By Mark Burger
Winston-Salem isn’t Cannes, France or Park City, Utah, but with the opening Thursday of the 19th annual RiverRun International Film Festival, the downtown streets in Winston-Salem will be teeming with filmmakers and filmgoers alike, united in their shared adoration of big-screen magic.
From a record-breaking 1,700 submissions, RiverRun will screen a total of 151 films, including 69 features and 81 shorts, from 40 different countries. “We’ve got some very good films,” says Rob Davis, executive director of RiverRun. “I’m very excited by the selection.”
All the familiar, and favorite, screening venues are aboard this year: a/perture cinemas, Hanesbrands Theatre, the UNCSA School of Filmmaking campus, and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA). This year will also see the festival returning to Greensboro, with three of its highest-profile films – Ari Issler and Ben Snyder’s action drama 11:55, Stanley Nelson’s documentary Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon’s opening-night comedy Lost in Paris – being screened, respectively, April 3, 4 and 5 at RED Cinemas.
For Davis, who accepted the position of executive director last August, this has been a time of transition – one made immeasurably easier and more pleasurable by the festival’s board, staff, sponsors and volunteers. “This is as dedicated and enthusiastic a staff as I have ever encountered,” he says. “They are all professional, and their top priority is to program the best possible film festival in our town for our audiences. They make it a pleasure to go in to work every day.”
Want to go ..? The 19th annual RiverRun International Film Festival opens Thursday and runs through April 9. For a complete schedule of events and screenings, advance tickets or more information, visit the official RiverRun website: riverrunfilm.com.
2017 RIVERRUN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS
Lost in Paris (***½): Directed by Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon.
A first-class crowd-pleaser (originally titled Paris pieds nus), this frothy French farce stars Gordon as “Fiona,” an endearingly gawky Canadian tourist who comes to Paris at the behest of her aging aunt (the late Emmanuelle Riva), only to suffer mishaps at every turn – not the least of which is encountering “Dom” (Abel), a bumbling tramp who lives in a tent on the banks of the Seine River. (Their first meeting, over dinner, is a gem.)
Delightful and irresistible, the film is both a comedy of errors and manners, with detours into absurdism, slapstick and mistaken identities – right up to a climactic climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower. A fine showcase for the comic abilities of writer/producer/directors Abel and Gordon, there’s equally fine work by Riva, in one of her last roles, Frederic Meert as a traveling mountie, and a show-stopping appearance by legendary farceur Pierre Richard as a former fling of Riva’s from their days in a vaudeville troupe. Great use of Paris locations, too.
The Pulitzer at 100 (***½): Directed by Kirk Simon.
This informative, well-paced, self-explanatory documentary commemorates the centennial of the award named for publisher Joseph Pulitzer. As well as providing a biographical sketch of him, the film also offers a microcosm of a century’s worth of history and literature, with passages from Pulitzer-winning prose read not only by previous recipients but also by such luminaries as John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Natalie Portman, Martin Scorsese and Liev Schreiber.
Entertaining and enlightening, the film never becomes top-heavy or self-congratulatory, and it’s refreshing to see a film that celebrates literature and journalism – and as a journalist, it’s nice to see it celebrated!.
Tell Them We Are Rising (***): Directed by Stanley Nelson.
Subtitled The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities , the latest documentary feature from Nelson (who received the Master of Cinema award at RiverRun in 2015) packs a lot of information into its 84-minute running time, covering more than a century – yet it never feels undernourished or incomplete, nor is it merely a history lecture. Nor, to its credit, does it ever become preachy – which could be said of Nelson’s previous work, as well.
The early days of black colleges and universities were arduous and dangerous ones, not just in the South but the North as well, and some of the troubles that befell those schools came from within as much as without. Interviews with historians and graduates lends the film further insight into the topic. These institutions of higher learning have come far, but there’s still further to go – and, in some cases, the realities of modern economics have had a severe impact in recent years.
Score: A Film Music History (***): Directed by Matt Schrader.
The title tells all in this long-overdue tribute to the process, inspiration and practice of film composers throughout the years. Even when films were silent, they were usually screened with live musical accompaniment, so music has been part of the movies even before sound was introduced.
Many notables are given their due, including Jerry Goldsmith (this critic’s favorite), Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Alfred Newman and, of the more recent generation, Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman (Alfred’s son), Danny Elfman and the late James Horner. It’s fascinating to observe how they interact with the filmmaker to create an ideal score, although when the film delves into the chemical reactions that cause the viewer to respond to movie music, it gets a little heavy-handed. The film also becomes a bit repetitious, but true movie and music buffs shouldn’t mind. The music-makers of the movies are finally getting the respect they deserve here.
Window Horses (***½): Directed by Ann Marie Fleming.
Fleming adapts her own graphic novel Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming in this imaginative and intelligent animated feature focusing on the pilgrimage of Canadian poet/fast-food worker Rosie Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) to Iran, both to participate in a poetry festival and to explore her own identity (her absentee father was from Iran).
The animation is simple but wonderfully expressive, and the film boasts charm in great abundance. It sends up the pretentiousness of some poetry while also offering a close examination at the ties that bind – both among individuals and cultures. Nancy Kwan, Shoreh Aghdashloo, Don McKellar and Ellen Page also contribute voice-over turns. There’s much more to the story than meets the eye, which is one of the most pleasant – and potent – attributes of this excellent film.
Quest (***): Directed by Jonathan Olshefski.
This absorbing, “slice-of-life” documentary centers around the family of record producer/promoter Christopher “Quest” Rainey and wife Christine’a (“Ma Quest”) as they try to make a positive impact on their strife-ridden neighborhood in North Philadelphia (not far from where yours truly attended Temple University way back when).
Olshefski directs with unobtrusive but unmistakable compassion for the Raineys, whose son is battling cancer (diagnosed shortly before the birth of his own son), and whose daughter loses an eye in a random shooting. They try to remain hopeful and upbeat even in the face of such tragedies, yet their efforts to do good and better their environment is constantly thwarted by unforeseen circumstances. It’s hard not to sympathize with the Raineys, who all come across as honest folk struggling to survive and thrive in a cold, cruel world.
Sacred (***): Directed by Thomas Lennon.
A globetrotting documentary that explores what different cultures around the world hold sacred, exemplified in their practices, ceremonies and rituals. On one level, these bring people together, but on a larger scale they do the opposite – and it’s that profound lack of understanding that quietly pervades the proceedings.
Nevertheless, Lennon approaches these various sacred practices with respect and without unnecessary judgment or commentary. This is very much a timely and topical film, one that will likely encourage debate and discussion – which is always preferable to disdain or disrespect.
11:55 (***): Directed by Ari Issler and Ben Snyder.
This gritty independent melodrama, which marks the feature debut of writer/producer/directors Issler and Snyder, is (intentionally) reminiscent of Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-winning 1952 classic High Noon – albeit told in contemporary terms but still within a highly compressed chronological format.
In an equally impressive feature debut, Victor Almanzar (also a screenwriter) plays a dishonorably discharged Marine Corps sergeant who returns home after a tour of duty overseas – only to be immediately confronted with the circumstances that prompted his enlistment, in the form of Mike Carlsen’s mobster, whose brother was gunned down by Almanzar. Hero or no hero, it’s payback time. Almanzar can run (or try to), or he can face up to his past.
Simple, straightforward and tightly wound, the film is carried by its credible characters, especially Almanzar’s. The biggest names in the cast, John Leguizamo and Julia Stiles, contribute small but strong characterizations. This is a solid nail-biter, as well as an auspicious bow for its makers.
Good Funk (**½): Directed by Adam Kritzer.
The feature debut of Greensboro native Kritzer is billed as “A Polyrhythm About Kindess and Ghosts,” which is as apt a description as any.
Filmed in location in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, this naturalistic drama sees its characters intersecting in ways that might have been more meaningful had some background been provided. As it stands, we join these characters in mid-stream and mid-stride, their individual backgrounds and circumstances only hinted at.
Many of the actors on hand are fresh faces, including Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as a single mother who’s been evicted from her home with her precocious daughter (Leonary Shepherd). Along with his wife (Kalae Nouveau), a compassionate neighbor (co-producer William Nadylam), who’s recently lost his father, agrees to care for the girl, giving them an unexpected but not unwelcome taste of parenthood. Actor/filmmaker Larry Fessenden, the most familiar cast member, stands out in support as a sympathetic co-worker of Luqmaan-Harris’ Akifa.
Good intentions abound, especially considering that Kritzer essentially recruited his crew from young people in the neighborhood, and the cinematography by Gideon de Villiers is a major asset, truly capturing the ambiance of its setting. If Good Funk offers a slice of life, de Villiers’ camerawork provides a remarkable and tangible flavor.
In the Radiant City (***): Directed by Rachel Lambert.
The shadow of last year’s Manchester by the Sea looms over this well-acted portrait of disillusionment and family dysfunction, with UNCSA School of Drama graduate Michael Abbott Jr. (making his feature debut as executive producer) as the proverbial prodigal son – he’s even referred to as such – who returns to his blue-collar home town after a long absence.
His return, the circumstances of which are divulged later, angers his estranged sister (Marin Ireland), a single mother struggling to raise a rebellious teenaged daughter (Madisen Beaty) while tending her ailing mother (UNCSA alumnus Celia Weston).
Jeff Nichols (another UNCSA graduate) was one of the producers for screenwriter/director Lambert’s feature debut, and she coaxes good work from the actors, including Jon Michael Hill as a hard-working, frustrated attorney, Deirdre O’Connell as a booze-soaked barfly, and Paul Sparks as Abbott’s brother, whose presence (and past) play key roles in the story.
The Other Kids (***): Directed by Chris Brown.
This coming-of-age fable, focusing on a group of average American teenagers as they approach high-school graduation, is told completely from the perspective of its young cast, none of whom had ever acted before and who worked closely with director Brown to draw on their own experiences.
The story is a potent reminder of a time in every young person’s life when things that in retrospect might seem trivial were instead so vital and urgent. Very little time is spent in a classroom, as the film ambles – and rambles – through the lives of its characters in a highly naturalistic manner. Brown directs with a non-judgmental curiosity, and the film is never forced, never contrived, and the cinematography is superb.
Savannah Bailey, Abby Stewart, Hunter Gilmore, Isaac Sanchez, Sienna Lampi, Natasha Lombardi, Joe McGee and Kai Kellerman are the principal characters (many using their own first names), and there’s a solid turn by Mike Crich as an Army recruiter, portrayed not as a blowhard but as a regular guy who’s just doing his job, trying to convince kids to enlist.
The Transfiguration (***): Directed by Michael O’Shea.
George A. Romero’s 1976 cult classic Martin – duly referenced – meets Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight in this urban drama with strong overtones of psychological horror. Dark, stark and frequently unsettling, cult status is as assured as mainstream praise – and this will surely give a big boost to writer/director O’Shea, making an assured feature debut.
Young Eric RuffinChlo is enormously sympathetic as Milo, a bullied and battered orphan eking out a precarious existence on the mean streets of New York. Obsessed with vampire movies – which he watches on VHS! – he also has a tendency to slash people’s throats and drink their blood, which scarcely goes noticed in his crime-ridden neighborhood.
One glimmer of hope in Milo’s miserable life is his blossoming friendship with neighbor Sophie (Chloe Levine, also first-rate), although one wonders exactly what Milo’s intentions are — friend or feast. Augmented by Sung Rae Cho’s haunting cinematography and Margaret Chardiet’s superb (and scary) score, The Transfiguration is a morality play at heart, taking place in a world where the innocent – and not-so-innocent – fall prey to dark forces.
Finding Home (***): Directed by Nick Westfall.
North Carolina native Cullen Moss shines in the lead role this sweet, likable comedy/drama in which he plays Courtland, a recently divorced and newly-unemployed schoolteacher at a crossroads in his life. So to is young Oskar (delightful newcomer Abel Zukerman), the son of Courtland’s recently deceased stepsister, whom Courtland is charged with escorting to the homes of potential adoptive parents.
Moss and Zukerman have an easy, charming rapport that transcends any mawkishness and makes Finding Home a warm-hearted winner – so much so that it could have easily gone on longer, a sentiment this critic rarely espouses!