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Charles Poekel’s
“Christmas, Again”
42nd ANNUAL NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS
Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
March 18-29, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Charles Poekel’s “Christmas, Again” is an arty mood piece that never really bored me but didn’t quite excite me either.

Apparently the writer-director’s first feature is based on his own experiences selling Christmas trees in Brooklyn. Perhaps some embellishment would help this lackadaisical indie.

The story centers on a sullen young man ironically named Noel (Kentucker Audley) who sells Christmas trees in NYC and lives in a trailer at night. Noel is sad because last year he had a girlfriend but this year he does not. (We are never told why) and he is forced to witness how happy his co-worker is with his current squeeze. Good Samaritan that he is, Noel saves a drunken young girl (Hannah Gross) from freezing to death on a park bench and gives her refuge in his trailer. She manages to pop up again and again giving a much-needed jolt to the anemic narrative.

It would have been nice to know why Noel is in such a downer mood this particular year and it would have rocked to see a real development between Noel and the park bench gal. Or even get a few more interesting vignetty moments of tree deliveries. Alas…

I probably liked “Christmas, Again” much more than I’m indicating here. The camerawork (by Sean Price Williams) certainly held my attention. It would have made a great short film but at 79 minutes and even with very impressive actors like Audley and Gross, the sketchy script doesn’t allow for enough to sustain our interest.

I got Noel’s yearning. I just wanted to know more about what he was yearning for.

New Directors/New Films tickets are $16; $12 for Film Society and MoMA Members as well as students. Tickets for Opening and Closing Night screenings are $20, $15 for members. Save with a 3+ film package starting at $36, $30 for members. Please note: Package option applies to the purchase of three films or more, excluding the Opening and Closing Night screenings. Visit newdirectors.org for more information.




Benjamin Crotty’s
“Fort Buchanan”
42nd ANNUAL NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS
Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
March 18-29, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Shifting narrative links, absorbing characterizations and an original and atmospheric style and tone propel “Fort Buchanan” into the category of must-see New Directors/New Films.

Shot in 16mm and set over four seasons, the 65-minute work marks writer-director Benjamin Crotty’s feature debut and makes you long for more, although where he ends the film richly satisfies.

Crotty’s bases the origin of the idea for his film on his own experience growing up in Spokane, Washington, visiting a nearby air force base.

The story centers on a gaggle of military spouses living together on a remote army base in the middle of the woods in Djibouti, a strategically located country in the Horn of Africa (I had to Google it). Gays and straight women pepper the group of restless wives and husbands forced to find ways to occupy their time while their sig others do their duty.

Roger (sexy Andy Gillet) is the long-suffering but doggedly faithful spouse of Frank (David Baiot), who appears to have lost interest in his husband (after being together 18 years). Roger is dealing with his horny teen daughter, Roxy (Iliana Zabeth) who has casual sex, gets pregnant and frolics with the gals, not necessarily in that order.

Much of the focus of the early part of the film is on how the ladies decide to spend their free time, sexually active with one another. Some of them also enjoy hitting on a hot mysterious fitness expert (Guillaume Palin) who doesn’t seem to belong there, and sleeps with women, but talks about his ex-husband.

As the seasons change, so does the cinematic focus. We are still following the travails of randy Roxy and her delicate flower dad Roger, who decides to cut his hair and wear short shorts to try and win back his hubby, humiliating himself in the process. But we now become engaged in the story of the gorgeous, free spirit Pamela (Pauline Jacquard) and her troubled husband Trevor (Luc Chessel) and the film becomes more segmented. A natural passage-of-time-theme manifests itself where birth and death are all a part of the wonder of life. And in these mysterious woods, people can still find love.

The film is more about character and mood than plot and how living in these strange environs begets even odder behavior. The film is satiric, melodramatic and experimental, and the genre-blend works smashingly well. As soon as “Fort Buchanan” ended, I wanted to immediately watch it again.

New Directors/New Films tickets are $16; $12 for Film Society and MoMA Members as well as students. Tickets for Opening and Closing Night screenings are $20, $15 for members. Save with a 3+ film package starting at $36, $30 for members. Please note: Package option applies to the purchase of three films or more, excluding the Opening and Closing Night screenings. Visit newdirectors.org for more information.



Sarah Leonor’s
“The Great Man (Le Grand homme)”
42nd ANNUAL NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS
Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
March 18-29, 2015

 

In French with English subtitles

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Sarah Leonor’s second feature, “The Great Man (Le Grand homme)” begins in a war zone in Afghanistan with two French Legionnaires tracking a leopard. The two are caught in an ambush and Hamilton (Jeremie Renier) is shot and on the verge of dying. His devoted buddy, Markov (Surho Sugaipov), carries him to safety, saving his life in the process, only to find himself dishonorably discharged (after refusing to reenlist) for leaving weapons behind--he had a choice to make, his friend or the guns.

Markov, having joined up as a foreign refugee from Chechnya after being forced to flee during the war, now, cannot find work in Paris and has a 10-year-old child, Khadji (Ramzan Idiev) to support. The boy is initially resentful but quickly bonds with his dad.

Grateful to his fellow soldier, Hamilton allows Markov to use his identity to find work and the two continue their bond until something occurs to change everyone’s future.

Leonor co-wrote the film with Emmanuelle Jacob and there is much here to appreciate and admire. They tackle important themes of immigration and forced deportation as well as how identity can be confused by what seems like ridiculous legalities (not to mention how national military groups have outrageous rules where a soldier’s life is secondary to an enemy’s seizing weapons).

But what Leonor (and Jacob) really excels at are nuanced characterizations and how people can work through negative feelings and misrepresentations to bond and become life friends. In addition, how a father’s love and perseverance can win his son back.

Leonor handles the quiet warm scenes between Markov and Khandji with great care and in one particularly moving scene, he tries to explain to his son how his mother died and the boy is simultaneously curious and contrary. Another moment has Markov reciting the Legion’s code of honor while he gives his son a crew cut. The next day Khandji proudly goes to school with his head practically shaved.

It’s interesting to note that the final third of the film feels slightly contrived and predictable, after a particular plot happening. The main issue I had is that the screenwriters teased the story in one direction and then shift course so instead of an unconventional exploration of the relationship between Markov and Hamilton, a different area is pursued--a more obvious one. I forgive the filmmakers because the denouement is handled with an understated grace but I was disappointed that Markov’s deep love for his male friend was never fully examined. And had I not felt the deep connection, I would not have craved some attention to be paid.

The trio of actors is fantastic. Newcomer Sugaipov gives incredible depth to his role and creates different and potent layers of love for both Hamilton and his son. Renier continues to add wonderful work to his ever-growing resume. Here he’s damaged loner and the actor gives us just enough to allow us in, but still keep the enigma alive. Finally, Idiev is a find, natural, appealing and just looking for an adult to look up to and to stick around for a while.

New Directors/New Films tickets are $16; $12 for Film Society and MoMA Members as well as students. Tickets for Opening and Closing Night screenings are $20, $15 for members. Save with a 3+ film package starting at $36, $30 for members. Please note: Package option applies to the purchase of three films or more, excluding the Opening and Closing Night screenings. Visit newdirectors.org for more information.


 


Bas Devos’s
“Violet”
42nd ANNUAL NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS
Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
March 18-29, 2015

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

“Violet” is the kind of film that dares you to keep watching. Maddening at times, it’s also beguiling despite its disjointed narrative and puzzling style.

Writer-director Bas Devos seems to be channeling Gus Van Sant at his most “Elephant” and “Paranoid Park” with his roving camera that loves to film young teen boys—especially from behind.

Be forewarned to pay very close attention to what is going on in the opening sequence if you don’t want to be totally clueless.

Beautifully shot, by Nicolas Karakatsanis, the film tells a story via images. We get some dialogue but most of it is extraneous teen speak.

The film opens in a mall in Brussels, Belgium where we meet two teen boys and two (possibly) late teen boys on security camera footage. The images and boys converge and an incident occurs that leave one boy bleeding to death while the other stands immobilized watching.

The rest of the film follows the surviving boy, Jesse (Cesar De Sutter), trying to cope with what happened and the fact that he did nothing to help his friend.

This is Devos’s first feature and he tells his story in a very unconventional fashion. He has an interesting approach and there are a lot of impressive visuals like a shot of boys jumping their bikes that makes it look like they’re almost flying as well as having the camera lovingly near-caress the beautiful blond lead actor in certain scenes. But, too often, the film is filled with static shots of rooms or inanimate object or the camera lingers in long shot on nothing in particular creating an alienating effect.

The back/forth between distancing the viewer and then trying to bring him/her close can get on one’s nerves, but my curiosity continued to be piqued right up through the stunning, annoying, enigmatic ending that made me think too much of Stephen King and John Carpenter.

Mystery is fine but I wanted a reason to give a damn. The only time I really felt something was in the scenes that involved Jesse and his loving father, who’s concern for his son was palpable.

“Violet” is a film I admired more than liked. But I do look forward to seeing what Devos does next.

New Directors/New Films tickets are $16; $12 for Film Society and MoMA Members as well as students. Tickets for Opening and Closing Night screenings are $20, $15 for members. Save with a 3+ film package starting at $36, $30 for members. Please note: Package option applies to the purchase of three films or more, excluding the Opening and Closing Night screenings. Visit newdirectors.org for more information.


 



 

 


 

 


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