Mark Burger´s must-see list highlights the 2012 RiverRun International Film Festival

by Mark Burger

One Night Stand : Directed by Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton.

RiverRun’s opening-night selection ought to appeal to theater buffs, as it offers a behind-thescenes look at the 24-Hour Musicals benefit in New York City, in which four 15-minute musicals are conceived, written, rehearsed, choreographed and produced — all in a 24-hour period.

The annual event attracts notable performers, and this one features Alicia Witt, Tracie Thoms, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Richard Kind (who looks as if he’s having a ball) and Rachel Dratch (who looks petrified throughout). It’s fun to watch them as they go about their paces, trying to learn their characters and lines in rapid-fire fashion. (Of course, if they blow a line or freeze up onstage, so much the funnier for the audience).

Although there’s an inherent tension to the proceedings, given that it’s about racing the clock, the film plays out in a surprisingly relaxed — maybe a little too relaxed — fashion. Still, One Night Stand is easy and breezy enough to take on its own terms.

Return : Directed by Liza Johnson. Linda Cardellini gives an excellent dramatic performance in this impressive debut feature from writer/director Liza Johnson, with fine support by Michael Shannon, last year’s recipient of the Emerging Artist Award from the RiverRun International Film Festival.

Having returned home after a tour of duty overseas in the Middle East, Cardellini’s Kelli finds re-adjustment unexpectedly difficult. Even though she’s only been away a year, things seem “so small” at home. Husband Mike (Shannon), who dutifully cared for their two daughters during her absence, tries to be sympathetic — at least until Kelli discovers he’s been unfaithful to her.

The more Kelli bristles against the conventions of life at home, the more trouble she gets into. Kelli doesn’t know where to turn or who to turn to, and Cardellini expertly captures her brittle bitterness and also her innate anger. There’s also good work from John Slattery as a fellow veteran (of an earlier war), who understands her but can’t confront his own demons, and Slattery’s real-life wife Talia Balsam as another friend who struggles to understand her but never quite does – perhaps because Kelli is struggling to understand herself as well.

(Return will be released on DVD at month’s end by Entertainment One.)

Detropia : Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

This hard-hitting, sometimes painfully relevant documentary explores the circumstances surrounding the current economic crisis afflicting the city of Detroit. Industry and population have diminished precipitously in recent years, with no end in sight.

With residents departing in droves and financial erosion beginning to impact other Detroit institutions (including the city’s opera company), some long-term, die-hard residents have dug in, perhaps fighting the inevitable — but fighting nonetheless. They exhibit a loyalty much stronger than corporations and politicians, some of whom appear to have thrown in the towel.

This is a sad, somber saga of a city in turmoil, and leaves the viewer with the sinking feeling that perhaps there is no solution to Detroit’s dilemma — and also that it could happen anywhere. If Detroit’s in trouble, what city isn’t vulnerable?

Ethel : Directed by Rory Kennedy. Given the wealth of information on the Kennedys, this documentary about Ethel Kennedy offers a fresh point-of-view regarding the nation’s most prominent political family. That the film was directed and narrated by her youngest daughter, Rory (who was born six months after her father’s assassination), lends a deeply personal insight into this warm and moving film.

Of all the Kennedy women, Ethel may have been the bravest of all — and certainly was (is) one of the liveliest. As Rory notes, she has spent 99 months of her life pregnant, having mothered 11 children, yet she was also an active campaigner for both John and Robert Kennedy during their political campaigns, then was left to raise her children alone.

Ethel Kennedy’s life was fraught with both triumphs and tragedies. Her parents died in a plane crash not long after she married, both John and Robert were gunned down (“Talk about something else,” she says regarding the latter), and two of her sons, David and Michael, died tragically. Yet, as this resilient matriarch notes: “Nobody gets a free ride.”

Rory Kennedy certainly didn’t have to look far for interviews, as her siblings happily discuss their mother, and the faith and spirit she instilled in them. Ethel is a great tribute to mothers everywhere.

Love Free or Die: How the Bishop of New Hampshire is Changing the World : Directed by Macky Alston.

An unabashed plea for tolerance and acceptance, this documentary focuses on Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church — and, not surprisingly, a subject of great controversy and debate as a result.

The film works best when it focuses on Robinson, whose humanity and humor are conveyed in clear fashion, but when it attempts to encompass the broader picture of gay and lesbian clergy, and their attempts to find acceptance in an often-uncaring world, it loses some of its momentum.

See Girl Run : Directed by Nate Meyer.

They say you can’t go home again, but Emmie’s going to give it a try.

As played by Robin Tunney in writer/director and UNCSA School of Filmmaking alumnus Nate Meyer’s second feature film, Emmie is a character stuck in flux. Her marriage to Graham (Josh Hamilton) has grown stagnant, and impulsively she returns to her childhood home to renew acquaintance with her high-school flame, Jason (Adam Scott).

Clearly, and refreshingly, deeper and more grown-up than the usual “high-concept” Hollywood romantic comedy, See Girl Run boasts good performances down the line, especially Jeremy Strong as Emmie’s brother and the always welcome William Sadler as their father, whose off-handed wisdom (“‘What-ifs’ will make you crazy”) offers Emmie a hint to put her life back in order. Aubrey Dollar, Marylouise Burke, Larry Pine acquit themselves well in smaller roles, and Meagan Moses (Meyer’s reallife wife) is hilarious as a childhood friend of Emmie’s who’s even more screwed up than she is — only she doesn’t know it.

Found Memories : Directed by Julia Murat.

Originally titled Historias que so existem quando lembradas (which translates into Stories That Exist Only When Remembered) and beautifully photographed by Lucio Bonelli, this meticulous drama falls victim to its slow pacing.

Set in a remote Brazilian village, the film follows the lives of its residents, most of them elderly. Life there is simple, even dull, and there’s only so much interest director Julia Murat can bring to the proceedings. Things perk up somewhat with the arrival of Rita (Lisa Favero), an attractive young photographer who has come to the village to — what else? — take pictures.

Rita’s presence understandably arouses interest among the villagers, but not really enough to sustain (or accelerate) the film’s momentum. There’s a nice twist ending and the aforementioned cinematography, but Found Memories misses the mark.

(In Portuguese with English subtitles)

Life Without Principle : Directed by Johnnie To.

Director Johnnie To brings his trademark visual panache to this timely, tantalizing tale (originally titled Dyut meng gam) set against the backdrop of the catastrophic Hong Kong market crash and how it directly affects three disparate characters whose paths intersect in peripheral ways.

Teresa (the excellent Denise Ho) is a bank officer whose scruples crumble as she persuades her clients to invest in a market that she realizes isn’t nearly as strong as she promotes it to be. Cheung (Richie Ren) is an honest police detective trying to balance the rigors of his job, a father dying in the hospital and a demanding wife (Myolie Wu) bent on leasing an expensive apartment. Finally, there is Panther (Lau Ching Wan, also terrific), a low-level gangster whose loyalty to his “friends” is unswerving.

Money may not be the root of all evil, but it’s certainly a catalyst for trouble, as all three characters soon realize when the market starts to implode. Each of them must confront their own ethics and in some cases compromise them, financial survival being a paramount incentive.

There’s also the underlying irony that money is just as easily “stolen” at the stroke of a pen (or the keystroke of a computer) as a gun in the face, only one’s legal. Sort of. Given the recent economic crises that have rocked the world in recent years, one can only wonder….

(In Cantonese with English subtitles)

Kevin : Directed by Jay Duplass. In the early 1990s, Kevin Gant became something of a cult celebrity in Austin, Tex. with his unique brand of music, which seemed an amalgam of folk, New Age, jazz and even flamenco. It was certainly something different, and it appeared that a career in showbiz was assured.

Instead, after a disastrous trip to Los Angeles, Gant essentially and abruptly vanished from the scene. This brisk (under 40 minutes) documentary looks at Gant’s life, what he’s been doing since hanging up his guitar, and the circumstances that slowly but inevitably draw him back to performing.

Onscreen, Gant comes across as lovably eccentric and quietly yet deeply emotional. The main reason he gave up performing, it seems, is that he simply wasn’t quite ready. Now, however and happily, he seems just as ready to jump back on the merry-go-round.

(Kevin Gant will also be performing at the RiverRun International Film Festival.)

Pilgrim Song : Directed by Martha Stephens.

Like a number of films at this year’s festival, the second feature from from UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate Martha Stephens straddles the line between comedy and drama. Drily amusing and sometimes insightful, the film succeeds particularly in capturing little moments of life — the kind that so many people take for granted or don’t recognize at all.

That’s certainly the case with James (Timothy Morton), the quietly neurotic protagonist.

Having been laid off from a teaching job and ambivalent about his long-term relationship with girlfriend Joan (co-screenwriter and UNCSA grad Karrie Crouse), he decides to hike the Sheltowee Trace Trail in Kentucky in an effort to get his head together.

The film’s leisurely pacing meanders at times, but the characters James encounters on his long walk are well-realized and believable, particularly Earl Lynn Nelson as an easy-going, pot-smoking park ranger, and Bryan Marshall as a single father none too happy about his wife’s new romance. As the often-ignored Joan, Crouse does a lot in a small role.

The film never comes to any easy conclusions about the what direction James’ life will take — or which direction he should take — which is certainly more realistic than the simple, pat resolution we’ve come to know and expect (and frequently reject) in most movies.

The Eye of the Storm : Directed by Fred Schepisi.

RiverRun’s closing-night film marks a welcome return to filmmaking for the esteemed Fred Schepisi, whose last work was the 2005 HBO miniseries “Empire Falls.”

Adapted from Patrick White’s novel, the film stars Charlotte Rampling as Elizabeth Hunter, an ailing grand dame fast approaching her end. Having rigorously controlled every aspect of her life, she believes she can do likewise with her impending death.

The film is also a coming-of-age story for Elizabeth’s children. Son Basil (Geoffrey Rush, who also narrates) is an acclaimed actor who seems to have inherited his mother’s penchant for the dramatic and florid, and daughter Dorothy (Judy Davis) is a depressed divorcee. Both appear affluent on the surface, yet neither seems equipped to deal with life on an adult basis. Mother may be to blame for this, but at a time like this they need to do some fast growing up.

The Eye of the Storm is yet another multilayered RiverRun selection this year, combining as it does humor and pathos — and succeeding on both counts. There are some richly humorous moments, as well as a few shocking family secrets that come to light as the story unfolds — and this is one story that absolutely unfolds.

Schepisi has always worked well with actors, and this is no exception. The film boasts a veritable compendium of Asutralian talent, including Colin Friels (Davis’ real-life husband), Helen Morse, John Gaden, Barry Langrishe, Elizabeth Alexander and Schepisi’s daughter Alexandra as Elizabeth’s housekeeper, who catches Basil’s eye and regrets it. Everyone’s in good form, playing roles that, like the story, unfold over the course of the film’s running time.