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AFI Fest Review: ‘The International Sign For Choking’ Is Simultaneously Brash And Boring

AFI Fest Review: 'The International Sign For Choking' Is Simultaneously Brash And Boring

The International Sign for Choking,” the second feature from writer-director Zach Weintraub, is kind of like one of those short-term relationships that ends when you both decide that you don’t like each other enough to keep calling. You’re not entirely sure what the point of it all was, and maybe you even feel a little regretful that it happened, but since there’s nothing you can do about the past, you move on, hopefully to someone better. And this is precisely what we’d suggest regarding this film: stop trying to understand it – there isn’t much there that’s worth figuring out – and go see something else.

This rambling and lackluster film sees Weintraub cast himself as Josh, an American videographer traveling to Buenos Aires for an unspecified independent assignment. He claims he’s looking for people and places that speak to him, but the true reason for his trip is that he hopes to locate an ex-girlfriend, Martina, with whom he’s lost touch. She’s nowhere to be found – her number has been disconnected, she has a new job and she’s even moved out of the city – but Josh finds a distraction in Anna (Sophia Takal), another recently arrived American who rents the room next to his. However, his egotistical and juvenile behavior sidelines their budding romance. When he transfers the location of his film experiment to Colón after hearing that Martina might be living there, Anna picks up with local musician Roger (Roger Delahaye) instead. After the outer province proves to be a dead end, Josh returns to Buenos Aires dismayed and jealous, and takes steps to undermine Anna’s new relationship as a cure-all for his miserableness, hoping to produce a rift by using Roger’s band as the subject of his project. And so the melodrama continues.

Though the story, which lacks any tangible stakes or urgency, certainly contributes to the unpleasantness of this film, the real culprits are its characters: unappealing people who inspire little sympathy. Josh is both insecure and pretentious, a less than winning combination that makes watching him onscreen pretty cringe-worthy. He stammers over his words, finally settling on the most obnoxious ones that give off an air of entitlement and pseudo-intellectualism. A fluent Spanish speaker, he pretends to be a native Argentinian after meeting a group of Americans practicing their Spanish in a café. When he finally admits he’s from “the God-blessed United States of America,” the revelation inspires cheers instead of a punch to the face, which is probably what he needs (and what this writer was hoping for). Also, he wears a stocking cap that makes him look like Smee from “Peter Pan.”

Meanwhile, Anna is painted in the broadest strokes possible, absent dimension or interest. For too much of the film, Takal maintains the disaffected tone and indifferent stance of a surly teenager, saying and doing just as little. Everywhere else, the character displays consummate passive aggression, which isn’t really all that different from her periods of ennui. Maybe it’s in contrast to Josh’s massive ego spreading out across every scene, but the moment when Anna finally starts to show a little verve, it feels like someone else must be inhabiting her body.

Initially, there is some interesting camerawork in place. Weintraub and DP Nandan Rao keep the camera fairly motionless and tight on the actors, and make constant use of the off screen space: conversations occur across the edges of the frame, steady shots lop off the characters’ heads and appendages as they move, and unorthodox framing limits the audience’s perception of context and setting. Despite its deeply unsettling quality, there is intention behind the visual disarray. Even when there are other people in a scene, the camera is perpetually trained on Josh and his face is nearly always in focus, leaving others blurry, indistinct, and cut off by the edges of the frame. Anna is the only other character who takes (or shares) center stage, and then only occasionally; it’s never long before she’s out of focus or cut out of the frame once again. This conceit puts a visual tone on Josh’s self-absorption while illustrating his female companion’s potential as his only foil, either because she’s the only person he might care for or because his narcissism may only be outmatched by hers. Or maybe it’s both.

However, it isn’t long before this technique gets tiresome. The disquieting nature of the anarchic framing becomes overwhelming, the overuse of a particular stylistic device the latest entry in our list of reasons why this sophomore effort is so utterly sophomoric. We were left wishing for just one complete image of the characters or their setting, particularly given the Buenos Aires location. There were certainly plenty of lush visuals at hand, and Weintraub might have benefitted from the use of wide shots to establish the cityscape.

Meeting with a friend who has a newborn son, Josh, who expresses the value of being able to do what he likes without worry of being tied down, questions how the man could give up his freedom. This brash sentiment sums up both the character and the film in its blind naïveté. Unable to see beyond the individual life he leads, Josh can only satisfy his own instinctual needs at any given time. His tunnel vision leads the picture down a similar path, where each member of its cast and crew has worked desperately to survive the cutting room floor, yet also in desperate solitude. “The International Sign for Choking” struggles most in its basic construction: none of the elements are cooperative or in sync because no one working on the film, including Weintraub, could see beyond their individual contributions. [D]

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