Archives

FROM INDIE NICHE TO OSCAR ACCEPTANCE

by Mark Burger

RiverRun International Film Festival continues to gain stature

It’s been 11 years since the RiverRun International Film Festival made its home in Winston-Salem, and in that time the festival has grown by leaps and bounds – in stature, importance and popularity – both within the community and the film industry.

In 2003, the festival lasted four days. In 2014, it will run 10 days and include 145 films (63 features, 82 shorts) from 33 different countries. The 2014 RiverRun festival opens Friday and continues through April 13 at venues throughout the city.

In 2003, Dale Pollock was the dean of the School of Filmmaking at UNCSA when he paved the way for RiverRun to make the eastward “expansion” from Brevard and Asheville to the City of the Arts.

“I think RiverRun has far exceeded any of our expectations, both in terms of its programming and its impact on the community as reflected by its attendance numbers,” Pollock observes. “We were hoping to find a niche audience for a festival that would show movies never seen other wise.

RiverRun has now evolved into a dominant regional festival that has national recognition, as evidenced by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences designating RiverRun as a qualifying festival for the Best Documentary Short Oscar.”

Andrew Rodgers, the festival’s executive director, is again excited about this year’s event, and again emphasizes the collective efforts of staff, sponsors and volunteers to make RiverRun happen. “Once again, we’ve put together a fantastic lineup of films “¦ ranging from hysterically funny comedies and powerful issue documentaries to groundbreaking independent works and critically-acclaimed international movies. We’ve selected some of the best cinema from around the world to share with our audiences – and I believe we’ve put together our best lineup yet.”

The festival’s long-standing ties to the School of Filmmaking will continue this year, with the Southern Showcase screening of Joe, the latest feature from filmmaker David Gordon Green, a School of Filmmaking graduate and the 2010 recipient of the festival’s Emerging Master award, as well as fellow graduate Damian K. Lahey’s feature debut, The Heroes of Arvine Place.

“It is wonderful to have a growing international festival like RiverRun right here at our doorstep,” says Susan Ruskin, dean of the School of Filmmaking. “It provides our students with valuable experience behind the scenes of a very wellrun event. It is a terrific platform for student and alumni films, and a great opportunity for all of us who love film to see what’s being produced all over the world.”

“It’s tremendous fun to come back,” Green says, and although he’s on a breakneck schedule promoting Joe (which stars Nicolas Cage in the title role), he’s looking forward to revisiting his student stomping grounds and showing the film to a “hometown” audience.

Green’s student ties have extended to his professional ones, as he continually works with UNCSA filmmakers – some of whom he attended the school with and others who have followed. He’s continued to work with UNCSA chums Jody Hill and Danny McBride on HBO’s “Eastbound & Down” and the new animated FX series “Chozen,” he was the executive producer on School of Filmmaking graduate Nate Meyer’s 2012 romantic comedy See Girl Run (which screened at RiverRun that year), and executive producer of this year’s Land Ho!, co-directed by graduates Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens.

Pollock, still a School of Filmmaking faculty member, always expresses tremendous pride in the ongoing relationships that several graduates have maintained or developed in the professional spectrum.

“Everybody gives a hand to everybody’s process,” Green says. “It’s not really competitive. Oh, every so often someone wants their credit here or there, but when you never know what’s next, that’s what you choose. I’ve got a lot of creative itches I like to scratch, I don’t have to be locked into the day-to-day business. If it’s a matter of making introductions or writing checks, it’s also a matter of letting new voices be heard.”

Another festival offering with UNCSA ties is Whitney Ransick’s documentary Misfire: The Rise and Fall of the Shooting Gallery, a thorough history of the New York-based independent production outfit – whose credits included such award-winning indie favorites as Laws of Gravity (1992) and Sling Blade (1996) – but whose aspirations were dashed in 2001 when the company declared bankruptcy. Its fall was as sudden and seemingly unexpected as its rise a decade before.

Among the film’s producers is Bob Gosse, one of the founding members of TSG and a faculty member at the School of Filmmaking. When the idea of a documentary first came up, Gosse was hesitant. He didn’t want to revisit what was then a recent, painful past, but wanted to set the record straight. “It was a little bit of both,” he admits.

When director (and fellow TSG filmmaker) Whitney Ransick asked again, enough time had passed for Gosse to reconsider. Initially, he and fellow producers Ransick and Gil Gilbert considered making a short to arouse industry interest, but, Gosse laughs, “Once we started shooting it, we said ‘F””k it, let’s just finish it’ – and that’s just what we did.”

The film features many actors and filmmakers who gained early exposure via TSG, including Hal Hartley, Edie Falco, Nick Gomez, Gosse’s former wife Robin Tunney, and of course Gosse and Ransick. One name noticeably missing is Larry Meistrich, one of TSG’s founders. According to Gosse, he was approached more than once to participate, and was even sent a list of interview questions well in advance.

Meistrich had no interest and went so far as to “un-friend” Gosse on Facebook. “It was disappointing,” Gosse says. “(The film) is not a hatchet job. It was never intended to be. A lot of it is recalled with sadness rather than anger.”

With better financial decisions, might TSG have survived?

“That’s a crystal-ball question,” says Gosse. “If we didn’t get distracted by a sudden desire for growth in different areas, in ‘new media’ “¦ if we’d have continued with the original intent to make conservatively budgeted films that were (big) studio alternatives “¦ I’d say it could have been a 50/50 chance.”

As for Misfire, Gosse thinks it hits the intended target. “We wanted to create a story that would at least be digestible to audiences not particularly versed in the independent film world, while also being informative to those who are. We tried to work both sides of the fence “¦ and just tell a good story.”

This year, the Master of Cinema award will not be presented to an individual but to a company. For almost 50 years, Chicagobased Kartemquin Films has produced acclaimed documentaries that examine contemporary social issues, including Home for Life (1966), The Last Pullman Car (1983), Hoop Dreams (1994) and 5 Girls (2001).

“This is something we’ve always said we’re willing to do,” Rodgers says. “It’s just been a matter of identifying the right company.”

Kartemquin, he says, fits the bill perfectly.

“They’ve consistently made films of high quality and they’ve got an amazing library.”

“I actually think we did a few things right,” says Kartemquin co-founder and artistic director Gordon Quinn. “We’ve tried to stay true to our core mission but we’ve tried to change with the times. We talk about reinventing ourselves “¦ (and) we have the ability to be flexible and respond to the period of history we live in.”

“As much excited as I am when one of our films receives accolades, I’m even more so when the historical achievements of Kartemquin are lauded,” says Justine Nagan, Kartemquin executive director. “We have a real collective focus on mission and quality and high ethics – and getting people thinking and talking about the world we live in.”

“You hear a lot of cynicism about the younger generation, but that’s not what I perceive,” says Quinn. “The young people at Kartemquin are dedicated, focused, mission-driven and are trying to make a change.”

The award will be presented following a screening of Bill Siegel’s documentary The Trials of Muhammad Ali at Wake Forest University on April 9.

This year marks a first for the Emerging Master award. Not only will two be presented this year, but both recipients are female: Actress Melanie Lynskey (Beautiful Creatures, Hello I Must Be Going, “Two and a Half Men”) and filmmaker Debra Granik, whose 2011 film Winter’s Bone earned four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Supporting Actor (John Hawkes) and Best Adapted Screenplay, written by Granik and Anne Rosellini.

“Again, this was something we’d wanted to do for a while, and it worked out nicely,” says Rodgers.

The festival will again present Spark awards to up-and-coming talent, with actress Sophie Desmarais (this year’s Sarah Prefers to Run) and actors Tye Sheridan (last year’s Mud and this year’s Joe) and Tyler James Williams (“Everybody Hates Chris,” Dear White People) the recipients. The Spark Party honoring them is being sponsored by YES! Weekly.

Having left the day-to-day running of the festival in other hands, Pollock, a member of the festival board, hasn’t seen any of this year’s offerings beforehand – and that was intentional.

Like a lot of filmgoers in the area, “I want to enjoy the festival experience,” he says. “RiverRun has a great programming staff, and they consistently choose interesting and provocative films. Along with the rest of the dedicated staff, Andrew has put together a very strong team.” !

WANNA go?

If you want to go “¦ For more information about the 16th annual RiverRun International Film Festival, including advance tickets and a complete schedule, call 336.724.1502 or visit the official website: http://2014.riverrunfilm.com/

Rolling along at RiverRun 2014

Le Chef Directed by Daniel Cohen

A bubbly French confection (originally titled Comme un Chef) starring Jean Reno as a demanding, traditionalist chef and Michael Youn as his eager acolyte, paired off when Reno’s wormy corporate sponsor begins making overtures to replace him because he disdains serving “hip” dishes that the sponsor perceives contemporary diners crave.

Essentially a knockabout buddy film with a culinary bent, the pleasant teamwork of Reno and Youn is the tastiest aspect of this cinematic meal, which breezes along in easy, relaxed fashion. For those who know Reno only from his action roles (The Professional, The Crimson Rivers), he’s also an adroit farceur. Rated PG-13. (In French with English subtitles)

Breathe In  Directed by Drake Doremus

A polished cast breathes life into this study of domestic discord that too often veers into soap-opera territory. Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan play a middle-aged couple who open their house to foreign-exchange student Felicity Jones. No points for guessing what happens next “¦ Pearce’s obsession with the fetching house-guest is immediate, and is almost immediately reciprocated. Pearce and Jones share long, lingering glances while Dustin O’Halloran’s evocative score (accentuated by some splendid classical passages) emphasizes what is already evident – both to the characters and to the viewer. Pearce and Jones play repression, Ryan plays obliviousness, and Mackenzie Davis (as Pearce and Jones’ daughter) plays suspicion. Not badly done, but not terribly surprising, either. An unbilled Kyle MacLachlan drops by briefly. Rated R.

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

Directed by Nicholas D. Wrathall Wrathall’s well-assembled and eminently watchable documentary offers a long, laudatory goodbye to Gore Vidal (1925-2012), the prolific writer who constantly turned to this country’s history for literary inspiration and was also one of the 20 th century’s most outspoken activists on many things political.

Although it’s sad to see the older, wearier Vidal growing older and wearier – sometimes scene to scene – his stentorian voice and inestimable presence remain vibrant and vivid. Through footage and Vidal’s own words – the film hardly needs any narration but his – the film offers a thorough portrait of a brilliant, articulate, prolific iconoclast who could be both fearless and snobbish in equal measure, yet who spoke (and wrote) as much from his heart as his head. As is only appropriate, Vidal gets the last word. Four of them, actually.

Misfire: The Rise and Fall of the Shooting Gallery

Directed by Whitney Ransick Amidst the burgeoning indie film movement of the 1990s, New York’s The Shooting Gallery made waves with such films as Laws of Gravity (1992), Sling Blade (1996), Illtown (also ’96), Niagara, Niagara (1997), The Minus Man (1999) and Once in the Life (2000) before crashing and burning during the dot-com craze of the early 21 st century.

Ransick, himself a TSG veteran (1995’s Hand Gun) offers a thorough chronicle about the talented filmmakers who created TSG but were unable, for various reasons, to stave off its imminent destruction. Sometimes, tools and talent aren’t enough – especially when the reading (or misreading) of profit potential comes too much into play. That cautionary aspect is wellconveyed, but so too is a genuinely heartfelt tribute to those who built something from nothing, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters Directed by Sebastien Betbeder

Modern romance is at the heart of this bittersweet treatise (originally titled 2 automnes, 3 hivers) on love’s labor lost. During the five seasons indicated by the title, the story follows the ups and downs of the relationship between Arman (Vincent Macaigne) and Amelie (Maud Wyler), who meet cute but don’t end up that way. Arman’s friend Benjamin (Bastien Boullion) also meets his dream girl (Audrey Bastien), but only after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

Clearly, there’s a quirkiness at work here, with the actors frequently addressing the camera directly – and even crooning from time to time. The presentation’s a little bumpy, and a few narrative issues don’t quite resolve themselves (perhaps intentionally), but writer/director Betbeder is clearly trying to expand the parameters of a genre well-worn in any language. (In French with English subtitles)

Ida Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski Filmed in beautiful black-and-white, this brooding and low-key drama focuses on the title character (Agata Trzebuchowska), a novice nun who’s about to take her final vows – until her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) arrives one day and drops a couple of bombshells – one that Ida is in fact Jewish, and the other that they’re going to embark together on a journey to retrace the tragic history of their family.

No comedic road trip whatsoever, the film is set in a shadowy ’60s-era Poland, under the domination of the Soviets and still bearing the fresh scars of World War II. Newcomer Trzebuchowska radiates a subtle intensity beneath her reserved, passive attitude, and Kulesza is first-rate as a woman who has survived and endured much in her life and perhaps is trying to atone somewhat for the means by which she did. An intricate study that reflects as much about its country as its characters. Rated PG-13. (In Polish with English subtitles)

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors Directed by Sam Fleischner

A well-intentioned, intermittently affecting family drama that succeeds best in offering a kaleidoscopic microcosm of New York City, as seen and experienced by Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), an autistic boy who wanders through the subway stations, observing the people and places around him – even when he doesn’t always comprehend them.

Ricky’s unannounced and unexpected “excursion” succeeds in bringing together his broken family: Frustrated mother Mari (Andrea Suarez Paz), rebellious sister Carla (Azul Zorrilla), and absentee father Ricardo Sr. (Tenoch Huerta), desperate to find the boy before a severe storm (Hurricane Sandy?) comes bearing down on them. The performances are fine, and first-time director Fleischner has a nice feel for the Big Apple’s odd spots, but the climactic stormy weather seems too much a contrived device – although the last scene ties things up nicely.

The Heroes of Arvine Place Directed by Damian Lahey

In his directorial debut, writer/producer/ UNCSA grad Lahey coaxes likable performances from the cast of this engagingly modest holiday parable that makes some subtle (but relevant) observations about surviving in these tough economic times. Winston-Salem native Cullen Moss delivers a winning performance as a single father trying to put his life back on track during a particularly hectic holiday season during which the odds against him seem to grow ever steeper and ever more daunting.

Especially charming are the scenes between Moss and his onscreen daughters Celia Marvele Dusinberre and Bella Myers). Nothing profound or earth-shattering, this is a nice film, short (75 minutes) and sweet — and Lahey wisely refrains from allowing the proceedings to become too syrupy or mawkish.

Hide Your Smiling Faces Directed by Daniel Patrick Carbone

This impressive debut feature from writer/producer/director/editor Carbone echoes Stand by Me (1986) and last year’s Mud as an evocative coming-of-age drama focusing on two brothers, played very well by newcomers Ryan Jones and Nathan Varnson.

Jones plays Tommy, the younger and more introspective brother, Varnson the older and angrier Eric. Trudging through life in a rural New Jersey town, their simple lives are rocked when a playmate tragically dies – forcing them, in their own ways, to examine their own mortality. As well as capturing the atmosphere of the region, Carbone also captures the curiosity, emotional turbulence and bitterness so common in adolescence. All concerned will undoubtedly go on to bigger things, but they’ve got a good head start here.

The Kill Team Directed by Dan Krauss

This chilling, sobering documentary recounts the case of Adam Wingfield, a soldier whose service in Afghanistan was marred by unexpected (and unnecessary) tragedy when some of his fellow soldiers murdered innocent civilians, then reported that the victims were members of the Taliban. 

RiverRun: Rolling Along

The crimes were heinous enough, but the ensuing cover-up served, as usual, to make a bad situation even worse. Producer/ director/cinematographer Krauss does an expert job combining footage of Wingfield’s actual tour of duty with later interviews with the soldiers – many of whom when filmed were up on charges “¦ including Wingfield himself. There is no need for narration. Wingfield, members of his family, and fellow soldiers provide all the exposition necessary. This is a sad chronicle of men in war, and how one man’s attempt to set things right yielded results that were undeniably wrong.

Coherence Directed by James Ward Byrkit Screenwriter Byrkit’s feature directorial debut is a tricky little sci-fi number about eight friends who gather for dinner on the night that a comet is passing the Earth. Idle chitchat evaporates as strange, unexplained events begin occurring. That, of course, is to be expected in a film like this – but Byrkit does his level best to keep the viewer off-balance throughout, succeeding much of the time.

The ensemble cast includes Emily Foxler (quite good), Hugo Armstrong, Nicholas Brendan, Lauren Maher and once-time Miss America Elizabeth Gracen. The arguments and accusations among the characters aren’t nearly as interesting as the twisty trajectory of the story, which is enough to make one overlook their repeated recriminations about domestic discord. In a sense, concept trumps content. Cool ending, too.

That Guy Dick Miller Directed by Elijah Drenner

A lively, well nigh irresistible documentary focusing on veteran character actor and cult icon Dick Miller, whose inimitable presence has graced dozens of films both good and bad, yet he always brings something special to the party – including this one.

Robert Forster (hey, I know him!), Roger Corman, Leonard Maltin, John Sayles, Joe Dante and even Corey Feldman (!) are among those who weigh in on the life and legacy of Miller, as do Miller’s brothers Bill and Gene, and wife Lainie. Naturally, it’s Miller himself who’s the most entertaining raconteur (after all, he knows the subject rather well!), as he recounts the highs and lows of his far-reaching career. Clearly there are more highs than lows – after all, they made a documentary about him! – which is only in keeping with the Hollywood tradition of a happy ending. Great fun for Miller mavens and movie buffs in general.

Sarah Prefers to Run Directed by Chloe Robichaud

An observant but obvious drama (originally titled Sarah Prefere la Course) about a young woman – that would be Sarah (the gravely appealing Sophie Desmarais, recipient of one of this year’s RiverRun Spark awards) – who spends much of her time, as the title indicates, running.

What she’s running toward and/or what she’s running away from is never made entirely clear in the film – and the occasional bits of “fortune cookie wisdom” (literally) are far too precious. Sarah is such a passive character that the viewer is soon ahead of the character’s – and the film’s – curve. It’s obvious she’s sexually confused. It’s obvious she has no real direction in life. It’s obvious she is dissatisfied. But she never seems to do anything about it. Except run, of course.

So passive is Sarah that one wishes she would stop running and examine more carefully the realities of her life and the choices she makes – and just when it seems that the film is really getting started, it’s actually coming to a close. (In French with English subtitles)

Bicycling With Moliere Directed by Phillipe Le Guay

RiverRun’s closing-night presentation (originally titled Alceste a bicyclette) is an appealing, amusing comedy starring Lambert Wilson as Gauthier, a successful TV star determined to make his stage debut in a production of Moliere’s The Misanthrope. He tracks down old friend Serge (Fabrice Luchini), who has since retired and lives alone in the countryside to discuss the idea with him. Thus begins an ongoing dual of egos between the two men, Gauthier the successful star craving artistic respect and Serge a genuine misanthrope who can’t help but respond to the challenge of returning to the stage.

Wilson and Luchini’s ongoing verbal jousting, occasionally punctuated with dialogue from Moliere’s play, is a constant highlight, as are the in-jokes about actors (and actors’ egos!), celebrity status, and of course the play at hand. The two stars enjoy a prickly chemistry that yields a lot of laughs, and there’s a nice turn by Maya Sansa as an Italian divorcee who comes between them. Who gets the last word here?

Moliere, of course. Who else? (In French with English subtitles) !

Share: