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Riverrun International Film Festival comes of age with 13th Winston-Salem event

by Mark Burger & Keith T. Barber

Thursday night, the 13th annual RiverRun International Film Festival kicks off with its opening-night screening, Tom McCarthy’s critically acclaimed wrestling comedy Win Win, starring Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan. Eleven days later, the festival offers its closing night film, Francois Ozon’s Potiche, starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. In-between are screenings, seminars, parties and a variety of events celebrating both cinema and the city of Winston-Salem as only RiverRun can do it. “RiverRun just keeps getting bigger and better,” said Dale Pollock, a member of the festival’s board and the principal architect in bringing it from Asheville and Brevard to Winston-Salem nine years ago. “We have the most sustained growth of any festival in this part of the country, and we haven’t plateaued yet. We’re still growing.” The festival’s Executive Director Andrew Rodgers and his crack team have attended a variety of film festivals in the past year, including Sundance and Toronto, to seek out new films for this year’s event and to promote RiverRun. As befits an “international” film festival, the 13th annual RiverRun International Film Festival boasts films from 32 countries. Submissions were at an all-time high this year, noted Rodgers, laughingly adding: “And we watched them all!” Last year’s festival featured a special salute to Mexican cinema, and this year’s offers a tribute to contemporary French masters with an eight-film selection, as well as a special screening of Jean Renoir’s 1954 musical French Cancan on April 15, presented by UNCSA School of Filmmaking faculty member and last year’s RiverRun Master of Cinema award winner Peter Bogdanovich. “My favorite director in the world is Jean Renoir, and probably his most purely entertaining picture is French Cancan, starring the great French star Jean Gabin, in a fictionalized version of the creation of the Moulin Rouge nightclub, featuring the single most rousing dance sequence in movie history,” Bogdanovich said. “Renoir referred to this as his ‘ode to show business,’ and it is both honest and inspiring. I will be there to introduce the picture, talking a little about the glorious Jean Renoir I was privileged to know.” The film festival has truly become an ingrained part of the fabric of Winston-Salem and the Piedmont Triad at large. Two years ago, Rodgers said that he’d love for the festival to run two weekends. Now, of course, it is — running April 8-17, encompassing consecutive weekends, when people are more apt to go to the movies. Actor Michael Shannon, an Oscar nominee as Best Supporting Actor for Sam Mendes’ 2008 adaptation of Revolutionary Road, will be the recipient of this years Emerging Artist award, at a special ceremony on April 11. If it’s movies you seek, RiverRun is where you will find them. Features, documentaries, shorts, animated films — RiverRun’s got them all this year, and plenty of them! Reviewed below is a selection of the films being shown at this year’s event. "FILM_American_Grindhouse.jpg"

AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE (Directed by Elijah Drenner): The great Robert Forster (one of the nicest celebrities I’ve ever met) narrates this fun, fast-moving documentary celebrating schlock cinema. Whether it’s sex, drugs, violence or horror, exploitation has been a cinematic mainstay almost since its inception. A star-studded lineup of luminaries offers commentary on the subject, including Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, John Landis, William Lustig, Larry Cohen, Joe Dante, Fred Olen Ray, Herschell Gordon Lewis and others. Great fun all around, and as befits its topic, it leaves you wanting more. (6:30 p.m. April 2, Babcock Theatre, ACE Exhibition Complex, UNCSA campus, 1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem; 12:30 p.m. April 15, a/perture cinema, 311 W. Fourth St., Winston-Salem)

"FILM_Gabi_on_the_Roof.jpg" GABI ON THE ROOF IN JULY (Directed by Lawrence Levine): Sophia Takal (who also produced and edited) plays the title role in this flinty comedy, a college student whose summer visit to her brother Sam (director Levine) in New York City turns out to be anything but sedate. Recalling the films of Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco), this film’s insecure, frequently irresponsible characters are at loose ends, trying to figure their ways in the world but usually coming up short. They’re not always likable, but they are believable, and their snide exchanges are frequently very funny. Takal is appealing as Gabi, even though the character is an impetuous cipher, and Levine is touching as a struggling artist torn between an unstable current girlfriend (Brooke Bloom) and a snobbish ex (Amy Seimetz), unaware that neither girl is the right one for him. Louis Cancelmi plays Garrett, the sort of lazy, womanizing loafer who gets by on his good looks and raffish charm — as Gabi quickly discovers. (2:30 p.m. April 13 and April 14, a/perture cinema, 303 W. Fourth St., Winston-Salem; 8:30 p.m. April 15, Babcock Theatre, ACE Exhibition Complex, UNCSA campus, 1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem) I WILL FOLLOW (Directed by Ava DuVernay): Writer/director DuVernay’s debut feature depicts a day in the life of Maye (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), a woman lamenting the recent loss of her beloved aunt Amanda (Beverly Todd, seen in flashbacks), with whom she lived during the last year of her life. There’s a certain staginess to the proceedings, but it’s easy to savor the performances of all involved, including Tracie Thoms, Blair Underwood, Omari Hardwick and Michole White, the latter particularly strong as Amanda’s daughter Fran, who holds deep resentment toward Maye for being her mother’s “favorite.” The scene where she unleashes her fury upon Maye is the film’s dramatic highlight. (6 p.m. April 14, Hanesbrands Theatre, 209 N. Spruce St., Winston-Salem; 8:30 p.m. April 16, Babcock Theatre, ACE Exhibition Complex, UNCSA campus, 1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem)

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THE OFF HOURS (Directed by Megan Griffiths): Amy Seimetz (also seen in Gabi on the Roof in July) takes center stage in this brooding, low-key drama set in a small Seattle town where nothing ever happens. It’s just a stop on the highway. For some it’s as close to home as they’ll ever get, but for bored, restless waitress Francine (Seimetz), it’s prison. She desperately wants to move on and is just waiting for the opportunity to bolt. Nicely observed by writer/director Griffiths, this is an unpretentious study of lost souls and dashed dreams. The Off Hours moves at its own pace, but stick with it. Patience is its own reward. (3:30 p.m. April 9 and 4:30 p.m. April 10, Babcock Theatre, ACE Exhibition Complex, UNCSA campus, 1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem; 2:30 p.m. April 11, a/perture cinema, 303 W. Fourth St., Winston-Salem)

"FILM_Rio_Sex_Comedy2.jpg" RIO SEX COMEDY (Directed by Jonathan Nossiter): Bill Pullman (recipient of RiverRun’s Master of Cinema award in 2008), Charlotte Rampling, Irene Jacob and Fisher Stevens topline this flippant, uneven spoof centering on expatriates at large in Rio de Janeiro, punctuated by a riotous selection of popular American songs. Although the film doesn’t really work as a whole, it’s still an enjoyable time-killer. As befits the title, there are some spectacular views of Rio, bawdy sexuality (Jacob looks smashing in or out of her clothes), and silly comedy. The principal characters are all named for the actors (Pullman plays a runaway American ambassador named “William,” Rampling a free-wheeling surgeon named Charlotte and Stevens an opportunistic tour guide named Fish), and said actors appear to be enjoying themselves amid the splendor of Rio. (9 p.m. April 15, Main Theatre, ACE Exhibition Complex, UNCSA campus, 1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem)

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TO.GET.HER (Directed by Erica Dunton): Dunton, whose Find Love was screened at RiverRun in 2006, returns with this twisted drama about adolescence. Jazzy De Lisser plays Ana, a moody teenager who rounds up a group of girls for a weekend of “no consequences” at her parents’ beach house. It is there that secrets begin tumbling out, as the story takes some unsettling turns. There’s a strange, underlying tension to the proceedings, which don’t become entirely clear until the film’s shattering, shocking climax. This marks the big-screen debut of its five principal actresses (De Lisser, Jami Eaton, Chelsea Logan, Audrey Speicher and Adwoa Aboah), and is a terrific showcase for them. As for the ending, brace yourself — it’s a killer. (6:30 p.m. April 9, 1:30 p.m. April 10, 11:30 a.m. April 11, a/perture cinema, 303 W. Fourth St., Winston-Salem)

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TWO GATES OF SLEEP (Directed by Alistair Banks Griffith): Inspired by William Faulkner, the feature debut of writer/director Griffith stars Brady Corbet and David Call as brothers who live in a remote house in the backwoods of Mississippi with their ailing mother (Karen Young). Upon her death, her sons fulfill her dying wish by embarking on an arduous upriver trek to bury her body. That’s pretty much the whole story. Dialogue is at a minimum throughout (it’s almost 15 minutes before anyone speaks), and although Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography establishes an approprately Southern Gothic mood, it’s not enough to overcome to obtuse nature of the proceedings. The film doesn’t look down on its characters, but nor does it looks enough into them. (12:30 p.m. April 9, 6:30 p.m. April 10, 11:30 a.m. April 12, a/perture cinema, 303 W. Fourth St., Winston-Salem)

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THE DAY CARL SANDBURG DIED (Directed by Paul Bonesteel) In the first three-and-a-half minutes of The Day Carl Sandburg Died, a documentary film that will hold its world premiere at the 2011 RiverRun International Film Festival on April 15, director Paul Bonesteel beautifully sets the stage for this masterfully constructed and inspirational visual essay on the legendary poet, writer and folk singer. From humble beginnings in Galesburg, Ill., Sandburg would go on to become a titan in American literature, winning three Pulitzer Prizes in the process. However, late in his career, Sandburg’s poetry was disparaged by the likes of fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner William Carlos Williams. “Search as we will among them we must say at once that technically the poems reveal no initiative whatever other than their formlessness; there is no motivating spirit held in the front of the mind to control them,” Williams wrote in his review of a Sandburg poetry collection. Recently, however, a new generation of Sandburg fans have emerged, Bonesteel argues, and this group of scholars, musicians, writers and poets is breathing new life into the legacy of a man famed writer HL Mencken once described as “indubitably an American in every pulse-beat.” Using archival footage, commentary, spoken word and songbook selections, Bonesteel constructs a compelling narrative of Sandburg’s life. Sandburg, whose Flat Rock home is now a national historic site, gained notoriety with his collection of poems called Chicago, and his children’s tales in Rootabaga Stories. A professed socialist, Sandburg was truly a man of the people. The first poet to speak to a joint session of Congress, Sandburg gave a voice to the common man and such philosophical gems as, “When a nation goes down or a society perishes, one condition may always be found: They forgot where they came from.” (4 p.m.,April 15,  A/perture Cinema; 10 a.m., April 16, UNCSA Main Theatre; 12:30 p.m., April 17, UNCSA Babcock Theatre)

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THE FLAW (Directed by David Sington) David Sington, the director of the documentary feature The Flaw, should be commended for tackling one of the most complex subjects in recent memory: the 2008 financial meltdown and the bursting of America’s housing bubble. David Fairhead, the film’s editor, does a masterful job of interweaving audio clips from TV news to tell the condensed version of the meltdown in the film’s opening segment. Sington takes the viewer on a tour of Wall Street by following Andrew Luan, a former mortgage-bond trader, on a real-life tour with tourists. It’s later revealed that Luan is one of the human casualties of the meltdown, and now relies on his tour business to earn his living. The film’s title refers to an admission by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to members of Congress that he discovered a flaw in his free-market capitalism ideology. Rather than relying solely on expert opinions, Sington finds real Americans who have had their lives turned upside down by the economic downturn. Ironically, one of the Americans featured is Ed Andrews, the New York Times economics correspondent. Sington relies heavily on 1950s-era educational films about capitalism as book markers, sometimes a bit too heavily, but the film’s pacing is excellent and the overall execution brilliant. (10:30 a.m., April 9, UNCSA Gold Theatre; 5 p.m., April 13, A/perture Cinema; noon, April 16, UNCSA Babcock Theatre)

"FILM_Genpin.jpg" GENPIN (Directed by Naomi Kawase) Japanese filmmakers have a solid grasp of a lyrical style of storytelling that seems to elude Western directors. Naomi Kawase, director of Genpin, uses nature as a metaphor in telling the story of a natural birth clinic and its venerable doctor, Tadashi Yoshimura. The good doctor has strong opinions on modern medicine, including his belief that abnormal lifestyles are the cause of problems in childbirth. Yoshimura also shares his belief that difficult childbirths were less common during the Edo Period (19th century) in Japan, and that challenging childbirths are caused by a mother’s fear and uncertainty. Many of the women interviewed for the film agree with Yoshimura’s views, telling their own horror stories of hospital births. Yoshimura’s beliefs ring true for Western women, many of whom have undoubtedly experienced deliveries in unnatural settings. On the surface, Yoshimura appears to be an unbending, inflexible taskmaster. He demands the pregnant women do 300 squats a day, garden and chop wood to help ensure smooth deliveries, but every woman at the clinic expresses immense gratitude for the doctor’s diligence and nurturing demeanor. Despite his outward confidence, Yoshimura is clearly plagued with doubt related to deaths resulting from childbirth at his clinic. He finds himself at a moral and ethical crossroads. Kawase captures Yoshimura’s inner conflict by simply letting the camera roll. The talented director should be commended for documenting this subtle yet powerful story of a maverick doctor who is clearly a man of conscience. In the end, Yoshimura must make peace with the universal truth that questions of life and death are beyond our comprehension and control. (8 p.m., April 12, A/perture Cinema; 5:30 p.m., April 13, A/perture Cinema; noon, April 17, UNCSA Main Theatre)

"FILM_Kinshasa_Symphony.jpg" KINSHASA SYMPHONY (Directed by Claus Wischmann & Martin Baer) In the midst of the chaos of downtown Kinshasa, a group of singers and musicians rehearse Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as the documentary film Kinshasa Symphony opens. Like a flower in the desert, the beauty of artistic expression thrives in this impoverished city. Symphony members’ concentration is regularly put to the test as power outages, adjacent bars and clubs, pollution and traffic serve as major distractions as they try to learn one of the most well-known musical compositions in history. Albert Nlandu Matubanza, the orchestra manager, picks through local lumberyards for pieces of wood that could be carved into violins, double basses, cellos, guitars and flutes. Matubanza works on constructing a double bass as the film progresses. His hobby is one of necessity as the orchestra is unable to purchase new instruments once the old ones break. Armand Wabasolele Diangienda, the orchestra conductor, says he started the symphony after being laid off from his job in 1994. Nathalie Bahati, a flute player, is a single mother looking for a home. Nathalie’s story is echoed in the lives of her fellow musicians. Mireille Kinkina, a member of the chorus, beautifully expresses the joy of making music. “When I sing, I’m entirely myself,” Mireille says. “I’m in a different world and when the piece is over, I come back again.” Directors Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer masterfully reveal how the symphony is a sanctuary for its members, as the abject poverty envelops the musicians and singers. The directors purposely refrain from including any mention of the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their focus on the story of the symphony is matched only by the focus of orchestra members on their mission of pulling off a fantastic performance of Beethoven’s 9th. Kinshasa Symphony is a brilliant testament to the power of art to transform lives and elevate the human spirit. (12:30 p.m., April 9, UNCSA Main Theatre;  10 a.m., April 10, A/perture Cinema; 2:30 p.m., April 12, A/perture Cinema) For a complete schedule of events at the 13th annual RiverRun International Film Festival, including periodic updates, visit the official website: 2011.riverrunfilm.com

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