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Joel Potrykus’s
Buzzard
41st Annual New Directors/New Films
MARCH 21-APRIL 1 2014
Lincoln Center
Museum of Modern Art

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Buzzard is a delightfully dark and nasty new film written and directed by Joel Potrykus as the last part of his “animal” trilogy (Coyote & Ape—which I have not seen but now must!).

I have to say I was in the right mood for this film. I was craving something adventurous, bitter, and daring and Buzzard sure fit the bill.

This creepily compelling feature tells the tale of Marty (Joshua Burge) an office temp at a banking company who works as little as possible and does everything in his power to cheat the system--whether that means ordering office supplies and then returning them to a local supply store for cash refunds, scamming his bank or calling up companies that make his TV dinners and complaining about them until he is given shut-up coupons. During non-business hours he’s usually playing Nintendo with his annoying friend, Derek (the filmmaker, Potrykus) or working on his Freddy Krueger glove. And when he cuts his hand on the blades, he has no problem pretending it happened at work, so he can have it tended to for free.

In addition to his Krueger creation, Marty loves disgusting food like nachos with gobs of dressing sandwiched between two sausage pizzas as well as spaghetti and meatballs. In a deliciously gross extended scene we watch him shove the pasta into his famished mouth—fork load by fork load.

On a particularly lazy day, Marty’s boss asks him to research the addresses of a bunch of clients whose refund checks came back return to sender. Seeing a scam opportunity, Marty cashes some of the checks by signing them over to himself (via an idea from his absent mother).

But once Marty is told that the bank keeps track of who cashes the checks, he begins to panic and decides running away to Detroit is the smart thing to do. His fleeing leads to a shocker climax.

Potrykus is a master of creating mood and he likes his audience as uncomfortable as possible. He imbues the early scenes with a sense of foreboding so we know something terrible is going to happen. And when it does, the way it is dealt with never compromises the character of Marty or the narrative world Potrykus has meticulously created.

And he’s cast his lead with an extraordinary actor, Joshua Burge, who appeared in his two earlier films. Burge dives right into Marty’s slightly-derange, wholly-selfish, off-kilter psyche and allows us to feel the alienation, the frustration, the sense of “what about me?”

Not conventionally handsome by any definition, Burge does have an instant appeal. And he doesn’t try and play Marty for sympathy. Quite the opposite. The character is pretty despicable. And yet I liked him from the get-go.

When asked in the opening scene at the bank if he’s trying to cheat the system, Marty replies, without a trace of irony, “Absolutely.”

Marty is always honest in his dishonesty. And there’s a charm that Burge has that’s infectious. He’s even oddly sexy at times in a role that calls for very little in the way of sexuality.

It’s a brave breakout performance and should get Burge good work for the next few decades.

Marty is a representation of what so many of our youth have turned into—youth so immersed in violence (games, films, TV...life) that they’ve become completely desensitized by it. Young people who have no parental figures in their lives, no moral compasses—so they created their own—for survival but also for amusement. And when you’re bored, that’s when bad things start to happen.

Buzzard is what indie cinema should be—envelop pushing, provocative, uncompromising and just damned good!

New Directors/New Films tickets can be purchased online at newdirectors.org, or in person at the box offices of The Film Society of Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65 Street, near Amsterdam Avenue) and The Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53 Street).




Richard Ayoade’s
The Double
41st Annual New Directors/New Films
MARCH 21-APRIL 1 2014
Lincoln Center
Museum of Modern Art

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Richard Ayoade has adapted Dostoevsky’s 19th century novella into a beguiling new film, The Double, which pays homage to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, David Lynch movies, Kafka and Orwell’s 1984 among other futuristic works.

Jesse Eisenberg delivers his best post-Social Network performance as Simon James, a shy and apprehensive office worker who seems to be made of cellophane. His nasty boss (who else but Wallace Shawn) can barely recall his name and often berates him. The security guards at his peculiar and sinister company are constantly insisting he provide ID. And his own mother (the terrific Phyliss Somerville) has nothing but contempt for him. Oh, and his work crush Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) barely acknowledges him.

Enter James Simon (Eisenberg) a dead-ringer for Simon James but everything the “non-person” Simon wants to be, but isn’t. Simon’s doppelganger is cocky, cheeky and fearless in his pursuit of the ladies as well as his career ambitions—especially when it means using Simon’s ideas and taking all the credit. Soon Simon finds his entire life is being sabotaged.

The film’s tone is dark and satiric to the point of absurdist. The script, by Ayoade and Avi Korine, is a clever psychological study set amidst a dystopian society. Is James a creation of Simon? An extension? A manifestation of his psyche? Who he would like to be? Who he must be to survive in the dog-devour-dog world he lives in?

Simon is living a nightmare and the production design (by David Crank) splendidly exemplifies that.

The wonderful supporting cast features Chris O’Dowd, Sally Hawkins, James Fox, Noah Taylor and Cathy Moriarty (stealing all her too-brief moments).

But it’s Eisenberg who carries the film on both his shoulders with a dual portrayal that is captivating, entertaining and infectious.

New Directors/New Films tickets can be purchased online at newdirectors.org, or in person at the box offices of The Film Society of Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65 Street, near Amsterdam Avenue) and The Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53 Street).




Gilles Deroo & Marianne Pistone’s
Mouton (Sheep)
In French with English subtitles
41st Annual New Directors/New Films
MARCH 21-APRIL 1 2014
Lincoln Center
Museum of Modern Art

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

David Merabet, plays the titular character and is the heart and soul of Mouton (Sheep), Gilles Deroo & Marianne Pistone’s hypnotic, disturbing and distancing film. It’s a seemingly simple but amazing portrait of an undeniably original individual. So when he vanishes about an ho

ur into the film after a devastating twist in the story proper, we are left with the presence he has stamped on us and on the townsfolk in the film.

The film has a docu-drama feel about it as it examines the day-to-day minutiae of group of people living in a small town in France. It also makes major use of the fade-out, ad nauseum.

Opening with a shot of the enigmatic Mouton waiting outside an office, we are then privy to an argument between a court representative and Mouton’s alcoholic mother, where the 17-year-old boy is granted legal independence.

The film then, in grueling detail, examines the daily routine of the boy: working in a restaurant gutting fish and preparing the meals (in quite the impressive manner), taking breaks, going home, showering, hanging out with friends, washing his feet, etc. And as boring as that sounds there is a mesmerizing quality about the style and the boy himself.

Initially I wondered if Mouton was mentally-challenged since he walks around with this perpetual grin on his face but I soon came to realize he is just a happy person and that cheer is quite contagious.

At one point in the narrative, I also thought he was being bullied, as a bunch of people—of varying ages—take turns spitting on him. But it turns out to be some kind of ritual or initiation since the culprits all seem to love and respect Mouton. Bizarre.

Mouton soon romances the new girl at the restaurant (Audrey Clement) and we are shown some of their intimate moments.

The entire town (all 17 of them…okay maybe 25) become excited about the Feast of St. Anne and at the celebration a horrible incident occurs. Mouton survives but leaves town (to stay with his Uncle) and the film shifts its focus to a few of the friends Mouton made—showing us their dull daily life-snippets. One man cares for dogs. ID twins take turns with a hooker in a van. A pregnant woman thinks about writing to Mouton. Etc…

The filmmakers are making a statement about how life goes on despite tragedies and losses. They also probe just how random life can be and how boredom can lead people to do heinous things.

I missed Mouton. He made his mark and I wanted so much to follow him to his Uncle’s and see how he was doing and what he was doing. But it wasn’t to be. And perhaps that was part of the point the Deroo and Pistone were trying to convey. Life often disappoints.

New Directors/New Films tickets can be purchased online at newdirectors.org, or in person at the box offices of The Film Society of Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65 Street, near Amsterdam Avenue) and The Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53 Street).


Abdellah Taia’s
Salvation Army (L’Armee du salut)
In Arabic and French with English subtitles
41st Annual New Directors/New Films
MARCH 21-APRIL 1 2014
Lincoln Center
Museum of Modern Art

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Moroccan author, Abdellah Taia has adapted his own celebrated autobiographical novel into a highly personal, sometimes distancing film that intrigues and alienates.

Taia is also the director and, had he not chosen to wear both hats, perhaps the second act of the film would make more sense to someone unfamiliar with his book.

The film centers on fifteen-year-old Abdellah (Said Mrini) who we quickly realize is gay and is trying to sort out his feelings of attraction to his older brother, Slimane (Amine Ennaji) as well as to a few middle aged men around town who take advantage of him. He seems to enjoy the tender moments with these men and fantasizing about his brother.

Abdellah’s parents have quite the stormy relationship where sex is usually followed by his father beating his mother. His sisters are pushy. His mother is downright beastly to him—perhaps sensing the fact that he’s different. The family sleeps together in one small room—except for Slimane who has his own room.

The quiet, almost serene tone of the first half of the film helps shed light on the boy’s struggle with his bourgeoning manhood.

The next portion of the film takes place a decade later with Karim Ait M’hand playing Abdellah. The curious and lovable boy, created by Mrini, has become a cold and sometimes cruel man. Or is it the actor’s one-note performance? It’s hard to tell since his Abdellah lacks any real depth and almost nullifies the Abdellah we grew to care about. Almost. Perhaps this was a deliberate move on Taia’s part, but to what end? To show how life can destroy innocence? How (often intertwined) religious and cultural moralizing can lead to indifference and apathy? How the used learns to use?

Abdellah, the man, is in a relationship with an older Swiss professor but is manipulating the man for his connections and to get himself a visa and a university grant.

Perhaps Taia is trying to say something about how the boy’s relationships with older men who only cared about him sexually led Abdellah to shut his feelings down and use his sexual precociousness and appeal to get what he needs to flee the repression of his family—of his country. I just wanted to be as invested in the older Abdellah as I was in his naïve younger self.

There are some lovely yet off-putting moments early in the film where we see the boy caring for his father, crushing on his brother (sniffing the area where he sleeps—among other things), proudly carrying a watermelon he got as a gift from a middle-aged man who just violated him…it’s all weaved together in an evocative and non-judgmental manner as Abdellah journeys through his Moroccan town, on his way to discovering the ways of the world.

New Directors/New Films tickets can be purchased online at newdirectors.org, or in person at the box offices of The Film Society of Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65 Street, near Amsterdam Avenue) and The Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53 Street).




Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza’s
Salvo
In Sicilian with English subtitles.
41st Annual New Directors/New Films
MARCH 21-APRIL 1 2014
Lincoln Center
Museum of Modern Art

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

An organized crime film like no other, Salvo features manic maneuvering camerawork, tension-filled framing and sound as well as an overall enrapturing yet alienating style. The results yield an indie that will probably be more admired than enjoyed.

Directed and written by Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza, Salvo begins in Palermo, Sicily, with the title character (Saleh Bakri) being ambushed but turning the tables and murdering a band of henchmen, then forcing a confession out of one of them about who was behind the attack—a man named Picciotto. And then, of course, shooting the rat in the head.

The illusion of a crime thriller is created…and then destroyed as Salvo enters Picciotto’s house. He is there to seek revenge but the only person home is Picciotto’s blind sister Rita (Sara Serraiocco). With little dialogue and deliberate POV cinematography, the filmmakers create suspense and confusion so the next half hour of the film becomes a relentless visceral experience as Salvo takes care of business but refuses to kill the girl—who may not be as blind as we think she is.

He ties her up and brings her to an abandoned factory—where he then begins to care for her. We are also privy to Salvo’s fairly mundane home life as well as his mob boss insisting that he kill the young girl, who at one point has the opportunity to kill Salvo…but does not.

The experimental style of the pic is ambitious, but I would have liked more character development. Still, both Bakri (who is just smolderingly hot) and Serraiocco are terrific and keep the viewer glued to the screen—right to the bitter end.

New Directors/New Films tickets can be purchased online at newdirectors.org, or in person at the box offices of The Film Society of Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65 Street, near Amsterdam Avenue) and The Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53 Street).




Anja Marquardt’s
She’s Lost Control
41st Annual New Directors/New Films
MARCH 21-APRIL 1 2014
Lincoln Center
Museum of Modern Art

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Brooke Bloom has the kind of look that feels familiar. And if you gaze at her IMDB credits she’s certainly been Film/TV ubiquitous the last few years but had I not perused her resume, I would not have been able to name anything she’s been in. That will change now that she’s placed a permanent stamp on my filmic mind-catalogue with her compelling and brave performance in Anja Marquardt’s intimate, uneven psychological thriller, She’s Lost Control.

Bloom plays Ronah, a therapist/sex-surrogate working on her Masters in Behavioral Psychology who helps patients with intimacy issues. Her goal is to help troubled men confront their fears and make them feel more comfortable and at ease with sex. Helen Hunt played a similar character in The Sessions—a far less dark film.

Ronah makes it clear that the line between personal and professional should never be crossed. She leads a lonely life fraught with problems that include her being sued because of a water leak in her apartment.

One day she agrees to take on a new client, Johnny (an intense Marc Menchaca), who is truly troubled and potentially violent.

“Do you not feel safe with me?” she asks. His reply: “I wanna strangle you.”

You’d think that would be a major red flag but Ronah seems to want to push certain boundaries which leads to an unnerving climax.

Marquardt’s filmmaking style is sometimes engaging. It can also be cold and frustrating—trying the patience of the viewer who may wonder why they’re giving up their time to watch. But Bloom always makes it worthwhile—even when her downward spiral feels contrived and judgmental.

New Directors/New Films tickets can be purchased online at newdirectors.org, or in person at the box offices of The Film Society of Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65 Street, near Amsterdam Avenue) and The Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53 Street).


Ben Rivers & Ben Russell’s
A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
41st Annual New Directors/New Films
MARCH 21-APRIL 1 2014
Lincoln Center
Museum of Modern Art

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The opening shot of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness pans a lake as the sun goes down. It’s an extremely slow, unbroken shot—lasting about five minutes—and it’s good preparation for the film about to unfold. It will try your patience. It might also speak to you.

Ben Rivers and Ben Russell are experimental filmmakers who have collaborated to bring us a most unique cinematic experience—and that is always a good thing. Their non-narrative, spiritual approach challenges accepted filmic norms and although the influences of Lars Von Trier, Terrence Malick and David Lynch are apparent, the film as a whole is unlike anything I’ve seen recently. Chances are viewers will either be enthralled or alienated. I was both.

It’s difficult to even attempt a plot synopsis. Suffice to say there’s real-life musician Robert A.A. Lowe, who enjoys some time at a commune. We then see him getting in touch with nature in the backwoods of Finland. Lastly, he is part of a metal music concert that boasts the film’s entire final third.

The commune section of the film is probably the most accessible (unless you’re a big fan of metal) with members frolicking naked and chatting about important topics like protecting the planet, karma and telling odd stories involving fingers inside one another’s butts (you need to see the film to understand). These people are hopeful about their idyllic “Shangri-La, but are also quite realistic about the fact that “other people will act in their own self-interests.” I wanted to learn more about these folks.

The second portion has Lowe alone in the wilderness, fishing, cooking—basically surviving. It isn’t the most exciting thing to watch. The fire that dazzlingly burns as the episode mercifully ends jolted me awake (metaphorically—I may have been bored but I was not sleeping!)

The finale, the longest sequence, should have turned me off completely as I am not a fan of metal—certainly not death metal--but I was riveted and the film seemed to come together on a visceral level for me. I’m not exactly sure why I was moved, but I was.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness relies on sound as much as its visuals to convey it’s meaning—which will probably be different for each viewer. I’d call it a frustrating, beguiling, contemplative work with a refreshingly original sense of otherworldliness.

New Directors/New Films tickets can be purchased online at newdirectors.org, or in person at the box offices of The Film Society of Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65 Street, near Amsterdam Avenue) and The Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53 Street).



Alejandro Fernandez Almendras’s
To Kill a Man
In Spanish with English subtitles
41st Annual New Directors/New Films
MARCH 21-APRIL 1 2014
Lincoln Center
Museum of Modern Art

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Jorge (Daniel Candia) is an unassuming, non-aggressive Chilean man who works as a forest guard and suffers from diabetes. He lives in a lower middle class apartment complex with his constantly complaining wife and their two teen children. One day, while walking home from the store a bunch of neighborhood bullies, prompted by their relentless leader, Kalule (Daniel Antivilo, believably evil) taunt and mug him--stealing his insulin syringe. Jorge’s son, Jorgito (Ariel Mateluna) takes it upon himself to visit Kalule to demand it back.

When Jorgito doesn’t return quickly, Jorge seeks him out and discovers his son bleeding from a gunshot wound outside Kalule’s home. Upon seeing Jorge, Kalule shoots himself, smartly (and insanely) setting up a self-defense plea in the process. At the trial, Kalule gets eighteen months and the film jumps two years.

Now, Jorge is divorced and Kalule is madder than ever (in both senses of the word), ratcheting up the bullying ante with more threats, vandalism and, finally, the public humiliation and near-rape of Jorge’s daughter —where, incredulously, no one offers any help (the way the scene is filmed we don’t see any onlookers but the one gets the impression there are homes right past the road.)

Complaints are made and police reports are filed, but the system does nothing to really stop the hoodlum. Jorge has reached the end of his rope. And as the title, has already prepped us, he sets about seeking his revenge and doing the only thing he can to protect his family.

Writer/director Almendras sets quite the unnerving stage from the very first scene and never lets us feel comfortable. I was so anxiety-ridden watching this film that found myself chewing my nails to bits.

Candia carries the film and makes Jorge a conundrum. How scared is he? How hurt is he by what has happened? Does he even miss his wife? And how much guilt does he feel before, during and after he does what he does? We are never certain or any of these answers which adds to the general uneasiness.

I liked the fact that the villain was an older man and not some young punk. I also loved that he was quite schizophrenic. As he is being held captive in a truck, Kalule begs for mercy one moment and rants “I’m gonna kill you and your family,” the next. What’s a man pushed past the point of no return to do?

Almendras gives the audience enough contemplative time so we can reflect on the impossible choices presented and wonder what we would do in the situation. And he dramatically ends the film with the title card: Based on a true story.

New Directors/New Films tickets can be purchased online at newdirectors.org, or in person at the box offices of The Film Society of Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65 Street, near Amsterdam Avenue) and The Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53 Street).


 



Tom Shoval’s
Youth
In Hebrew with English subtitles.
41st Annual New Directors/New Films
MARCH 21-APRIL 1 2014
Lincoln Center
Museum of Modern Art

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The ‘youth’ in Tom Shoval’s fascinating debut feature happen to be two Israeli brothers who will do anything to help their family out in a financial crisis.

The film begins with an awkward Shaul (Eitan Cunio) following a cute girl, Dafna (Gita Amely) as she walks home from high school. At first, we think he may have a crush on her but the look on his face is more agitating. Is he sexually obsessed with her? Not quite. Well, maybe, but there’s no time for that.

Shaul goes home and bear hugs his older brother, Yaki (David Cunio) who is back, briefly, from his stint in the army—rifle glaringly in tow. Their overbearing mom (Shirlii Deshe) and depressed father (Moshe Ivgy) are proudly preparing a going away family meal for the 18-year old, Yaki. But they’ve fallen on hard times and appear to be in dire financial straits.

A bit later, the brothers follow Dafna together and abduct her, shoving her onto a bus and taking her to an empty bomb shelter under the building they live in. The surreal scene on the bus shows just how indifferent people can be to what is going on around them—a harsh yet telling comment on the times we live in.

Shaul and Yaki plan to demand a ransom of exactly $152,000 from Dafna’s father in exchange for his daughter. The problem is it’s the Sabbath and Dafna’s father is not answering the phone. What to do?

As funny and ludicrous as some of this sounds, it actually plays out pretty powerfully, moving back and forth between the warmish home where Yaki’s is lionized (for enlisting in the army) to the brutality of Dafna’s treatment as she struggles to yell and attempts to escape.

Writer/director Shoval does not make the brothers apathetic (which has been done to death), they’re simply driven and believe what they’re doing is the best thing for their family. After all they’re brought up to believe that might wills out. In a society where young boys carry guns the way we used to carry lunchboxes—why would they believe anything else? Their bedroom walls are draped with U.S. action movie posters and when they threaten Dafna, the dialogue sounds like words memorized from a gangster movie.

Youth is most definitely a disturbing comment on the American film influences abroad—specifically violent action films—the kind that International teens have come to worship. Rambo and Scarface are heroes. And apparently Shaul and Yaki’s parents did nothing to discourage them from reveling in these types of films—so much so that they seem to want to recreate that kind of thuggish world.

The film cuts even deeper and subtly condemns parents who teach their children that “without money you’re nothing,” something their dad truly believes. Youth also comments on how unfair the economy is on middle class families (something we can definitely relate to). Shoval is interested in paradox and nuance.

As our protagonists, The Cunio brothers look so much alike so sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which, part of what captivates. And they’re not classically handsome by any stretch. But they are mesmerizing and give hauntingly believable, chilling performances.

Youth also boast a sinister and troubling yet appropriate ending.

New Directors/New Films tickets can be purchased online at newdirectors.org, or in person at the box offices of The Film Society of Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65 Street, near Amsterdam Avenue) and The Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53 Street).


 


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