It seems documentaries about eccentric filmmakers is the next big thing, as My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn follows suit with last years, Jodorowsky's Dune, when it premiers to VOD platforms and select theatres on F...

15 documentaries advance for Academy Awards

You probably haven't seen any
Dec 02
// Matthew Razak
Documentary film is awesome, but most people don't rush out to watch it or even have the ability to do that if they wanted. You usually get sucked into a documentary by accident and then you remember how great they can be. So...
Look of Silence photo
Look of Silence

First trailer for Act of Killing follow up The Look of Silence

Oct 22
// Nick Valdez
Joshua Oppenheimer's Indonesian genocide documentary The Act of Killing was one of the best films of 2013. It was unique in that it forced those who bragged about their killings to reenact them and see it from a different pe...
Superman bein' Superman photo
Superman bein' Superman

Trailer for The Death of Superman Lives documentary is kookoo bananas

Aug 20
// Nick Valdez
Remember how bad everyone thought Man of Steel was? Could you imagine that film being about six times worse? The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is a Kickstarter funded documentary that explores a film that near...

Review: Kill Team

Jul 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215318:39994:0[/embed] Kill TeamDirector: Dan KraussRelease Date: July 25, 2014 (New York, National rollout to follow)Rating: NR  The primary focus of Kill Team is Private Adam Winfield and his family. Private Winfield was the whistleblower who attempted to bring attention to these criminal acts for months. Despite his efforts and his family's efforts, military brass never acted in an urgent way. Private Winfield's own father, who also served and was the reason that Private Winfield enlisted in the Army, reached out to as many professional contacts as he could that might be able to do something. None of these people could help, and many deferred responsibility to other parties. The reason these kills took place was the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs. Gibbs is an imposing figure, an all-American freedom machine with the features of a GI Joe. He served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in addition to his hardcore machismo, there's a major psychopathic and sociopathic streak to him. He looks at the Afghan population as sub-human, and even makes a necklace of index finger bones for his own amusement. As trophies of his kills, Gibbs also gets tattoos, and he encourages those under him to do as he does. Gibbs is never interviewed for the documentary, and it's no surprise that he'd avoid participating in this film since he wouldn't come out of it in any sort of positive light. A few of Private Winfield's fellow soldiers are interviewed, however, and they are so blunt about what happened it adds additional chill to what they say. It's like they're describing trips to the store rather than the murder of innocent people; as if they're talking about others planting grenades and pulling the triggers rather than themselves. It seems like they viewed the peacekeeping side of the mission as tedious rather than essential, while the firefights were where the fun was at. Private Winfield was coerced to murder an innocent civilian himself under threat of death. The rest of his company knew he wanted to reveal what they've done, and they made it known that if he blew the whistle, they'd kill him and make it look like an accident. If  they could make innocent civilians seem like enemy combatants, it wouldn't be so hard to make another murder seem like part of routine combat. Under that kind of duress, Private Winfield had no choice but to comply. His parents were helpless to help, and Army higher ups weren't too concerned. On top of that, Private Winfield's small in stature and even though he has a lot of heart, his rucksack weighs as much as he does. Private Winfield seems like the only person interviewed that shows any remorse about the killings. He recalls the moment and calls it the worst thing in his life. The other troops who are so matter-of-fact describe a kind of compartmentalization of military action and civilian life. Back home, a troop may be filled with angst and anxiety that they try to tamp down as best as they can. They express no desire to kill when on leave, but things are different when back in Afghanistan. Obviously this isn't the case with all troops and the documentary isn't painting everyone who serves in the same light, but Kill Team does a good job of profiling just how dark these impulses can become. Much of the film's focus is on Private Winfield's fate and how his family copes with the legal defense. In some ways this points out part of the film limitations in its exploration of this issue. No doubt a lot of this had to do with access, and director Dan Krauss makes the most out of his time with the Winfields. While some of Private Winfield's fellow troops participate in the documentary, none of their families appear. Part of me wonders how their experiences were and what their personal stories involved, especially in the case of Gibbs's loved ones. Did they notice something wrong? Did they know what was happening? How do they feel now that they know what's happened? One minor issue I had with Kill Team had to do with its presentation, of all things. When Krauss is in documentary journalism mode, the film is brimming with power. The more cinematic flourishes in the film seem less effective, though. The cinematography is nice, but it seems like a bit of a distraction -- a kind of garnish rather than something that complements the content. There's also the slow crawl of text from Facebook chats between Private Winfield and his father, which are more affected than effective. It's a testament to the power of this story, maybe, that I'm critical of a choice of presentation that gets in the way of the facts. Quibbles aside, Kill Team is an important film that may be the first of many to come. Once again, as we're told in the film, this is something that happens more that we think. Other units have engaged in similar actions, and the civilians who witness it are going to harbor deep and legitimate resentments that will be passed through villages, conveyed to the next generation. When more of these stories are revealed and more time has passed when the last troops have left, we may get a larger and more complicated picture of the country and the conflict. The silence can't last for long.
Kill Team Review photo
Examining US troops that murdered innocent Afghan civilians for sport
The war in Afghanistan is the longest military conflict in which the United States has been involved. The operation is nowhere near as successful as hoped, which is part of the reality of fighting a war in Afghanistan, a less...

Review: Particle Fever

Jul 01 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217974:41645:0[/embed] Particle FeverDirector: Mark LevinsonRelease Date: iTunes (July 1, 2014); VOD (July 15, 2014)Rating: NR And now for a digression: In college, I took a course called "Crazy Ideas in Physics." A fundamental part of that class was essentially a live action role play, where the class was broken up into multiple factions. These factions were pitching ideas to a commission (made up of students) that would then dole out (fake) money based on the legitimacy of the pitch, which by powerpoint presentations and a poster session where the pitches were elaborated, as well as appearances on a television program hosted by Hildy Johnson, the journalist, as portrayed by yours truly. (Yes, I did have a better college experience than you.) The commission was set to look for Revolutionary Ideas in science, physics or otherwise. One of the proposed theories involved a proposal to build a large, extremely expensive machine that would allow us to learn the mass of a neutrino. It had important scientific implications, but the question came up again and again from the members of the commission: what good does it do us as a society? Will the mass of a neutrino cure cancer? Will it incite world peace? No? Then why should we care? Watching Particle Fever reminded me a lot of those "meetings." Thousands of people from over 100 countries spent $6 billion on a giant circular tube that smashes together particles in order to find new particles. The big one that everyone was looking for was the Higgs Boson, which is the particle that gives mass to other particles. Modern physics requires the Higgs Boson to exist, and physicists knew it would be found one way or another, but they didn't know how heavy it was. That question matters, but it doesn't matter to the public. Knowing the mass of the Higgs Boson won't cure cancer. In fact, it doesn't really do anything except disprove a number of theories about the universe. It doesn't prove a single one, or even really clearly hint at a true answer. It just confirms the existence of someone everyone knew already existed. To most people, that wouldn't be worth $6 billion. But to those who really want to understand the world around us down to its most fundamental elements, the announcement that the Higgs Boson has a mass of approximately 125MeV matters a whole lot, and the investment was completely worth it. (And now more money is being invested to find out what's next.) Particle Fever follows several physicists through the current life of the Large Hadron Collider. Some of whom were directly involved in its experimentation, and others stayed on the sidelines. It's a film that's been years in the making, and it's one that may deserve a sequel in a few years when the LHC is booted up again for Round 2. But the LHC itself is the least interesting part of Particle Fever, as is the science in general The film tends to gloss over the technical stuff, going so far as to put a musical interlude on top of an important talk because it would have just gone over everyone's heads anyway. Some things are explained, but if you don't have some grasp on the fundamentals of the universe, you're going to be really confused really quickly. Big points, like the fact that the Standard Model of physics upon which basically all modern knowledge is based is fundamentally flawed, are mentioned but not addressed, and that strikes me as an unfortunate oversight. That point is especially important, since it's the entire reason for the LHC's existence, but it's just sort of shrugged off with a "Gravity's really weak," something that won't make any sense to most people. Yeah, a proper explanation would have added to the runtime, but it also would have made everything a little bit clearer. (As an aside, I found it interesting that so much time was spent on SUSY, by the way, considering that the revelations from the LHC has thus far only served to discredit SUSY theories, something the films admits but doesn't really go into... But that's neither here nor there.) Instead, the thing that really got to me was the philosophy of the whole thing. Each of these physicists comes to the Large Hadron Collider, physically or emotionally, for a different reason, but all of them have made physics their livelihoods. The mass of the Higgs Boson affects all of their careers (and thus their lives) in a meaningful way. And especially in the time leading up to the unveiling of the data, the way they viewed the possibilities of the information was fascinating. I may not have learned any new science, but I learned a whole lot about the outlook of these people who obsess day in and day out over these abstract concepts. None of us will be able to ever really "see" the Higgs Boson or whatever it is the LHC (and its potential successors) reveal next, but there are people who devote themselves to it. Seeing and hearing these incredibly intelligent people talk about this thing that may one day help us quite literally understand life, the universe, and everything. That is what makes Particle Fever worth watching.
Particle Fever Review photo
More philosophy than science
I like physics. I probably have as good a grasp of the field as any film critic, and I frequently read articles about things like the Large Hadron Collider and the revelation of the mass of the Higgs Boson and how that revela...


Trailer for Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Jun 12
// Isabelle Magliari
As a young lady whose favorite childhood toys were a garbage bag full of Ninja Turtles action figures and who arrived at the theater for 2007's TMNT dressed up as Michelangelo, I will pretty much sit through anything th...

New trailer for whimsical soccer movie This is Not a Ball

May 30
// Liz Rugg
Leading up to the 2014 World Cup, (which is taking forever, am I right?) artist Vik Muniz has created the quirky, tongue-in-cheek documentary This is Not a Ball. This is Not a Ball follows Muniz all over the world as he expl...

Woman replaces the dead with dolls in "The Valley of Dolls" documentary

first Furbies, now this
May 01
// Isabelle Magliari
Filmmaker Fritz Schumann visits the mostly abandoned village of Nagoro in his creepily sweet short documentary The Valley of Dolls. Schumann profiles 64-year-old Nagoro resident Ayano Tsukimi, a woman who constructs lar...

Tribeca Review: Mala Mala

Apr 24 // Isabelle Magliari
[embed]217663:41468:0[/embed] Mala MalaDirector: Antonio Santini, Dan SicklesRelease Date: TDBRating: NR Mala Mala spends its 89 minute run profiling nine key members of Puerto Rico's trans and drag communities. It delves lightly into each of their stories while successfully balancing talking head segments with seemingly candid shots of the nine men and women interacting within the communities they live and work. Mala Mala's unflinching, 'fly-on-the-wall' style of portraying its subjects stands as the film's crowing achievement. Whether they're hanging out at The Doll House (a drag club) or picking up clients on the street, Mala Mala allows its cast to speak their minds, for good or bad, and it's incredibly refreshing.  The film begins with Sandy, a transgender woman, telling the camera about the importance of passing for a woman while working the streets. Sandy acknowledges that, although she has had top surgery done, preserving a certain other appendage does have its disadvantages while trying to lure a john, and that the best solution to this problem is to simply be more beautiful than any biological woman. While Sandy talks, the documentary listens. There is no music to dictate our feelings and most of the segment is uncut, allowing us to observe Sandy while she applies her makeup for the night and jokes good-naturedly about venereal diseases. It would be easy to paint this woman's life in a highly sympathetic light, but when Sandy is allowed to speak candidly, there is a sense that she doesn't at all resent the way she lives. Sandy isn't a pitiable person, and Mala Mala is an outlet through which she can become charming and likable through her own merits.  This sense of honesty is present in all of Mala Mala. If the documentary has any agenda at all, it is only to show the immense love and companionship within Puetro Rico's trans and drag worlds. Whether it's  Paxx's, the only male transgender profiled in the film, flirting coyly with his girlfriend or Sandy nuzzling up to her boyfriend, love in this community beams throughout the film. This sense of unity stems from Mala Mala's utmost respect for its subject matter. It reports on the lives of these people in a matter-of-fact way and does not condescend with sappy music or propagandize with its footage. Struggling though life, especially as an underrepresented and often misunderstood subset of society, is both inspiring and soul crushing, but people do not live solely in these extremes and neither does Mala Mala. Additionally, Mala Mala's clever inclusion of RuPaul and her drag competition, RuPaul's Drag Race, makes this film even more relatable and its message further reaching. As a massive fan of RuPaul's Drag Race myself, I was happily surprised to see season 6's very own drag superstar April Carrión amongst the queens at The Doll House where she excitedly talked about appearing on the show. April and her drag sisters are packing suitcases together, and the scene feels overwhelmingly genuine and joyful. The beauty of being alive in a time when a woman like RuPaul can rise to incredible fame is not lost on April, and it's endearing to listen to her marvel at the massive impression RuPaul has left on the world ("She even has a wax figure at the wax museum in New York!").  This is not to say that Mala Mala doesn't have its upsetting moments. RuPaul's mark on the world aside, the transgender community is still highly marginalized. The documentary spends much time with a young woman named Ivana, the transgender spokesperson for the Butterfly Trans Foundation, and her struggle fighting for equal employment for people who are transitioning. Yet even this seemingly impossible effort is met with success by the end of Mala Mala when Bill 238, which prohibits employment discrimination because of gender identity and sexual orientation, passes.  Over all,  Mala Mala exists as a celebration of Puerto Rican drag and trans life. Directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles understand that sometimes showing the triumphs of a marginalized group of people can hold more power than reiterating their struggles alone. The film is powerful because it is not afraid to celebrate something that many still consider taboo. And the best part is, the subjects in this film are comfortable celebrating themselves as well. 
Mala Mala Review photo
An emotional, political, and physical transition
Mala Mala is the type of documentary that you feel privileged having watched. The Puerto Rican drag scene and transgender communities are endlessly fascinating, and watching them thrive through Mala Mala's respectfu...

Tribeca Review: Maravilla

Apr 22 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217654:41466:0[/embed] Maravilla Director: Juan Pablo Cadaveira Release Date: TDB Rating: NR I find boxing kind of upsetting. I have no problem with its existence or popularity, but the whole concept of watching people actually hit each other in the face until one of them gets a traumatic brain injury just doesn’t appeal to me. So the first few minutes of Maravilla were difficult, because it’s primarily close ups of the knockout blows that made Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez the champion that he is. But it’s not just the knockout blows but the sounds of the punches. Most people know that Hollywood sounds aren’t actually the sounds that come from a fist hitting flesh. And though boxing gloves bring the sounds a bit more in line, the squishy crunches accompanying the big strikes were clearly pumped up. And while I knew that was the case, it was hard to divorce myself from it, and it took the already-unpleasant reality of boxing and pumped it a notch. But then Maravilla turns away from boxing and moves primarily to the boxer. Sergio Martinez is an Argentinian boxer who won the World Middleweight Championship fair and square before having the title stripped from him due for complicated political reasons. Through a series of events, Mexican boxer Julio Chavez Jr. got the title without ever going up against Martinez. Understandably, Martinez was unhappy about that, and that quest to take on Chavez Jr. is the focal point of Maravilla’s story. If you’re a boxing fanatic, I don’t know how much of this film will be new to you. Maybe you’ve got posters of Martinez above your bed and know everything about his life, but for those who are completely new to his story, Maravilla basically covers all of the important ground. The only question that I left the theater with was how exactly the scoring system worked. When Martinez deals a knockout blow, obviously he’s the winner. But how do they decide who wins when they both finish the fight standing? Turns out, there’s a complicated scoring system that determines it, which is important and something I wish I’d known beforehand. But aside from that, I never really felt like I was lost. Boxing has always struck me as a pretty simple sport, and nothing about Maravilla changed that. But even though the final result may seem pretty simple, what happens behind the scenes is anything but, and that’s why the film is interesting, because it exposes boxing’s interesting politics. Martinez may be the best middleweight boxer in the world, but as far as the big leagues were concerned, he wasn’t a big name. People didn’t know him and they wouldn’t pay for him. And if they couldn’t sell him on pay per view, they weren’t going to put him up against the extremely marketable Chavez Jr. The amount of work they have to go through to make the fight happen, all of it in the public eye, is fascinating. They hold up events, make public insults, and even get Martinez to become an Argentinian dancing star. All of this to bring Martinez to a fight. But Maravilla is a one-sided affair. Although director Juan Pablo Cadaveira talks to people who believe that Chavez Jr. is worthy of the title he was given and that Martinez is overrated, those people are never given the same weight that the pro-Martinez camp are. And why should they be? It is named after Martinez after all, but it feels like the film is trying to present itself as fair when it obviously isn’t. Numerous people are featured in the film, and all of them have something to say. But when Maravilla doesn’t agree with their viewpoint, their words lose their impact, and they may as well not be there at all. It’s just fluff that the film disregards. And that’s fine, but why pretend? When it gets to the big showdown, Maravilla becomes legitimately gripping, but the intensity of the fight is mitigated somewhat by the way the film cross-cuts with footage of Martinez’s family and friends watching on TV from Argentina. In and around the ring there’s a palpable sense of tension that’s missing from the spectating scenes. Perhaps it’s the obviously different cameras that create a jarring effect or maybe it’s the fact that these other people are not really swept up in the pageantry of this enormous spectacle, but every time it cut to Martinez’s mother shouting, I wanted desperately for it to return to the fight. It moved away from the action too frequently and stayed away too long. Even so, I was still invested in the fight, especially since I didn’t know how it would end. The documentary was being made as the fight was being set up, and I believe it would have come out for better or worse, so with each successive round, I gasped and cheered (internally of course) in much the same way that people likely did last June when the fight took place. It didn’t convince me that I should watch more boxing matches, because I still find it an unpleasant sport on concept alone, but now I can understand why others are so enamored. If you are a big fan of Julio Chavez Jr., you’ll probably hate Maravilla, but everyone else will find something to enjoy.
Maravilla Review photo
The politics of punching
One of the most significant differences between a documentary and a film based on a true story is that documentaries can be about things that failed. Documentaries about big events are often started during the setup, and it&r...

Tribeca Review: Super Duper Alice Cooper

Apr 21 // Isabelle Magliari
[embed]217643:41459:0[/embed] Super Duper Alice CooperDirector: Reginald Harkema, Scot McFadyen, Sam DunnRelease Date: April 30, 2014Rating: NR Super Duper Alice Cooper is a bio-documentary focusing on the rise and fall of Alice Cooper: the band and Alice Cooper: the man. From Alice's humble beginnings as an unassuming pastor's son, the film and chronicles each watershed moment of his career from being black booked from venues to becoming a premier rock god by the end of the 1970's. The film starts with the introduction of teenage Alice Cooper, then Vincent Damon Furnier, and his first high school band. Cooper narrates the documentary himself and is both likable and funny, serving as a bright spot throughout a film which unfortunately begins to drag after the first twenty minutes.  The film's plodding place is caused in part by its bizarre visuals, which include concert footage, old photographs, and special effects exclusively. Living legends Iggy Pop and Elton John provide interviews and only their incorporeal voices can be heard as their testimonials are laid over a constantly moving collage of antique photos/film clips/etc. No interviewees' faces are ever shown, Cooper included, and watching nothing but a collage of pictures and video for 86 minutes kills the film's momentum.  And when the film loses steam, the story loses impact. There's a portion of Super Duper Alice Cooper which touches upon Cooper's alcoholism and how it affected his family, health, and musical career. Outside of some well-placed Jekyll and Hyde silent film clips, which cleverly illustrate the break between the Alice Cooper character and the man behind the make up, the film fails to explore the ramifications of his addiction in a meaningful way, instead relying too heavily on goofy-looking effects. To its credit, Super Duper Alice Cooper does try to tell a massive story in a very short amount of time, which is admirably ambitions but ultimately foolhardy. I feel as though the film would have been more successful had it chosen to focus on a single part of Cooper's career, such as his addiction or his first tour as a solo artist. Trying to convey a forty-year story without showing the faces of the people who were personally involves makes this film feel long and, at times, uninteresting. In the end, Super Duper Alice Cooper was informative, and if you're a massive Alice fan then definitely check it out, but I wouldn't rush out to see this film in the theater. Vincent's journey from religious pre-teen to chicken-throwing rock god is a fascinating one, but this documentary feels hollow.
Super Duper Alice Cooper photo
An ambitious title for a blasé rock doc
As a child, my parents lived and breathed Alice Cooper. My father had a particularly terrifying poster of his made-up, screaming face thumbtacked into the cork-board wall of his office that scared me too much to ever listen t...


Short trailer for Ukrainian protest documentary Maidan teases tension

Apr 17
// Liz Rugg
Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa's newest documentary Maidan will follow in the footsteps of other uprising and protest documentaries and chronicle the events that happened in Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine leading up to ...

Trailer for Fed Up takes a look at America's food industries

Apr 10
// Liz Rugg
It's no secret that America has some pretty big food problems. Genetically modified crops, fast food, and of course, tons of sugar. In documentary Fed Up, producer Katie Couric takes a hard look at the big businesses behind ...

Trailer: Heaven Adores You - an Elliot Smith documentary

Apr 04
// Liz Rugg
You've probably heard of Elliot Smith before. Maybe you've heard his music, maybe you've heard about how he died, maybe you've heard about the Elliot Smith memorial mural in Los Angles. Heaven Adores You is a documentary abo...

SXSW Review: Que Caramba es la Vida

Mar 14 // Nick Valdez
Que Caramba es la VidaDirector: Doris DörrieRated: NRRelease Date: TBD Que Caramba es la Vida is a documentary detailing the lives of several female musicians in Mexico struggling to make a name for themselves within an already packed Mariachi music genre. As the film begins, you see several hundreds of Mariachi men littering the streets of Mexico as they earn a measly ten or twenty Pesos per song (that's less than two American dollars) in order to live their dream as a musician. The documentary follows Maria Del Carmen (or Wendy, as her mother refers to her), a single mother who earns her living each day by singing at the plaza, a mecca of Mariachi music and has to compete for her earnings with chauvinistic men who refuse to let her sing with them.  One of the more interesting facets of Que Caramba is it takes account of different generations of Mariachi women and their different philosophies of the profession. While some of the newer ones notably earn their living off of the music (like Maria, it's the only money they can to count on), a few of the older women label the younger generations as vain and money hungry. It's an interesting dynamic in the film which sheds light that not only do women have to struggle against the men in their culture, but other women as well. While there's a true unity between members of a single group, there is a harshness toward outside groups. To add on to all of this pressure to succeed, some of the Mariachi have to deal with unaccepting parents.  But you see, the genius of Que Caramba is that the Mariachi aren't the only ones given attention. As the narrative expands to later include performers of all types, Que Caramba questions the very necessity of artistry within Mexico's bleak landscape. Throughout the film, we actually get a better picture of Mexico City's faith culture. It's ultimately depressing since each individual believes death is constantly above them, but there's a certain integrity and hope that comes from uniting with that depression and fear to fuel a performance. When each Mariachi performs a folk song, you realize how sad each song is. There's one about bird singing that's especially dark since one of the translated lyrics is "Please wait until I die before you sing again, Little Bird." The stark contrast between dark lyrics and moving, soulful music creates an odd blend of happiness.  These artists perform to accept their lives. All they can do is live day by day, and push forward in their music as a way of both accepting their struggle and mocking it. Each performer, each Mariachi understands that their life choice was a tough one, but they remain in their profession with grace. It's really all they can do when faced with terrible surroundings. And the women who chose to fight an additional layer of darkness are the strongest of all. They do it because that's what they love to do.  Que Caramba es la Vida made me see Mariachi in a way I never have before. My only qualm with the film may be its length and skewed demographic, but hopefully others witness this cultural marvel. It's a universally translated fight to maintain artistry and craft. In order to provide others with happiness, the Mariachi must accept and constantly battle against their bleak world. I'm sure that's a message many can understand. 
Que Caramba Review photo
"Bien es mal. Excelente es bien."
Growing up as a young Latino boy in San Antonio, Texas, I've had quite a few experiences with Mariachi groups. There was a Mariachi club in my high school, and on several occasions, my great uncle would hire groups to sing at...

SXSW Review: Doc of the Dead

Mar 14 // Nick Valdez
[embed]217452:41323:0[/embed] Doc of the DeadDirector: Alexandre O. Phillipe Rated: NRRelease Date: March 15, 2014 (EPIX channel)  Doc of the Dead is a documentary, directed by Alexander O. Phillipe and contains interviews from all of the zombie bigwigs (George Romero, Tom Savini, Bruce Campbell, Simon Pegg, and so on). It details the evolution of zombie fandom from the birth of the genre and brings it to the present day. If you've never seen a zombie movie, then you're in for quite a treat as there's plenty of information for your brain to devour. If you're heavily invested in zombies, and know a lot about them already, unfortunately you won't benefit as much from the information presented here. But then again, if you're in the latter camp, Doc of the Dead isn't quite right for you.  While Doc of the Dead is more of an "outsider looking in" type of documentary, it's still a film for the fans by the fans. It's a celebration of the genre and sort of dissects the deeper ideals creeping around. There's the separation between fact and fiction, the aspect of the collective mind, whether or not a zombie apocalypse could actually take place, and the major businesses that have sprung up to capitalize on the zombie mania. That's actually the most interesting aspect of the documentary. When Doc of the Dead begins exploring the people who seek to take advantage of the poor chaps who're so enamored with "survival," it hits a high point. There's a dark side to zombie fandom, the fact that it's so easily bent toward things. But unfortunately these smaller philosophical quandaries aren't fully explored as we sort of zip from one subject to the other.  There are scientific and psychological discussions for the spread of zombie mania, but it never quite dissects the philosophical nature of them. There's no true answer or debate as to why people enjoy them so much. Is it because of an innate fear of death and dressing like a zombie helps keep that fear at bay? Do folks enjoy zombies because everyone secretly holds a desire to be accepted by everyone? Or are people more drawn to the idea of becoming one of the last survivors and "fighting back" because of our intrinsic desire for brutality? Doc of the Dead left me with more questions than answers.  But for those who are even slightly interested in zombies and why the idea of them has become so prevalent, Doc of the Dead is the perfect documentary for you. 
Doc of the Dead Review photo
Dead doc walking
Zombies are some of the most divisive creatures in the horror genre. They've become such a big entity, the zombie film has grown into a genre all its own complete with multiple variations, multiple looks, and multiple medias....


New, epic trailer for nature documentary Watermark

Feb 25
// Liz Rugg
Watermark is a new feature length documentary about humans' relationships with water, and presumably with our planet on a global scale. Watermark is a collaboration between filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier, a...

Review: 12 O'Clock Boys

Jan 31 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217219:41185:0[/embed] 12 O'Clock BoysDirector: Lotfy NathanRelease Date: 1/31/2014Rating: NR The 12 O'Clock Boys do their work on Sundays. They meet in the park, 100 or more, and then take to the city streets. On their dirt bikes and ATVs, they ride, hoot, holler, and wheelie. That's the big thing, you see, because the name refers to the fact that, when these people pull back on their bikes, their hands are at 12 and 12. Sometimes it's a lone rider, but more often it's a group of young men showing off their skills and just how little respect they have for law enforcement (one of the few phrases I could consistently make out was "fuck the police"). What they're doing is illegal, and it's illegal because it's seriously dangerous. Although it appears to be less dangerous than one might think. The film was shot over the course of three years, and only two fatalities are shown. 12 O'Clock Boys' main subject is 13-year-old Pug (who ends the film as a 15 or 16-year old, but he looks 11 the entire time), a little troublemaker who just wants to join the bike gang. The son of a former-exotic dancer named Coco and an estranged father (he was in and out of prison for a while and eventually just removed from the picture altogether), Pug's circumstances are undoubtedly difficult. And while that's unfortunate, it doesn't make him an inherently sympathetic character. And that's probably because even though his desire to be part of that gang drives to film, he's a completely flat character. There's no emotional journey here. He wants to be in the gang, and then he rides some bikes and then he is a 12 O'Clock Boy and then his bike gets stolen (which he never actually seems more than slightly annoyed about). He's completely emotionless and doesn't really care about anybody else, listen to his mom, or do anything that makes him feel like a multi-dimensional person. I'm putting that squarely at the feet of director Lotfy Nathan. There are bits and pieces of a character there developed through interviews with other people, but they never really manifest themselves in any meaningful way. Pug skips school basically every single day, and it makes his mother really mad. What does he do during this school-skipping period? I don't know. I want to find out! The film literally never shows him do anything other than look at bikes or ride bikes, and it's pretty unlikely that he spends all day every day looking at and/or riding bikes. He is presumably out and doing things and going places. Possibly even feeling emotions. These are the things that would make him an interesting character. None of them are in 12 O'Clock Boys. Sometimes, the movie feels more like an advertisement for a Phantom high-speed camera than a documentary (much like how Leviathan was little more than a promotion for GoPros). There are dozens of gorgeous shots of these riders pulling back on their bikes and performing these stunts, and they are absolutely the best part of the film. Slow motion is awesome, and filming these guys doing their thing is an excellent use of the technology. You really get a sense of the intensity of the whole thing by seeing the entire process. When three or four wheels are high in the air simultaneously, with other riders flipping the bird and making faces, there's a rush of adrenaline that makes you want to go out and do something dangerous and stupid. Well, not really. But those moments pull you in far better than anything the characters say or do. And I'm sure that some of the problems stem from the fact that I truly couldn't understand what people were saying fully 50% of the time. There are a few subtitles here and there, but they subtitled the wrong sentences. The ones that have them don't need them, and so much else does. Pug's language is totally indecipherable the majority of the time, and he's hardly the worst offender. There are only a couple of characters who speak clearly and concisely, and while I wouldn't want a documentary about people who speak their own brand of English to be redubbed in a language that I can understand, more subtitles would definitely have helped. I've had the same issues with people from the Deep South: my New England sensibilities put up a massive cultural barrier. I expected that it would take a few minutes but I would eventually get it (that's usually how I am with things like that), but for the entire 75 minutes I was straining to understand. Plus, they're using slang that I don't know, and when I'm already having trouble? Forget about it.  I want to like 12 O'Clock Boys, and there are people who will, and I expect that the vast majority of them will be able to understand the characters. I think I'm just too far removed from the culture and the filmmaker's make no attempt to bridge the gap. The film is not an invitation for discussion so much as a matter-of-fact statement: This is who these people are, and if you don't like it or get it, sucks to be you. And while that's not an inherently bad thing, it is alienating, and I think it also does the characters themselves a disservice, because everybody seems so one-note. I have trouble believing that all of these people are actually that uninteresting, simply because people in general are not that uninteresting. But if I'm wrong, and they are such boring people, why make a documentary about them at all?
12 O'Clock Boys Review photo
Fuck tha police
I've never felt so totally lost watching a film spoken in my own language as I was watching 12 O'Clock Boys. It's bizarre, really, just how difficult to understand many of these characters are. The only close approximation I ...

The Act of Killing photo
The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing returning to theaters in February

You have no more excuses.
Jan 21
// Nick Valdez
The Act of Killing is a stupendous documentary. It's chilling, gripping, and even slightly humorous. I even liked it enough to put it on my Top 15 of 2013 list, and it's got an Oscar nomination now! It's all with good reason....
I Still Belieb trailer photo
I Still Belieb trailer

First trailer for Justin Bieber documentary, Believe

Do you Belieb in life after love?
Nov 18
// Nick Valdez
In a spiritual sequel to Justin Bieber's Never Say Never documentary, Believe, oh wait Justin Bieber's Believe sorry, this documentary catalogs the sad and terrible life of the fallen teen idol. Wait, little girls still like...

Review: The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

Oct 31 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213180:39102[/embed] The Pervert's Guide to IdeologyDirector: Sophie FiennesRelease Date: November 1, 2013Rating: NR  [Editor's note: The above clip is from The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, not The Pervert's Guide to ideology.] The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is a sequel to Žižek's previous film with director Sophie Fiennes, 2006's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. They take similar forms: Žižek runs through his divergent thoughts over clips of movies, and even becomes integrated into them. In Cinema, for example, Žižek sits down in Morpheus's green-tinted room in The Matrix and drives a motorboat like Tippi Hedren while discussing The Birds. In Ideology, we open in the alleyway from John Carpenter's They Live. Žižek stands in front of a dumpster as if he's watching Roddy Piper and Keith David off camera. Later, Žižek is hanging out in a recreation of Travis Bickle's apartment in Taxi Driver (or as Žižek calls it, "The Taxi Driver"). He has a breather in the Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange. He's in a plane looking out the window at the opening shots of Triumph of the Will; on an airstrip where Joseph Stalin was descending from a plane in some Soviet propaganda film (a narrative one, not a documentary.) He's even in a lifeboat at night in the North Atlantic while talking about Titanic. "What am I doing in a lifeboat?" Žižek asks, as if to say "Why am I out here in the North Atlantic? Let me answer that for you," and "Why the hell am I doing something so ridiculous for this movie?" It's a hilarious question. He's obviously on a set, the sky behind him totally black with bright stars. It's like Žižek in a diorama of Titanic (the movie) commenting on the film which is a melodramatic fiction about a real event. Žižek's own lectures and writings are often filled with jokes, and here, he's telling them and inhabiting them. But jokes have that interesting quality where they reveal the wobbliness of language, the strangeness of everyday life, and the weirdness of our beliefs. Like everything else, jokes are a manifestation of ideology. George Saunders wrote that "humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to," and I think he was onto something. In Astra Taylor's 2005 documentary Žižek!, we got some insight into the way Žižek composes his thought. He jots ideas in flurries and frenzies until they're all down, and then he tries to find the bits that connect them together to form a book. In a way, Žižek's philosophy reminds me of something I once heard music journalist/cultural critic Greil Marcus say about the nature of criticism: it's about letting an idea take hold. There seems like there's some connection there between Žižek's impulses and Marcus's notion. Both have to do with identifying what hooks the mind about an object in culture. For Žižek, he's looking for a path from idea to idea, a back and forth between the object and the culture and vice versa. For Marcus, it's the idea sparked by a cultural object that creates a path toward the writing about that object and the culture that gave rise to it. The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is basically a work of ideological exploration through film criticism -- not the "you should see this, 4 stars" sort of criticism where the value of a work is assessed in a reductive up or down vote, but the "x-movie made me think y-thought" sort of criticism that goes beyond the film and into what it says about the world. (Interestingly, my first encounter with Žižek's work was a piece on Lost Highway he did for some film journal while I was still an undergrad.) Žižek is inside these films because the x-movie/y-thought criticism is about stepping into the film as a cultural artifact and finding real culture in it, and then stepping out of the film back into culture to find film stuff in the world. This may be the prevailing method of lots of contemporary book-length criticism. It's reflective, playful, and at times memoiristic. I'm thinking here of the 33 1/3 music criticism series and the Soft Skull Press movie criticism series Deep Focus (which hopefully isn't defunct). So going back to They Live, it's about what the glasses say about contemporary capitalism and consumerism, and how much it hurts to understand the nature of the veil. Or in The Sound of Music, we're eyeing the sexual tension and fundamental friction of the Catholic structure and what "Climb Every Mountain" is really getting at. In Titanic, what is Žižek doing in that boat? He's calling BS on the idea of Titanic as a romance. If Jack and Rose got to shore alive, they'd have incredible sex for three weeks. After that, Rose would get bored with being lower class and Jack would want to draw someone else, and that would be it. What's Titanic really about to Žižek? It's about a spoiled rich girl who, at a turning point in her life, sucks the vitality out of the lower classes (and James Cameron's idealization of the lower class, no less) in order to reaffirm her own ego. I think he's onto something. Žižek steps outside of film in order to get at a broader look at ideology. He drinks Starbucks and Coca-Cola and talks about slacktivism and Lacanian desire, respectively. There's a fascinating segment about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, particularly the "Ode to Joy" part, and how various cultures and governments relate to it and make it suit their ideological ends. And of course the riots in London, the Arab Spring, and Occupy get explored a bit in the film since those are current reactions to the prevailing ideology of the West. These real cultural moments help underline one of Žižek's most interesting questions in the film: why is it that so many people in the West can imagine an asteroid obliterating planet Earth but can't imagine changes to a capitalist economy? I don't have the intellectual footholds to engage in a critique of Žižek's thought process in this film, at least not right now. Whenever reading dense material, the analytical machinery in my skull only gets working on the second or third read. In the case of The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, it'll take another watch before I can really parse the arguments. The first time through, I just dazzled at the spectacle of ideas. The audacity of Žižek and the playfulness of Fiennes (and the other way around) are a kind of intellectual Rube Goldberg machine: a series of madcap chain reactions -- history as a process, ideology as inescapable, cause and effect and divergence. There's just something so enthralling about watching ideas take hold. You get a grip on it and continue the ascent, upwards, around and slanted, until you've reached the end. These ideas result in a kind of conclusion that solves nothing but remains invigorating. (Philosophy not as a solution to big problems but as a reassessment and reframing of big problems. Solutions not required.) Like the criticism that invigorates me, at the end I find myself on top of something new that allows me to look at all the cultural stuff around me in a different way. Žižek wants you to make like Maria and climb every mountain because the hills are alive with the sound of global capitalism. [embed]213180:39101:0[/embed]
Pervert's Guide Review photo
Slavoj Žižek climbs every mountain and fords every stream
Slavoj Žižek is one of the most popular public intellectuals in the world, though maybe in a "big in Japan" sort of way. (Most public intellectuals who aren't Noam Chomsky or a member of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism have ...

Review: These Birds Walk

Oct 30 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215136:39827:0[/embed] These Birds WalkDirectors: Omar Mullick and Bassam TariqRelease Date: November 1, 2013 (New York), limited release to followRating: NR The Edhi Foundation was started by Abdul Sattar Edhi. The charitable organization has many facets to it, including ambulance service, women's shelters, foster care, nursing homes, and rehab clinics. We see Edhi himself, a man in his late 80s or early 90s, bathing children using buckets and a basin. While directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq could have made a traditional documentary profile on the group and the man -- something inspirational and expected (which I don't mean in a dismissive way) -- Edhi instead says that they can find a portrait of who he is in the work his group does and the normal people that his organization employs and helps. The filmmakers turn their focus on an ambulance driver named Asad and the runaway children of a Karachi orphanage, particularly a boy named Omar. He's seen at the opening of the film rushing toward the Arabian Sea with an excited kind of abandon. I couldn't tell if it was twilight or dawn -- it's that uneasy in-between look of the sky and the light that always throws me -- but Omar's joy is palpable, both in running and in finally hitting the water; it's what being carefree looks like. As the film unfolds, we watch Omar and the other children of the orphanage fluctuate from piety, innocence, vulnerability, and rage. One child leads prayer with due diligence while a few of the other kids slap at each other and goof around. In little conversations between the children, none of whom could be older than 10 or 11 tops, they insult each other and smack each other around but then apologize like brothers. The only adults present are the filmmakers and their camera, which was probably held at abdomen or hip level to help immerse the audience in the world of these kids. I'd briefly mentioned the idea of the observer effect in my review of Matteo Garrone's Reality last week, and I think it's appropriate to bring it up here as well. Even though the vérité doc is meant to capture reality, the mere presence of an observer means that the observed will act differently. (It seems even more likely if the observer has a camera.) There's an extended scene where we watch the runaways play together. Amid the laughter and smiles, Omar sprints back and forth along a corridor, occasionally leaping into the air -- like his small, handmade kite on a short string, this is the closest he can get to a full sensation of flight. But then things get brutal. A skirmish begins between Omar and one of the other kids, which escalates into a full-blown fight. Omar gets pinned and the bigger kid keeps telling him to calm down and apologize. Instead Omar just shouts a muffled, "I'll fuck your sister," his face on the ground. It's so raw, it's so real, and maybe some of it's an act of some kind. I have no doubt these kids get rowdy -- they're expressing a rage of abandonment and bleak future, but also expressing the freedom for boys to be boys -- but I wonder if some of it was played up because someone was actually paying attention to them. In the Q & A after the screening, Mullick and Tariq both acknowledged this, and this kind of acknowledgement is made in These Birds Walk as well. Though they also said that the children have barely seen any films, maybe just one or two Bollywood movies in their lives, so their sense of vamping for the camera is much different than people from the West, or more well-off citizens of Pakistan, I'd imagine. What's interesting is how Mullick and Tariq refuse intervention, let their camera hold the moment, and do their best to observe and do only that. If the moment of roughhousing was initially a kind of acting out for the camera, it suddenly becomes real again -- it's only the moment of roughhousing and suffocation, the second where the camera disappears and there is only the need to break free from being held down. It's a wonder that the directors were able to find some beauty in all this heartache and sadness, which may be another one of those distancing things about documentaries -- we are with the world of the film because we feel a closeness to the subjects but always apart from it through our ability to aestheticize. The children sleep by candlelight, and in that half-lift dark, Omar says a prayer to be reunited with his family. The camera is on him, but he is absolutely sincere about what he's saying. He doesn't countenance the camera. There is only the flame and his wish for family rather than temporary foster care, for real siblings rather than this brotherhood of the lost and abandoned. It's beautiful, it's heartbreaking; we are with Omar but only always watching. Asad, who I mentioned earlier, drives an ambulance for the Edhi organization, but is also charged with picking up runaways and returning runaways to their actual families. We watch different kinds of reunions. One is tearful while the other foreboding. Some of these runaways left their homes because of abuse or neglect, and to return to that home means something far less desirable than the care of the Edhi Foundation. Perhaps returning home is more dangerous than life out on the streets. Omar's family lives in a very dangerous part of Pakistan, one which people would generally avoid given its close association with the Taliban. Yet Asad has to make the trek to return this boy to his home, which should be an answer to Omar's prayers. And yet given the other children, given the reality of Omar's life, I wondered what would happen. Going back to that shot at the sea, we're at a spot in between day and night. Omar asks Asad to stop at a mosque so that he can pray before they continue his return to his family. Once out of the ambulance, Omar takes off running. The camera darts through the crowd trying to keep up. Is he running away again? Is he simply excited? In moments like this, my intellectual concerns about observer effect and the way filmmakers affect reality are moot. This moment -- the excitement and all the ambiguity wrapped up in it -- is true. The camera struggles to capture reality like chasing a runaway kite.
These Birds Walk Review photo
A vérité look at Pakistani runaways and a group that helps them
Many people who hop into documentaries casually expect a certain amount of overt filmmaker guidance -- voiceover narration, talking head interviews, infographics, archival footage; anything to help impart information. Yet the...

Review: The Square

Oct 25 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]216710:40853:0[/embed] The Square Director: Jehane Noujaim Release: 10/25/13 (NYC, Film Forum); limited rollout to follow Rating: R The thing I remember from 2011 was that the revolution was being tweeted. It was the big thing at the time, at least in America, with everyone talking about how important it was that people could band together using hashtags and whatever. After the revolution, there were more arguments about whether or not it had really had the impact it appeared to have had, and if The Square is the definitive document, then Twitter didn’t really have a place within the revolutionary community. There are a lot of shots of computer screens, queuing up TV broadcasts or Skype calls or YouTube videos, but not once is Twitter mentioned. In fact, it seems that YouTube should have been seen as the real hero of the day, because it was captured video rather than written text that really made a difference. The Square follows six protestors as they fight for revolution. The two most prominent (and also most interesting) are Ahmed Hassan, a serial revolutionary who is completely dedicated to his cause, and Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who nevertheless fights alongside secularists for the betterment of his country. The role that the Muslim Brotherhood played in the two revolutions weighs heavily on Ashour, and his internal struggle may be the most compelling in the film. The rest don’t really have to fight themselves; all of their battles are external. They want a new country, and they will do what they have to to get it.  The role of the camera comes up several times in the film, and the revolutionaries consider it to be the only truly honest thing. Footage can be put up of an event without apparent commentary and the rest of the world can judge for themselves what they’ve seen. Of course, it’s not actually that simple, because footage is inherently limited in scope and be manipulated in subtle ways that dramatically affect its impact (think Wikileaks’ Collateral Murder video). When some of these videos were put up, they went without context, but in The Square they are accompanied by voiceover that explains what is going on. Important details like the fact that the army was using live bullets against the protestors (something they denied) are lost without that context. It’s impossible to judge shaky-cam footage of people screaming without context. Seeing an army officer drag and beat a protestor may be enough on its own to incite outrage, but seeing if something led to that or it was solely an act of police brutality would make a big difference in the way it was received. For the most part, the gratuitous images are kept to a relative minimum. Bullets are fired into the crowd, but people going down and screaming in agony aren’t shown. It’s primarily the aftermath, not entirely unlike 12 Years a Slave, actually, and the aftermath can be every bit as effective as the act itself. Seeing the un-official singer/songwriter of the revolution lying on the floor, with his back covered in cuts and bruises, is heart-breaking. These scenes aren’t intended to shock, though, only to document. The film was shot using DSLRs out of necessity; all of Noujaim’s video camera equipment was been taken from her upon entering the country. But a Canon 5D Mark II, while being a pretty serious video camera, is also a still camera and looks like one. So even if she couldn’t bring the rest in, she could hold onto the DSLR. She did have access to better audio equipment, though, so it’s more of a fun fact about production than something that actually affects the experience... in all ways but one: the shifting focus. Full-frame DLSRs allow for very shallow depth of field in an image. It’s one of the reasons that people have turned to them for video production as opposed to low-end video cameras, which shoot everything in deep focus. Less cinematic, more home-movie. And much of The Square is shot at night in the dark or inside, so there’s not a lot of light; those lens apertures were clearly pretty wide open. All of this means that the focal plane of the lens is especially small. With more control, this could be a beautiful, stylistic thing, but with a moving subject and a moving camera, this meant that the focus had to constantly be shifted, and there are no second takes. These conversations go, and the cinematographers have to capture them. Unfortunately, this means that there is quite a bit of focus shifting, which acts as a distraction from the power behind the words. Sometimes it happens a lot, while other times. (As an aside: I think going forward that Canon’s new 70D might be the documentary camera of choice, both because its smaller sensor means that such shallow depth of field will be harder to achieve and because it’s new auto-focus system will remove the need for awkward mid-shot manual shifts while people walk and talk. Professional cinematographers say there is no place for auto-focus in film, but documentaries would beg to differ.) Also worth noting: Certain scenes appear to have been shot with tilt-shift lenses, which was annoying, but I will admit that presenting the settings as miniatures brings with it some interesting thematic ideas. The Square premiered in January of this year, months before the second set of protests removed Mohamed Morsi from office. The film won the Audience Award, and many would have just left it at that. But when the principle players went back to Tahrir Square, continuing to fight for what they believed in and believed they could accomplish, Noujaim returned to Egypt to capture that moment. That decision, more than anything actually presented on camera, is the reason that this film is so important. Noujaim and her team are not dispassionate observers of this revolution; they are a part of it. They braved arrests, beatings, whatever they had to in order to make the film that they believed needed to be made, and when the story continued they jumped right back in the fray. They were in a place where people were dying right in front of them (and their cameras), but they kept going. That desire to make as complete a document as possible is why The Square is as impressive as it is, and why people need to see it. It's a biased film, though, which is why the ignorance I brought up earlier is so important to recognize. It is a secular film and is sympathetic to the secular ideals, having been put together in such a way that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood look like real-life villains. There are plenty of arguments to be made that such is the reality of Egypt today, but I expect that somewhere in the hundreds of hours of footage that must have been shot for this film, there are scenes where other members of the Muslim Brotherhood don’t seem quite so uncaring. Ashour is not the only good person in that group, but seeing The Square it would be hard to make that case. It’s hard not to sympathize with the revolutionaries, but I have no doubt a Muslim Brotherhood documentary could paint everyone else as the villains and themselves as the heroes.  In the grand scheme of the things, this is less a problem and more something to be aware of. The Square demands thought and consideration. Once it ends, the memories of those events in 2011 and 2013 are forever changed, and that can’t be the end of it. Even if it’s just getting the word out about the film, this is something that can make a difference. Will it? Hard to say, but the dedication proves that it’s not just going to go away. “History is written by the winners,” the old saying goes, and the next years and decades in Egypt will put that to the test. After the 2011 revolution, it could be argued that many of these people lost, but it’s still their story that’s being told. And it’s the one that’s going to resonate. I forgot about the events of 2011 once, and it won’t happen again. I am not going to forget The Square, and everything that happens in Egypt from now will be colored by what it showed me. 
The Square Review photo
A documentary that needed to be made and needs to be seen
It’s easy to ignore what’s going on half a world away. By the time the Egyptian people were fighting to take down Mohammed Morsi earlier this summer, I had forgotten all about the 2011 revolution. Of course, heari...


Dear Mr. Watterson trailer explores Calvin and Hobbes

Oct 11
// Matthew Razak
I actually know a person who doesn't like Calvin & Hobbes. Sometimes I think he may be Satan himself. It's possible. There's just something magic about the boy and his stuffed tiger that never gets old. The strip aren't ...

NYFF Review: The Missing Picture

Oct 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216433:40769:0[/embed] The Missing Picture (L'image manquante)Director: Rithy PanhRating: TBDCountry: Cambodia / FranceRelease Date: TBD The experience of history can take many different forms. There's the official narrative that's accepted and promulgated by the powers that be, there's a cultural memory (a sort of memory of the people, for lack of a better term) that may run parallel or contrary to the official narrative, and there's memory/personal narrative. There's more than just these three threads, but you get the idea. These all knot and intertwine and create this difficult braid that's constantly making and reconfiguring itself. In the case of Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge, the history of the country was all rooted in propaganda intended to forward the official narrative. Cultural memory and personal narrative could not be shared since it was in the state's best interest to create an image of an ideal world even if the situation was actually anything but. Panh attempts to look at actual lived history -- his own youth and what others experienced -- by means of art since the only official pictures that exist are from the Khmer Rouge. So many other photos are burned or destroyed. Panh uses hand-crafted clay figurines situated in dioramas in order to recreate moments he and others endured. There was labor and mass murder and illness and famine. What's missing in the official narrative is all the actual suffering. The sound design helps evoke the moments that have been recreated as a simulacrum of an undocumented reality. Into these tableaux Panh incorporates the remains of extant photos from the era and the propaganda footage shot the Khmer Rouge. All kinds of histories are merged together as a larger way into the horrors of Cambodia's past and what can be excavated from it. In some ways Panh's art is a way of unmaking the lies of the Khmer Rouge even if these are not actual images of events and merely representations from memory, testimony, and other personal narratives. Yet not only is this an act of memory, but by creating art from memory to counter the lies in the official narrative, I think Panh's larger project of diorama, text, and film is a way of contributing to Cambodia's cultural memory. These are stories that must be told, these are voices that were not allowed to speak; both must be heard, or at least ought to be. In trying to recreate and refashion a lost Cambodia during a time of major suffering, I think that's also an attempt to call out to other voices to share their narratives. When the history of a country is written in propaganda, it's up to future generations to create their own images that are more essentially true -- if propaganda can be considered a kind of art, then it's the least moral form of it. From a formal and philosophical standpoint, I found so much of The Missing Picture fascinating just to ponder. Yet with that in mind, I did sense a bit of meandering in the film since it is so much about a wander through memory constructed by and tethered to language. This is the first of Panh's work I've encountered, but apparently he's written extensively on this subject and made many films on the matter. I guess the text in The Missing Picture is a bit Proust-like in its attempt to recreate and retrieve what is no longer present. Language is just another means of contributing to the cultural memory, adding to the multi-facted, multimedia feel of the project. If culture is to be regained, it seems necessary to use different mediums to regain it just as the Khmer Rouge used multiple means to rewrite it. (Somewhat related: I think the dioramas, the text, the archival footage, the damaged artifacts, and the documentary itself would make for a great museum exhibition. I'd love to view each element on its own and then merged as a film. That might help the weight of history sink in more to have all the physical stuff there in front of me.) One issue I had with the narration may come from the translation. The version I saw was the English-language one, and the monologue and the text were just all right, but maybe a bit stilted. Turns of phrase didn't seem as poetic or as elegant as the images, which seemed to me like something got lost in the transition from French to English. The issues with text in translation are always about finding the right meaning in the right tone and the right voice. It'll never be perfect, but sometimes different translations are better than others. I have a feeling that if I saw the French-language version of the film with English subtitles, I may have had a different experience of the film even as it did meander. Despite these gripes, there are striking moments in The Missing Picture even if most of them involve static clay figurines. Their immobility and crude appearance almost makes the situations they're depicting seem even more real, like caricatures caught in moments of dread. I'm reminded of those bodies in Pompeii and Herculaneum that were frozen in place by the ash of Mount Vesuvius. To represent so many people in clay makes the figures at once an individual person who may have existed as well as the idea of a people who have been murdered and are unable to speak for themselves. Maybe the most haunting thing about The Missing Picture is that the clay that Panh used to craft his figures may be comprised of countless missing generations.
Missing Picture Review photo
Recreating Cambodia's lost past in text, clay, and film
At last year's New York Asian Film Festival I saw a documentary called Golden Slumbers, which focused on the lost cinema of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge had destroyed cinema houses and film negatives throughout the country, wipi...

NYFF Review: Tim's Vermeer

Oct 07 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216445:40755:0[/embed] Tim's VermeerDirector: TellerRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD The most unique thing about Vermeer's paintings is that under close x-ray analysis, scientists have found that there are no sketch lines beneath the paint. Vermeer applied paint directly to the canvas, building color values in such a way that they captured the lustrous qualities of light that seem impossible to invent. It led many to declare that the master was able to paint with light itself. This has led some to speculate that Vermeer used a lens of some kind, perhaps a camera obscura, in order to project an image of a composition onto the canvas over which he painted. This entire notion has obsessed Tim Jenison for the better part of 10 years now, though it's one of his many passions shown in the film. He's a tinkerer with a knack for repairing electronics as well as player pianos. He designs post-production software. He makes remote controlled gizmos. He's an all right woodworker when pressed to the task. He's not even what you'd consider the classical definition of an amateur. Tim is simply good (or good enough) and what he puts his mind to, and he puts his mind to a lot since he seems to have an insatiable curiosity for the world around him. I think this quality is key to a larger point, but that'll come in a bit. At the center of Tim's Vermeer is a kind of detective/scientist story about recreating a process that Vermeer might have used. The technique that Tim refines over the years allows him to almost perfectly recreate a photograph. What's most startling is that this is his first attempt to work with oil paint on canvas. It's a marvel to watch this happen on screen, how simple and elegant the solution is. All I'll say is that it's a trick with mirrors, because it's remarkable to witness it yourself. In hours, Tim can paint with a frightening degree of proficiency, one that takes many people ages to master; yet throughout the film, Tim insists he's not an artist. While Tim continues his quest of discovery, Penn Jillette guides the film with his narration, noting other experts in optics who've suggested similar theories that Tim built his work on. Maybe the most fascinating thing about Tim's Vermeer is the recreation of the Vermeer itself. The process is extensively documented from all angles, with literally thousands of hours of footage taken, condensed with surprising efficiency. Every brushstroke, every second, every day that Tim works on his own Vermeer is chronicled. Maybe it's unsurprising, but there are no art establishment figures interviewed in the film to protect the sanctity of Vermeer. Some may start lobbing accusations of bias or insularity, but I think it's fine to leave out the art world out of this. Tim's Vermeer is more like a bizarre science experiment about an art process. The art world has long kept art and science at a distance when in fact the two fields have shared interests in human innovation and discovery. Lenses and optics were used by many in Vermeer's time in order to assist with the creation of art, and many past masters had something of an amateur scientist about them (e.g., obviously Da Vinci). I think it was David Cronenberg who said something about scientists having a lot of poetry in their soul, and it seems like there's interconnected passions in fields that are all about noticing, observation, and understanding. With that in mind, that's why Tim's Vermeer splits away from the documentaries that are simply about undermining the art establishment. Instead, Tim's Vermeer seems to have more in common, at least to me, with Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, a film that shows how different people in different fields manifest their unique genius in similar ways. Tim may not consider himself an artist at heart, but that drive to research and to discover is a kind of poetry in his soul; and maybe given what's revealed about the process Vermeer may have used, there's a kind of scientific determination for refinement and innovation. Between the left half of the brain and right half of the brain is the corpus callosum, and if there's a division explored in this documentary, the connective matter between the art/science split is obsession itself. Obsession is what makes art, science, knowledge, and innovation possible. I think a lot of people are going to ask the wrong questions after watching Tim's Vermeer. "Does that mean that Vermeer is less of an artist?" No, especially given what many artists do with lightboxes and photo reference today. It's not necessarily a cheat, and it's not necessarily not-art given the potential process of creation. If anything, it might increase admiration for Vermeer given his spirit for innovation and the meticulousness of his hand. "Does this mean anybody could paint like Vermeer?" Well, yes and no. Technically, yes, but it takes a certain kind of person to want to do it. "Does this mean anybody could be an artist?" This one is another technical yes and no, but the answer would have to involve obsession. Anyone could be a scientist if they dedicated themselves to it, but it does take an innate passion or calling to be a scientist in the same way that it does to be an artist, and it takes a certain innate drive to want to follow that passion. In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami said that there are four important qualities for being a writer. There's talent first and foremost, and without even just a little innate talent, being a good writer is impossible. After talent, there's focus, endurance, and patience, all of which can help make up for deficiencies in talent. To be an artist, it does take those qualities; same goes with being a scientist and being a chef and being a mathematician and being a musician and so on. While it may seem to some that Tim's Vermeer diminishes the innovations of an artist, I think it just highlights something more human and wonderful. There's an implicit concern that draws different kinds of people together in a larger network of driven obsessives, and this network of obsessives persists through history and across different disciplines. Art is still a kind of dazzling magic born of an innate affinity toward the aesthetic, but it's closer to so many other passions than most people think -- to science, to technology, to progress -- and to me that makes the whole of the human endeavor to create and to understand in our lifetimes that much more beautiful and even that much more ineffable. [Tim's Vermeer will screen at the Howard Gilman Theater on Wednesday, October 9th. For tickets and more information, click here.]
Tim's Vermeer Review photo
Penn & Teller explore art, technology, and the importance of obsession
Watching Tim's Vermeer, I was sort of reminded of a pair of art documentaries that turn ideas about artists and creation on their ear. There's My Kid Could Paint That, a doc about a purported child prodigy named Marla Olmstea...

Review: Let the Fire Burn

Oct 01 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215325:40729:0[/embed] Let the Fire BurnDirector: Jason OsderRating: NRRelease Date: October 2nd, 2013 (New York) First a little background on MOVE. MOVE was founded in 1972 by John Africa (real name Vincent Leaphart). It was a back-to-nature group that was at the very least cult-like if not a cult. MOVE was anti-technology since they felt that technology was the tool of the oppressors, and all the members took the surname "Africa" as a show of solidarity and pride. MOVE proved a disruptive presence in Philadelphia on a number of occasions. From their house on Osage Ave., the site of the eventual 1985 stand-off, they'd shout profanity-laden screeds through a loud speaker. Footage shows the members of MOVE entering the house by ropes leading to the roof rather than through the front door. On the roof of the Osage house they'd constructed a bunker as if anticipating an eventual fight with city authorities. There was precedent for this. In the late 1970s, MOVE got into a conflict with the police that resulted in the death of an officer and the beating of a MOVE member. The history of MOVE is part of the missing link in Osder's documentary. Beyond the bare basics, we never really get a sense of what MOVE stood for, who John Africa was, and what he preached or taught. If the main focus of the documentary is the 1985 stand-off and how it's a criminal act by the state government, then in some ways this contextualization of MOVE irrelevant, but even then, the picture of MOVE seems incomplete. I think of the thoroughness of William Gazecki's 1997 documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement, which is a great examination of the Branch Davidian tragedy. Though in the case of Gazecki's film, he didn't restrict himself to the use of just archival footage. In addition to available video and audio resources, there are interviews with survivors of the stand-off, law enforcement officials, government officials, and others with knowledge of what happened. These multiple perspectives looking back at the incident helps paint a more complete picture of those events than just an act of documentary assemblage. This keys into something else I noticed about Let the Fire Burn. Apart from the limitations of the formal approach to this subject matter, Let the Fire Burn necessarily takes a limited historical perspective as well. Osder uses footage of that timeframe gathered from various reports and hearings, and that's it. I started to wonder about material that came after the hearings that Osder used. Were there subsequent reports in the year after the tragedy, five years after the tragedy, 10 years, 20 years, and so on? If so, how would the inclusion of that footage added to bigger picture? Similarly, there's no mention of the later Ruby Ridge and Waco tragedies, which I think are part of this larger conversation about Let the Fire Burn, though maybe that conversation is one that is meant to take place outside of the film. Since there's no catch up done with the people who were involved in these events and no sense of reflection on the Osage Ave. stand-off in light of other ugly (to put it lightly) government oversteps, Let the Fire Burn operates in a sort of vacuum. We have enough historical perspective to consider what this all means in the bigger picture of the 1980s and 1990s, but the event is isolated as its own unit. Similarly, MOVE is isolated as its own entity without its social or historical contextualization alongside other politically charged, separatist, or utopian groups that came before it, like The Nation of Islam, The Black Panthers, or even Jonestown. But I think I harp on these things because if Let the Fire Burn does something unimpeachable, it's the way it handles the Osage Ave. stand-off itself. This is the area where the restriction of material to archival and reports helps provide a greater sense of the drama, confusion, and terror of that day. This happened in my own lifetime, but I was too young to be aware of it, unlike Waco. In the film, it's as if I'm sitting in front of the TV watching it all unfold. This is the strength of Osder's formal choice, and it's undeniable when it hits. By the end of the stand-off, I was filled with bewildered outrage. Even though it's incomplete in a lot of ways, Let the Fire Burn deserves to be watched if only for its recreation of the Osage Ave. tragedy. There is such power in that footage, and the way that a lot of the police officers act regarding the murder of 11 people is infuriating but enlightening. This is a horror that happened only a quarter of a century ago. This is a good starting point for learning more about its complexities so hopefully crimes like this don't happen again. Alec Kubas-Meyer: Let the Fire Burn is a fundamentally flawed documentary. Exclusively using archival footage and the very occasional subtitle, there is nothing in this story except what the makers decided to pull from the newscasts of the time period it depicts. The story is fascinating; I had never heard of the events on Osage Ave. that inspired the film, so I enjoyed it on that level. But it didn't do anything new. Some new interviews with people related to the story or something along those lines would have gone a long way towards making the documentary feel like more than just a highlight reel of an event. I wanted to know more about the police, more about the members of MOVE, more about the way things played out in the minds of those people (although most of the MOVE members died in the event). The film is missing context, and it's an unfortunate thing. Still, were I to research the event myself, it would have taken me a lot longer to learn everything that Let the Fire Burn taught me, so it's got something going for it. 60 - Decent. [For more info on Let the Fire Burn, visit]
Let the Fire Burn Review photo
A rousing but incomplete portrait of a grave injustice in Philadelphia
In 1985 there was a tragic stand-off between the extremist Africa-American group MOVE and the city of Philadelphia. At the end, 11 members of MOVE were killed, including five children, and 65 other houses in the area were bur...

Review: After Tiller

Sep 19 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]215836:40357:0[/embed] After TillerDirectors: Martha Shane and Lana WilsonRelease Date: 9/20/2013 (NYC, more to follow)Rating: PG-13 One last caveat before we get into this thing: if you're squeamish or easily distressed, then you might not want to continue reading. I'm going to write openly about some of the more upsetting aspects of the film's narrative, including discussing the process by which third-trimester abortions take place. Even if you've made it this far, there's a pretty good chance you won't see the final film. But I think it talks about some things that everyone should know about this extremely small group and the work that they do. So I'm going to repeat that information openly and frankly. It's hard to really "spoil" a documentary, but if you are seriously planning to see After Tiller (which you should) as a blank slate, you might want to stop here. As I mentioned in the subtitle, there are only four doctors in the entire United States who perform what are referred to as "late" abortions (not "late-term," which is a descriptor that comes primarily from the practice's opponents). These abortions, which make up less than 1% of all US abortions, take place during the third trimester of a pregnancy, which is usually defined as twenty-five weeks or later. When the famous (infamous?) Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision was passed, its sanctioning of abortion rights did not necessarily guarantee the right of late abortions except in cases where the health of the mother is at risk. Although laws restricting or banning late abortions may eventually be challenged in court, they have been passed in a majority of US states. Only nine states allow for late abortions to be performed without restriction. Doctors trained and openly willing to perform them can be found in only three: New Mexico, Colorado, and Maryland. All four doctors—clockwise: Dr. Susan Robinson, Dr. Shelley Sella, Dr. LeRoy Carhart, Dr. Warren Hern—were students of the late Dr. George Tiller, who was shot while attending church in 2009. I remembered the Tiller event, specifically seeing clips on The Daily Show of Bill O'Reilly and others calling him "Tiller the Baby Killer," which is what compelled me to see this film in the first place. Few seemed to mourn his loss, and the irony of pro-life pundits celebrating death was not lost on me. An NBC/WSJ poll from earlier this year found that 7 in 10 Americans believe Roe v. Wade should not be overturned (though this seems to be in pretty heavy flux at the moment and tends more towards 60%), but the the notes that accompanied the After Tiller screening point to a Gallup poll that says that only 1 in 10 Americans support late abortions specifically. So it is extremely likely that you, regardless of your general opinion of abortion, probably don't agree with the practice of late abortions. Once a fetus has reached viability, the tenor of the debate shifts, and every one of these doctors understand that. Their methods involve inducing a heart attack in the fetus, a near-instantaneous death and then causing a natural birth of a stillborn fetus. The parent(s) have a chance to spend some time with their child, if they so choose, allowing for some level of catharsis. The women who have these abortions come for all kinds of reasons, and the film lets many of them speak, sitting in on sessions where they explain to the doctors why they are there and how difficult it was to come to the decision. The patients' faces are never shown; instead, the camera focuses on their body language and on the face of the doctor. It's powerful, and it's extremely sad. Their circumstances won't allow them to have a child without destroying their own lives, or their baby would be born with a horrific defect that couldn't be detected until after viability. Two of the doctors have not-quite-therapists on staff there to help ease the mental anguish, and the doctors themselves do what they can to help their patients. They understand why people hate them and why there is controversy, but they are doing what they believe is right. Of the doctors, the one I liked the most was Warren Hern, who works in Colorado. His connection to Tiller was somewhat weaker than the other three, and for the first part of the film it seems as though he's alone. This is one of the few obviously manipulative parts of After Tiller, because it is eventually revealed that he has found a wife who accepts his work and has a family. But it's also his reason for doing the work that I found so compelling. While in the Peace Corps, where he worked delivering babies, he watched dozens of women die from botched abortions and treated the severe wounds of unwanted children who had been beaten, sometimes to the brink of death. In his own practice, he met a woman whose cervix had been destroyed by a chopstick she had used in a failed attempt to abort her fetus. It's hard to fault his career choice. What convinced the other doctors is never made quite as explicit, or if it was it didn't stick with me. That's not to say I didn't like them, but they didn't resonate in quite the same way. They are all passionate and compassionate people who deal with protesters every day and occasionally real acts of violence (years ago, Dr. LeRoy Carhart's stable was burned down and horses killed in the process). What happened to George Tiller could happen to any of them, and they know it, but they can't quit. And that's the most depressing thing of all. Every one of them is graying, and though the obligatory "Where are they now?" text at the end explains that a fifth doctor is currently being trained, one doctor can't replace four. On several occasions, the doctors remark that they will continue to do the work until they physically can't, because they have to. The terrible irony of the whole thing comes from the revelation that Dr. Tiller was planning on scaling back his own work. He was going to turn over his clinic to Drs. Carhart, Robinson, and Shelley. He called Dr. Carhart and told him this two days before he was killed. And suddenly, Dr. Tiller's murder seems even more senseless. What After Tiller does is ultimately more important than how it does it. As a documentary, it is completely fine and nothing more. It's not an amazing piece of art and it doesn't push any sort of technical boundaries, but it shouldn't be doing that anyway: Its purpose, stated or not, is to put a human face on an extremely controversial topic and explain why it's not the black-and-white many seem to believe it is. It serves that purpose.  Every so often, I'll come across an article in the New York Times or something about abortions. I'll read it, because I'm curious if they'll mention late abortions. They don't. I read a several thousand word article in the New York Times about people who got abortions and how they felt afterwards less than twenty-four hours after seeing After Tiller, and there was a very vague reference to New Mexico and nothing else. If abortion is a taboo subject, late abortions are avoided like the plague. It's a shame, because there's no way to have a discussion without informed people willing to discuss it. With this film, maybe that discussion can finally begin.
After Tiller Review photo
A look at the only four doctors in America who perform late abortions
Before After Tiller even began, I thought I knew how I was going to start this review: I was going to comment on the fact the few critics who showed up to a screening documentary about third trimester abortions in the au...


Flix for Short: Lost & Found

Fine acts of junk
Sep 17
// Liz Rugg
This short documentary by Joey Bania profiles an eccentric New Zealand tinkerer and inventor named Blair Somerville. Somerville makes all kinds of things, most of which are made from found or recycled materials, and all of h...

Review: Informant

Sep 12 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]213421:39103:0[/embed] InformantDirector: Jamie MeltzerRating: NRRelease Date: September 13, 2013 For the first part of Informant, I felt like I was watching the wrong movie. It should have been called Anarchist. Not knowing who Brandon Darby was, I watched as a government-hating community organizer went down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and did his best to help those who were suffering. [As an aside, I'm curious what the reaction to this film will be, since it's playing in NYC so soon after Sandy.] Although at this point in his life he wanted to overthrow the government, there were clearly shades of his eventual conservatism; he was more of a fascist than an anarchist. Within the group that he co-founded (Common Ground Relief), he acted more as an overlord than as an equal member. To hear him explain why he took the role that he did, it's hard to disagree. I have no doubt that it was a nightmare dealing with the people who were coming down to help but actually impeding progress. Still, it's odd. But eventually the FBI came a-calling, because, odd or not, Darby was something of a hero among anarchists. He was asked to infiltrate some groups that were protesting the 2008 Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He did, and his information would eventually put two young men in jail for the possession of Molotov cocktails, weapons which he believed were going to be used to destroy police cars (and perhaps even kill police officers). That's where things get really ambiguous, and Informant thrives on that ambiguity. I got the feeling from watching Informant that director Jamie Meltzer doesn't really like Brandon Darby. He's interested in the story, but on a personal level, he doesn't think Darby's a good guy. Maybe it's an unconscious thing, or maybe it's the fact that an unbiased look at what Darby has done makes him out to be the bad guy. Given the way he comes across, the latter may very well be true. There are a lot of people who do not like him, and I imagine most of the people who do (the FBI agents he informed as well as his overly conservative colleagues) wouldn't want to be interviewed for the film, nor would they be likely to make a significant case in the opposite direction. The endorsement of Andrew Breitbart, for example, is enough to immediately turn me off from a person, and the instant Breitbart came on screen I turned against Darby. The anarchists who were against Darby also said some things that I found unsettling, but I didn't have the same visceral reaction. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way. Much is made of Brandon Darby's tenuous link to reality. He seems to be the only one who believes his version of the events. The film tells it as he sees it, but while interviewing other people involved in the case (including at least one of the young men who would eventually go to jail), the case becomes far more convoluted. It's not as simple as, "These men were making Molotov cocktails to blow up police cars." How much of a role did Darby play in the creation of those Molotov cocktails? Probably more than he would admit, but I don't know that I put all of my faith in his opposition either. At some point, it's just different people pointing fingers. But there is one on-film example of Darby fabricating/embellishing/misremembering some aspect of what he did. In the direct interview that makes up much of the movie, he refers to something in a certain way. Not long after, video of him speaking to a group of Tea Party members shows him saying something notably different. I don't know how horrible the untruth is (whether it's to the camera or the group), but it lends credence to the people who had been speaking out against him. Reenactment also plays a major role in Informant, and it makes the whole thing even stranger. Brandon Darby plays a part in most of the reenactments, which gave me pause at first. I usually think of reenactments as things done entirely by actors, so I honestly thought for a little while that they were using archival footage (since it was mixed in with archival footage, that didn't seem so strange). Then the camera was in a position where there really shouldn't have been a camera, and then I was confused. Was it a reenactment? It had to be, right? And then the film cuts to a wide shot of the scene, exposing the camera equipment behind Darby. They ask him questions about what was going on in the scene at the time. I appreciated the clarification, but it's strange in the sense that the film showed him justifying his memory. The same thing would happen again later, the only other time a reenactment broke the fourth wall. Part of what made it so confusing was that Brandon Darby appears to be a solid actor. His reenactment looked legitimate, which is another part of why I didn't question it for so long. This opens up a whole new host of questions though, because if he can act within those settings, who's to say he isn't acting outside of them? That realization didn't turn me against Darby, but it made me more leery of everything he was saying. Especially because he gave the impression early in Informant that he didn't understand how documentary interviews worked despite the fact that he had participated in documentary interviews during his time in New Orleans. These facts all combine to create an image of Darby that is less than flattering, and it comes from the way the film is presented. Is Jamie Meltzer really biased against Brandon Darby? I don't know, but his movie definitely seems to be. After Informant ended, I wasn't on Darby's side, and I was having trouble figuring out how I could have been. He really just seems like a bad guy, even if he was trying to do the right thing (which I believe he was). The questions raised within the film are interesting to consider, though, and I could go on and on about who seems legitimately trustworthy, but I think this has gone on long enough. You should see Informant and form your own opinions about it. If nothing else, it's a good conversation starter. [Informant will screen at The IFC Center on Sunday, November 11th and Tuesday, November 13th. Director Jamie Meltzer is expected to attend Sunday's screening.]
Informant Review photo
A good documentary about a (probably) bad guy
For most of America, Brandon Darby is not a household name. There are probably pockets of the South which recognize him, but in the grand scheme of things, he's really a nobody. But so are most documentary subjects, and that'...

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