RiverRun 2015: a few films to avoid

15 04 2015

RRFor the past few years, I’ve been lucky to attend the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, and see some really great films like “Chasing Ice,” “The Kings of Summer,” and “Obvious Child.”  This year, for what I presume will be my last in the foreseeable future, I get the privilege of covering it from a semi-legitimate press position.

As a result, I have been able to watch a few screeners of films playing the festival.  And … well … I just hope they are not indicative of the strength of the rest of the programming slate.  Because I don’t think I could recommend any of these without some serious qualifiers.

Touching the Sound: The Improbable Journey of Nobuyuki Tsujii

Touching the SoundThe more I have watched and studied film, the less I am able to tolerate cloying and hokey films that go for easy emotional appeal. Yet even before I started taking the medium seriously, I suspect I still would have balked at “Touching the Sound: The Improbable Journey of Nobuyuki Tsujii.” Peter Rosen’s documentary is good-natured and sweet but ultimately lacks any kind of substance or importance that suggests the watch is worth the time.

Barely running over an hour, the film has remarkably little heft and precious little time to build a narrative. It gives scant opportunities to build rapport with the subject, blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, whose remarkable ascendancy to playing Carnegie Hall deserves better treatment than it gets here. Rosen makes his life feel like nothing more than a set of home movies that are not worth caring about unless you know the people in them.

To see this kind of story done right, check out last year’s documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On,” where the young, blind pianist Justin Kauflin receives remarkable mentorship in music and life from the late jazz legend Clark Terry.


Sex EdThe documentary “Sex(Ed)” could have been a fascinating sociological study about the ways in which sexual education films create and reinforce gender differences.  Director Brenda Goodman does a great job providing a historical background on the evolution of these films but stops short from suggesting how they might have led to the situation in which we find ourselves now – a society where we tell women not to get raped but don’t tell men not to commit rape.

Instead, Goodman is all too eager to just make an amusing historical trifle detailing the changing attitudes towards sexual mores in America.  She spends far too long trying to kick up outrage over abstinence education that leaves the youth of today clueless when thrown into actual sexual situations and blows her chance to leave the audience with a real takeaway.

(Also, this film is available to rent for under $4 on iTunes – a third of the price that RiverRun charges its patrons for the screenings.)

This Time Next Year

This Time Next YEARI do have sympathy for all those who suffered tremendous losses in the face of Hurricane Sandy, trust me.  But watching “This Time Next Year,” you would think the subjects of Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s documentary had just endured the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia or Hurricane Katrina.  I am not saying that their pain is less painful, only that it seems like the people profiled suffered comparatively minor losses and property damage.

The film slogs along at a dreadful pace that only gets amplified by the crushingly elegiac tone.  I watched the film with a friend from Houston, who had a great suggestion for what these documentarians should have done – hosted a community screening of Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Break.”  Because what’s one thing scarier than Mother Nature’s wrath?  Our government’s systemic disenfranchisement of blacks.

In the meantime, watch out for a second hurricane that could be formed from the tears of the subjects that were shed in the making of this film.

Proud Citizen

Proud Citizen

Outsiders have been great observers of American culture and society from De Tocqueville to Christopher Nolan.  I was hoping “Proud Citizen,” albeit in a minor key, might continue in that tradition.  Thomas Southerland’s film follows a mild-mannered Bulgarian playwright, Krasimira Stanimirova, whose second place finish in a competition allows her a chance to travel to see her work produced … in small-town Kentucky.  She does not really get much creative input in the production, so Krasimira is mostly just left to wander and wonder.

“Proud Citizen” winds up playing like a lo-fi, mumblecore “Lost in Translation.”  Since I am not a big fan of Sofia Coppola’s polarizing film, the previous sentence may read like a compliment for you even though it is somewhat of a putdown for me.  But I can see what others might enjoy about this film; it is certainly not without its moments.  In a festival stacked with options and a media landscape full of alternatives, though, I would be hard-pressed to say this is a fully worthy recipient of your 90 minutes.

Hopefully I will be back later with some better news to report.



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