SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER

Articles by

<Steve Erickson>

01/01/14 4:00am

The Rocket
Directed by Kim Mordaunt

From browsing its Rotten Tomatoes page, it seems impossible to review this movie without using the word “crowdpleaser.” An Australian/Laotian/Thai production, it rests uneasily between Oscarbait like Slumdog Millionaire and genuine Third World artistry like the work of Filipino director Kidlat Tahimik. Director Mordaunt is Australian, but his film is designed to show off the political realities of Laos. His background lies in documentaries—including one called Bomb Harvest about people who collect unexploded American bombs dropped in Laos during the Vietnam War—but the narrative of The Rocket succumbs to feel-good formulas.

Ten-year-old Ahlo (Sitthipon Disamoe) is blamed by his village for a string of bad luck, so his family is forced to move. He meets a young girl, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), and her uncle Purple (Thep Phongam), an alcoholic who idolizes James Brown. Ahlo’s family struggles to find a new home, and the child often takes over a paternal role despite his young age. The Rocket Festival, in which Laotians set off giant rockets, is approaching, and Ahlo sees a chance to redeem himself by winning the contest.

The Rocket tries to speak for a country almost never represented in cinema. It deals with some issues specific to Laos like the legacy of the Vietnam War (including the fact that the countryside is littered with explosives from the heavy American shelling) and the displacement of poor people by dams. The narrative has an appealing spontaneity, as though it were conceived by Ahlo and Kia themselves, until it finally takes focus in its final half hour. Cinematographer Andrew Commis has a great eye for the many shades of night—the film’s most attractive scenes are its nocturnal ones, tinged in beautiful tones of red and blue. But there’s also a strain of exoticism that conflicts with the film’s admitted pleasures and nobler goals. Thanks to Mordaunt’s reliance on middlebrow staples like cute kids, quirky adults and a narrative that allows them to transcended adversity with ease, The Rocket feels like a version of “world cinema” akin to the bland “world music” that emerged in the wake of Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Opens January 10

12/12/12 4:00am

Trans-Europe Express (1968)
Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet
December 18 at Film Forum, part of its Jean-Louis Trintignant retrospective

The movie begins with a producer, a secretary and Robbe-Grillet himself sitting on the titular train—which Kraftwerk would immortalize nine years later—and thinking up movie ideas. Like, a tale about a drug smuggler, Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who buys a false-bottom suitcase and travels from Paris to Antwerp to pick up a shipment of cocaine; while in Antwerp, he engages in bondage with a prostitute. Robbe-Grillet, the avant-garde novelist and Last Year at Marienbad screenwriter, and his companions revise the story as they go along; at no point does the film seem to have a firm basis in reality. Instead, Trans-Europe Express combines the reflexivity of Jean-Luc Godard with the sexual perversity of Luis Buñuel, though it’s not as accomplished as either director’s best work.

A character peruses bondage photos in one of the film’s earliest scenes. Elias seems to have a passion for BDSM; when he tells a prostitute that he wants “rape, only rape,” he really means that he wants rough sex. The film was briefly banned in Britain due to such explicitness, although it now seems rather mild—it wouldn’t even qualify as softcore porn. Nevertheless, its frank kinkiness is still rare, and it’s pursued obsessively enough that one suspects it reflected Robbe-Grillet’s own desires.

The film is quite enjoyable when it’s playful and suffers when it turns darker. There are two murders, but neither is particularly grave. When we’ve seen the filmmakers rewrite the plot on the spot, it’s hard to care much about the characters’ fate. To its credit, the ending seems to acknowledge this difficulty. While Robbe-Grillet’s innovations drew on the French New Wave’s, he took them further, setting the stage for the sexually charged cinephilia to follow.

10/24/12 9:00am

julialoktev.jpg

With only a documentary and two narrative films to her credit, Julia Loktev has nonetheless established herself as one of the most talented American directors of her generation. Her first feature Day Night Day Night followed an ambivalent suicide bomber around Times Square. Her second feature, The Loneliest Planet, continues in a minimalist vein but expands its scope. It features three characters: a Mexican man (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his American fiancee (Hani Furstenberg) traveling across the country of Georgia with their local guide (Bidzina Gujabidze). Planet, which opens October 26 at the IFC Center, often feels like a placid travelogue, particularly in its first half, but a sudden moment of danger changes the characters’ relationships forever. We spoke to Loktev about gender roles, the importance of casting, and how much she borrows from Hemingway.

Do you think your background as an immigrant has informed your work?
Definitely. In the case of this film. It influenced it because I have a personal connection to Georgia. I’m not from Georgia, I’m from Russia, but there’s a common Soviet past that we have. For me, it was a very natural place to shoot because I could communicate with everyone over 20 by speaking Russian. The younger generation don’t speak Russian, but the older generation do.

The narrative of The Loneliest Planet pivots around men trying to protect women and often failing. Do you consider it a feminist film?
It’s a hard question to answer. I do consider myself a feminist, but not in a reductive sense. I think being a feminist means thinking about the complexity of gender roles. In a way, the film is about a desire for simple gender roles. To me, the contradictions there are interesting. It’s about how confusing it is to be a man. I don’t know if it’s about the failure of gender roles. To me, that’s oversimplifying it. I think it’s more about the confusion of American and Western European men. Georgia is a place where it’s very clear what a man should be. Sometimes that makes things easier, I have to say. I was afraid I would be accused of making an antifeminist film. The kind of feminism that’s important to me allows for these contradictions. A friend of mine was doing a TV interview in Russia and got asked “Is it true that American women get angry if you open the door for them and can sue you if you offer them flowers?” His response was putting his head in his hands.

Is your video art connected to your narrative films?
I try to think of pieces project by project. The connections emerge later. I haven’t been making much work in an art context lately. The most recent one was an overnight performance in Toronto during “Nuit Blanche.” I filmed people coming in to audition and crying. It’s called I Cried for You. Over the course of the night, from dusk to dawn, 50 different people attempted to cry for me. Crying is almost treated like an athletic accomplishment among aspiring actors. Some of them list on their resume: “horseback riding, drives a stick-shift,
cries well.”

Was it hard to direct a nonprofessional actor within a cast of only three people?
It was an absolute pleasure directing Bidzina Gujabidze. We had so much fun. He’s a professional mountaineer. He knew how to move in this space. He’s playing a character, not himself, but he brought a lot of his knowledge to the part.

09/12/12 9:00am

howtosurviveaplague.jpg

Infuriating and moving, David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague (Sep 21) depicts the heroic efforts of ACT UP in the late 80s and early 90s as the group fought against bureaucratic apathy and right-wing homophobia to push the government and health care industry to take HIV and AIDS seriously. France draws largely on videos shot contemporaneously, as well as newly shot interviews with surviving ACT UP members. The film calls to mind Jean Cocteau’s suggestion that cinema can be a form of “death at work,” as many of its subjects visibly sicken and die in front of their own cameras. Yet at heart, Plague is an optimistic tribute to the power of street-level activism.

There have been a number of recent films about AIDS and AIDS activism. Were you worried about covering the same ground or competing with them?
I didn’t know about We Were Here until I saw that it was playing at Sundance, when I was already working on my film. I went to see it to see how much shared territory there was, and there was none. In a way, that film looked back at some of the period without talking about what was accomplished and how to tell the story of the triumph of the drugs that became available in 1996. There’s also Vito, which is the story of one important person’s life and activism. It brings him into ACT UP, but not the area in which I was focusing. I don’t tell the entire story of ACT UP. It’s the story of a group of people who invented this idea of treatment activism and transformed the health care world as we know it.

You’ve been a print journalist for decades. What inspired you to move into filmmaking?
I started thinking about it in 2009. I wanted to write the story. Then I realized that even in order to write it, I’d have to go back to video. I knew that it was there and had been shot. HIV and the camcorder go hand in hand. The camcorder was introduced in 1982, just a few months after the first reports of AIDS. It was adopted very quickly as a tool by people who were doing activism. Looking at this 25-year-old footage, I changed my goal to making a documentary.

How hard was it to track down all that footage?
It wasn’t too tough. We were working on it right until we locked the picture. I kept looking for different camera angles and higher quality footage. The footage that we used is from all formats. Sometimes, it was copies of masters, and we kept looking for masters to get a better-quality image. Some of it is shot on VHS.

How long did the editing on your film take?
Fourteen months. We had two cutting rooms. So in terms of hours, that’s 28 months. We went through 700 hours of archival footage to pare it down to two hours. My first cut was 13 hours. It took us two days to watch. I loved it, but I couldn’t release it. I had to remove a lot of significant detail, entire stories of people’s lives in order to make a digestible feature.

07/25/12 4:00am

Four (2012)
Directed by Joshua Sanchez
Friday, July 27 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, on the opening night of NewFest 2012

Joshua Sanchez’s directorial debut, which kicks off this year’s edition of New York’s LGBTQ film series, is accomplished in many ways, but not entirely satisfying. Based on Christopher Shinn’s play, it relates the stories of two couples. Joe (Wendell Pierce), a middle-aged, married African-American man,  meets June (Emory Cohen), a white teenage boy, for an internet hook-up. While he’s out, Joe’s daughter Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) goes out with Dexter (E. J. Bonilla), a streetwise Latino teen. The entire film takes place on the July 4th in a nameless suburb with few features; Sanchez gets good use out of the lens flares created by reflections on cars windows. However, all too often, his images seem to serve as a delivery system for Shinn’s words. His characters are largely articulate, but their speech feels contrived. How did Joe, who urges June to step outside his comfort zone and test his closet’s boundaries, wind up married to a woman? Why does he offer such sage advice while remaining closeted himself? He seems to see in June opportunities he’s passed up in his own life. The film skirts the issue of the legality of Joe and June’s sex, never mentioning the latter’s age. In any case, this queasy frisson gives their encounter a sharpness that Abigayle and Dexter’s  can’t match.

Cinematographer Gregg Conde shoots these characters’ struggles with an unsteady handheld camera, and Sanchez usually frames them in close-ups or medium shots. These visual choices wind up emphasizing the dialogue and performances once again, although the final few minutes make lovely deployment of the images and sounds of fireworks.

07/04/12 4:00am

Invisible
Directed by Michal Aviad

Much of Invisible feels like the opening of a horror film: in particular, the ominous stretches before violence takes place. In the case of Israeli director Michal Aviad’s film, there’s a twist—the violence is in the past. Her two protagonists suffered sexual assault at the hands of a serial rapist twenty years ago. Television editor Nira (Evgenia Dodina) meets dance instructor and political activist Lily (Ronit Elkabetz) by chance and recalls that they first encountered each other at a police line-up. Nira becomes determined to find out as much as she can about “the Polite Rapist” and is angered to learn about his relatively lenient jail sentence.

Very few films have devoted as much time and energy to the long-term consequences of rape as Invisible. Aviad’s background lies in documentaries; this is her narrative debut. However, it’s grounded in reality. The Polite Rapist was a real person, and Invisible incorporates documentary footage of his victims and the rapist himself. It closes on a didactic note, informing the spectator that one in five women will be victims of rape or attempted rape during their lifetime. Aviad expresses her disgust with rape culture more subtly during most of the film itself, showing Lily and Nira gaining strength from their growing friendship and portraying Tel Aviv as a nocturnal, menacing city full of dark shadows and surprise encounters. Invisible seems to be a naturalist film, especially given its documentary elements, but it’s subtly stylized. In the end, Lily and Nira find their voice by picking up a video camera, and their story seems to merge with the director’s.

Opens July 9 at MoMA