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Champs Elysees Film Festival: Winners and No Losers

Festivals
by Sydney Levine
June 22, 2014 10:00 AM
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Paris! What could be better than to be in Paris, when it sizzles and drizzles, with spectacular lightning, and an evening view of the Arc de Triomphe every night as the participants of the Champs Elysees Film Festival, U.S. in Progress and Paris Coproduction Village drink champagne and eat exciting and uniquely presented hors d’oevres.

Even as we left for the airport after our five nights at the festival, at 6 am we were treated to a full moon and the Eiffel Tower on our right, still enveloped by the navy blue night and on our left, the Seine River and the sun turning the sky rose with its long fingers of dawn.

The beautiful and erudite Jacqueline Bisset, Bertrand Tavernier, Agnes Varda, Keanu Reeves, Whit Stillman and Mike Figges were all here in this intimate and quintessentially Parisian film festival, being celebrated and giving master classes to a public which is eager to soak in American films and French films in the only film festival in Paris.

The American films showing here are indies, relevant, funny, and all special. The Official Selection of American features include Sundance premiere films “Obvious Child” which also screened in Rotterdam and is now playing in U.S., “See You Next Tuesday”, “American Promise”, “Rich Hill” (also played in Hot Docs) and “Test”; the Toronto hit about the French photographer of U.S. street scenes in 1940s and ‘50s U.S. “Searching for Vivian Maier”; TIFF’s “Fort Bliss”; Urbanworld FF’s “The Magic City” the debut film of R. Malcolm Jones; the critical hit “Locke”; last year’s U.S. in Progress and TIFF films “ 1982”; “Summer of Blood” which went on to play in Tribeca and “Sunbelt Express” in its world premiere.

I have to mention that very relevant French films, both new and classic, are also showing. For me the standout is Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” with English subtitles by Art Buchwald which came out 1967 to the great surprise and delight of the American public lucky enough to see it. In this adventure, Monsieur Hulot has to contact an American official in Paris, but he gets lost in the maze of modern architecture which is filled with the latest technical gadgets. Caught in the tourist invasion, Hulot roams around Paris with a group of American tourists, causing chaos in his usual manner. (Written By Leon Wolters <wolters [at] strw.LeidenUniv.nl>)

Writing this after “Fort Bliss” won the Audience Award is great because I loved that film.

Claudia Myers accepting the audience award to CEFF.

That it could avoid the clichés expected to abound in a film about a beautiful young mother who enlists not once but twice to serve in Afghanistan was a feat of expert script writing and filmmaking.

Between the two stints in the Army, Maggie Swann must renew her relationship with her five-year old son, adjust to her ex-husband’s new live-in and establish a new romance with a blue-eyed Mexican car mechanic, played by Manolo Cardona, who played Santiago in “Contracorriente” (“Undertow”) and is heart-throbbingly gorgeous.

Michelle Monaghan who played Maggie Swann reminded me a little too much of Sandra Bullock though she is a good actress, playing the two ends of the emotional spectrum so well that I actually cried with her. Returning home and to Fort Bliss in Houston Texas after a horrendous stint in the army where she served as a medic, unable to sleep much and determined to take back her son, she plays the stoic decorated U.S. Army medic that she has become and yet, to win back her son and establish any other loving relationship, she must (and does) allow her emotions to rule in the end.

The director, Claudia Myers, who also wrote the screenplay was at the screening answering numerous questions afterward in both English and French. She is American but grew up in France. She worked extensively with the military making training movies and wanted to write a story about a woman with a career and family. This extreme situation of a career in the military also appealed to her because the woman had to play such emotional extremes, from not showing emotion in the worst circumstances of war to allowing her emotions for her son and for her lover to have free reign. This is the second feature she has directed after the 2006 Showtime movie, “ Kettle of Fish”.


The film premiered at Toronto Film Festival 2013 and is being sold internationally by Voltage who has sold it for Showgate for Japan and Umbrella for Australia), and Phase 4 for North America.

If only there were a family-friendly version, I would take my young grandson and his mother to see this as I think a child would empathize with the little boy, played by if the two very hot (and very meaningful) sex scenes were edited out for a family-friendly version. The sex scenes, however, were great in that each showed the psychological needs of a long emotionally-suppressed military woman and latter the sad and determined lust of her and her lover. That was one cliché less: instead of showing the usual dreamy and loving sex motives of most films, sex revealed the emotional states of people under pressure. The second cliché avoided was the emotional bond between mother and son. It was a film even a child could respond too, much the way children respond to the story of Bambi on film, and yet it avoided any sappiness. And the Army wants to see this story told, despite it showing troubling subject matter like PTSD, reintegrating into society and sexual assault -- but to their credit they have supported it and helped the film get made in terms of accuracy.

The credits offered thanks to the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss,

American Legion, American Red Cross, Joint Forces Training Base Los Alamitos, CA, Patriot Guard Riders, U.S. Army Public Affairs, Union Editorial and the United Service Organizations (USO).

Also playing were my favorite TIFF film “Searching for Vivian Maier” and “1982” which we (the jury) voted Best Film of US in Progress last year in Paris and which also went on to play in Toronto. We’re waiting to see how Tommy Oliver releases it. He is now producing two other films: “ Halfway” and “Black Eyed Dog”.

Tommy Oliver lighting up for the US in Progress organizer Ula Sniegowska

Watch this moving picture of Tommy Oliver lighting up for the US in Progress organizer Ula Sniegowska, Trust Nordisk’s Silje Glimsdal and others last year in Paris at the Champs Elysees Film Festival

My other personal favorites and wonderful discoveries were “Sun Belt Express” and “Summer of Blood”. The next blog will be about these two films and their filmmakers.

The Champs Elysees Film Festival: American Independent Film Competition

My runner-ups to the Audience Favorite, “Fort Bliss” are “Sun Belt Express” and “Summer of Blood”.

“Sun Belt Express” was named in 2012 as the Indiewire Project of the Day as it began its trajectory by raising money on Kickstarter.

See the article HERE

"Sun Belt Express" is a funny movie about illegal immigration, set to the south of Tucson in the Sonoran Desert. The story follows Allen King, an offbeat ethics professor who ends up on a run across the Mexican border with his conservative teenage daughter in tow - and four illegal immigrants in the trunk. What follows is a family road trip where anything that can go wrong – does. Set on both sides of the border, the film is a testament to the enduring power of humor, even in the most trying of situations.

Tate Donovan in " Sun Belt Express"

My interview with the Writer – Director Evan Buxbaum and the Producer Noah Lang took place at the Hotel Marceau, not far from the Champs Elysees where seven theaters were showing films from the Champs Elysees Film Festival, put on for the third year by Sophie Dulac – producer, distributor, arthouse exhibitor and vice-president of family-founded, Publicis, the third largest advertising agency in the world.

Women to Watch: Sophie Dulac and the Champs Elysees Film Festival

Evan Buxbaum started life as a totally unexposed-to-the-world upper Westside (NY) Jewish boy. He didn’t even go to film school. He studied political science and political conflict resolution at Swarthmore. He graduated in ’06 and learned filmmaking by making three or four shorts at the same time as he tended bar.

His “barback” (that is the busboy for bars) Gregorio Castro, shared his story of how he came to U.S.   As they became better friends, Evan met other Latinos who had some insane stories about crossing the border which were oddly uplifting. They always showed an indominable spirit in telling these tough stories; they always laughed. It was a unique way to approach life with such a sense of humor.

He and Gregorio set about writing a script and made a 10 minute short, “La Linea” about people in the trunk of a car, as a test of the concept, to see if it would resonate in the way they wanted. They wanted to create a film in a space that didn’t exist. Terrible things happen on the border and the film gave him the opportunity to explore humor in adversity.

The short played in a lot of festivals and some people wanted to finance his feature and so his life was shaped over the next five years (from ages 20 to 30).

Producer Noah Lang -- who incidently is the son of actor Stephen Lang, who played a cameo in this film and was the bad guy in “Avatar” and will be again in “Avatar” 2, 3 and 4 – also went to Swarthmore but did not know Evan there. Noah was working at Cinetic when he went to Headsets and Highballs, a networking operation in NYC where a producer, telling a funny story, got him interested him in reading the script.  Over the next four months, while working at Cinetic, he helped out in the development of the script and subsequently left Cinetic to produce independently and subsequently was accepted into a program The Dogfish Accelerator.  There he met one of the producers and got involved.  That was two years ago…and he didn’t grow broke.

A first feature is usually sheer blindness, stupidity and luck. Financing began with Kickstarter to raise seed money. That was the most difficult part of making the movie. Kickstarter is a great platform to make you do something! They had 650 donors and raised $40,000 to hire actors, an attorney, asting director and location scout. Kickstarter also created a big following. From crowdfunding they moved to private equity and cash flowed through New Mexico tax credit. They raised some money from Indiegogo for post-production and their very rough cut won the US in Progress prize in the fall of 2013 in Wroclaw, Poland, sharing with “Lake Los Angeles ” for color, sound, foley and a full music mix. They will still use the Polish US in Progress prize to do a final print mix and color pass and get a DCP.

Says Noah: “This account of how we raised money is not a replicating model. The first film is a constant bargain for what you can do.”

The creative notes they received during US in Progress were very important. It was the first time they knew what they needed to do.

“In editing you’re blind. The emotional connection is very powerful, the process however is a slog, filled with doubts,” Evan says.

The speed dating model of networking gave Evan and Noah a way to approach problems.

One French distribution company showed interest in the film and lots of international sales agents gave them advice. Some told them that the film would do well in U.K. and Russia, but would not play to a French audience.

Here in Paris, however, many people gave them their cards for French distribution. The French audience was very good and made them optimistic as their reception was overwhelmingly positive, in fact some in the audience were very passionate about the immigration issue.

“And this was supposed to be the difficult audience”, they said.

Even the French international sales agents had underestimated the French audiences. The strength of this well told story was in dealing with the issue of transplantation in a humanized, humanitarian way. The audience was very emotional and spoke of their own or their great-grandparents’ coming to France. I noticed questions were asked by Africans and North Africans as well as by French.

They are now in talks with sales agents and a domestic distributor. Stay tuned!

They have several projects jockeying for priority now. One is to work with the “Summer of Blood” team on a coproduction. This is still pre-script stage. More on “Summer of Blood” and their team to follow. Both the investors in “Summer of Blood” and “Sunbelt Express” are interested in continuing.

For more information, go to SunBeltExpressMovie.com.

Based on Noah Lang and Evan Buxbaum’s recommendations and on the fact that like it had also been in US in Progress and in Tribeca Film Festival, I went to see “Summer of Blood” and was not disappointed.

In fact, I was surprised by the humor of this so-called “mumble gore” movie which MPI is releasing in the U.S. The best of it all was the presentation and post screening Q&A by the director and star Onur Tukel, a Turkish Woody Allen. This is a New York story of a guy who is afraid to commit and becomes a vampire and is still afraid to commit but has a great time having sex until he realizes his former girlfriend is still the one he loves.

Onur, a Turkish guy who grew up in North Carolina, and his producer Clifford McCurdy were in Paris with “Summer of Blood”. The two could not appear more disparate. One loose, dresses in plaid shirts, has a beard and long hair, the other straight-laced, short haired, reserved. When Onur begins talking, you don’t know if he is serious or joking and he gets pretty outrageous. He says this film is a cross between “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “True Blood” and it is very Woody Allen. One of the actresses, Juliette Fairley was also there. She was sexy, drole, perky and funny in the movie. Her mother – French Jewish, her father African American met when he went to France during World War 2. She has a script about it which she is also beginning to show people. At one point in the Q&A, someone in the audience asked how Onur could be so brazen about how he portrayed his Jewish landlord or the African American date in one scene (Juliette) and he had no shame or trace of bigotry in his answer. As a Turkish American growing up in North Carolina, he had never met a Jew until he moved to New York and his landlord was actually like the landlord in the movie…why not? The question was made to seem like one in “Sunbelt Express” when the daughter asks her father how he can dare to call these people “Mexicans” and he replies, “but they are Mexicans”. The fun of poking holes in peoples’ politically corrected prejudices make both of these comedies subversively funny.

Onur Tukel, me and Clifford McCurdy

See the movie when MPI releases it. As for “Sun Belt Express”, you’ll have to wait until they sign a distribution deal.


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