RiverRun 2015: the best (and worst) of the rest

27 04 2015

RRI wound up seeing 10 films (plus an archival screening of “The Wild Bunch”) at RiverRun, far more than I should have seen given how busy I was that week.  Was it all worth it?

Depends on what movie I was walking out of when you asked me the question.  There were some great films that I was glad to see, but there were also some rather miserable films.  Here’s a sampling of them both.

Stray Dog

Stray DogDebra Granik’s documentary “Stray Dog” follows biker and Vietnam veteran Ron “Stray Dog” Hall as he goes about his business in America’s heartland.  Granik throws us right into the action, providing no context or commentary to set the stage.  Her presence is never acknowledged and seldom felt throughout, making for a documentary essentially without a documentarian.

As a result, the film feels like a rather free-form portrait of salt of the earth americans like Stray Dog and his young Mexican wife Alicia.   Granik’s subject is just … there.  There is no need to provide standard documentary conventions like talking heads to provide information, though there ought to be something to approximate its effect.  Without anything to signal any importance in the proceedings, the film starts to feel like an interminable home video.

“Stray Dog,” all observation and no insight, might have been more aptly titled “Stray Narrative.”

Still the Water

Still the WaterIn one of the first images in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” a young Mason plays with the corpse of a bird in his backyard.  An audience of decent intelligence watching the film picks up on this symbol and intuits that it prompts the character to meditate on life and death.  No discussion, no line is necessary.

Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water,” however, makes a two-hour film about what follows the discovery of a human corpse on a beach in Japan.  Its effect is largely measured through two teenage characters who begin to see the interconnectedness between life’s beginning and end.  Kyoko deals with the illness of her mother, while her boyfriend Kaito comes to grips with the separation of his parents.

The film mostly mills about as the unsteady couple trades empty philosophical musings amidst a beautifully shot landscape.  (Water as a metaphor?  Groundbreaking.)  Kawase’s direction is tender and sincere, to be sure, but it all goes to the service of a fairly banal story.

Welcome to Leith

Welcome to LeithA documentary like Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s “Welcome to Leith” is the stuff of nightmares.  In a small North Dakota town, described by someone as “B-roll for ‘The Walking Dead,'” an aging neo-Nazi buys up parcels of property to attract his followers and gain civic influence.  And it’s not just any white supremacist, either; Craig Cobb was kicked out of countries as far-reaching as Estonia and is monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center for leading hate groups.

Nichols and Walker document from both sides battling for the soul of the soil, resulting in a fascinating perspective on the events.  They begin with the conception of town’s denizens – all two dozen or so of them – as decent, humble, and rational people.  The residents of Leith basically consider the mayorship a “family business,” for heaven’s sake!

Watching Cobb and his cronies exact a toll from them makes for a tough watch.  Whether justified or not by the threats and vitriol lobbed their way, Leith’s citizens abandon the moral high ground to wrestle in the mud with those terrorizing their town.  After being pushed to the edge, they decide that the only way to fight insanity is with insanity – a choice likely influenced by the influx of attention on their municipality.

Gripping and downright terrifying, “Welcome to Leith” follows a volatile situation to the brink of explosion … and its impact cannot simply be shaken off by dismissing it as a movie.  This is reality, and even the most upright idealists cannot emerge from it unscathed and unbruised.


YosemiteJames Franco’s short story collection “Palo Alto Stories” has proven a very fertile source material for up-and-coming feature filmmakers.  Actually, that sentence should read, “Anything with James Franco’s name on it these days can find some financial backing and a few film festivals willing to exhibit the final product.”

Granted, the majority of indie projects Franco takes on possess sufficient quality, including Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto.”  Gabrielle Demeestere’s take on Franco lore, “Yosemite,” is far less impressive.  This interlocking triptych of short stories offers a far less effective portrait of a fractured, disaffected suburbia than Coppola’s take on the material.

Much of Demeestere’s work on the film is solid, such as the precise sound design and attention to period detail.  She also draws three solid performances from the pre-pubescent boys leading the segments of “Yosemite.”  Where the film falters is in her patient, casual pacing.  Such a languid tone without sufficient payoff feels like quite a drag, especially because the normalcy observed along the way offers little accompanying profundity.  And do not even get me started on the painfully obvious mountain lion motif…

REVIEW: The Tribe

20 04 2015

The TribeRiverRun International Film Festival

Like Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s “The Tribe” amounts to so much more than its novel logline.  The film centers around deaf students who speak in sign language, but the audience receives no subtitles to discern their exact words.  And since the film is from Ukraine, most trying to lip-read for meaning do so in vain.

With all due respect to masters like Hitchcock or Haneke, I do not think I have ever been more aware of my position as voyeuristic spectator than I was watching “The Tribe.”  Slaboshpytskiy grants us a layer of sensory detail unavailable to the characters, yet I still had to work twice as hard as them to make sense of what was occurring before my eyes.

The active participation I had to exert in order to understand character and story ought to serve as a potent rebuttal to Susan Sontag’s claim that film is a “fascist form,” guiding the viewer towards fixed systems of meaning.  Here, Slaboshpytskiy rarely moves the camera unless a character is walking, never cuts unless the scene changes, and always keep the camera at a safe, long shot distance from the action.  His aesthetic matches the nature of “The Tribe” perfectly, ensuring there is no passive way to consume this film.

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RiverRun 2015: Spotlight on Black Documentaries

19 04 2015

RRFor their 2015 program, the RiverRun International Film Festival has used their spotlight section to shine a light on black filmmakers who defied the odds and carved a spot for themselves in the film industry from 1971-1991.  Let us not delude ourselves, however, into thinking that the challenges disappeared 24 years ago.  They still remain.

This gap between the makeup of audiences and the diversity behind the camera still exists, and it manifests in the RiverRun lineup itself – particularly with narrative films.  (There are quite a few directed by females, though, so at least there is some progress!)  But among documentaries featured in this year’s program, the black experience in America receives a very thorough examination through four distinct films.  Regrettably, I missed a fifth, “Fresh Dressed.”

Here are just a few of the riveting, compelling, informative, and enlightening documentaries playing RiverRun in 2015.


AltheaThere is no catch-all definition for what a documentary has to be.  But, generally speaking, the subject (if human) usually gets the chance to define his or herself in their own words if alive in the era of video recording.  “Althea” does not fit this general conception of documentary.

Rex Miller’s film mostly features interviews with contemporaries of tennis star Althea Gibson, known for being the first black player to win Wimbledon, but hardly any footage of her actually talking.  Perhaps little footage exists, yet it still feels odd that others are practically the sole artists of Althea’s portrait.  Other people bring their own set of biases to the table, and these must be considered and filtered through for accuracy.

Then again, maybe such an iconoclastic approach is what Althea would have wanted for a documentary about herself.  In the brief runtime of “Althea,” Miller and his interviewees effectively establish Althea as a woman who bristled with middle-class norms and was not keen on taking a page from the respectability playbook.  This approach is fairly interesting, though I remain a little unconvinced of its effectiveness.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Black PanthersAt least when I saw Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” the film proudly blared the support of PBS in the opening credits.  What followed over the next two hours perfectly matched the widely recognized criteria of that brand of documentary.

Nelson’s well-researched tome on the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party in America feels like an entire book’s worth of information packed neatly into an easy to watch film.  He manages to capture the eccentric personalities involved, both in terms of those making the party appealing from within and those seeking to smear it from outside.  Nelson also expertly contextualizes the movement within the larger picture of the 1960s and the Civil Rights battles.

If there is any criticism to level at “The Black Panthers,” it is that the product stays safe.  Nelson never veers outside the prescribed PBS formula, and, as a result, his film seems guaranteed a spot in every university library.  But watching the film, I yearned for a bold choice or some real spontaneity.  Nelson never makes a misstep in the documentary, although that precision comes at the cost of excitement and edginess.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is probably the best Werner Herzog documentary that Herzog didn’t make.  In fact, had director Nick Broomfield spoken with a hint more German in his accent, I probably would never have questioned who was directing the film.

Broomfield goes on a journey with his camera and microphone (and the audience, by extension) to assess the damage done by a sociopathic serial killer in South Central known as “The Grim Sleeper.”  The official record only counts ten victims, but many believe he exterminated close to 200 women and hid their bodies in a landfill.  Since most of the women he killed were drug addicts or prostitutes, the police were largely complicit since he achieved their unstated aims.

From a boots-on-the-ground perspective, Broomfield gains a pretty comprehensive picture of the depravity exhibited by Lonnie Franklin, the man arrested in 2010 for the Grim Sleeper’s crimes.  In order to gain this perspective, he gets in the car with an intelligent prostitute to snowball his way into an accurate sample of those affected.

Every bit as scary, though, is the system of indifference and ignorance built in South Central Los Angeles that allows someone to get away with such heinous crimes for so long.  Broomfield is masterful in connecting the micro of the Grim Sleeper with the macro of the black experience in America and dealing with institutions which often hold them in little regard.  He draws these lines mostly through expository narration that tells what is hard to show.  By the end of his “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” Broomfield leaves us outraged, disgusted, and more knowledgeable.

3 1/2 Minutes

3 1:2 MinutesIn 2012 and 2013, much of the nation’s attention turned to Florida where George Zimmerman faced trial for shooting unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.  Many used the case as an opportunity to shed a light on the state’s dubious “stand your ground” laws, although the connection of the statue to Zimmerman was erroneous as his legal team plead self-defense.

Soon after, though, the state of Florida saw another case that actually did involve the controversial law.  Michael Dunn gunned down Jordan Davis, an unarmed black 17-year-old, over loud rap music blaring in a gas station parking lot.  Dunn’s defense argued that, under “stand your ground,” his perceived threat of violence from asking Jordan to turn down the music justified his use of deadly force.  Had a jury sided with this rationale, it would have even further reduced the duty to retreat and essentially declared open season on any target of conscious or implicit biases.

I think of myself as someone pretty tuned into the news, but I can honestly say I had never heard of the Jordan Davis/Michael Dunn case before watching “3 1/2 Minutes,” Marc Silver’s documentary that follows every turn from the bullets discharged to the verdict handed down.  Even in just 90 minutes, I felt more emotionally engaged with and personally invested in the trial than any other.  Much of this comes from the stark juxtaposition between the harrowing heartbreak of Jordan’s parents, poignantly captured by Silver, and the callous insensitivity of Dunn’s common sense racism.  (At one point, Dunn absurdly compares himself to a victim-blamed rape survivor.)

Whether intentionally or not, Silver provides a pretty accurate portrayal of our era of “racism without racists.”  Dunn’s lawyer makes sure that race is not allowed to factor into the trial, but it seems fairly evident that he relied on coded racial appeals like the “thug” stereotype.  One commentator makes the excellent point that such an epithet is our time’s equivalent of the N-word, and with the media churning out these stock characterizations, it becomes the default lens for many people secluded in single-race enclaves.

Hopefully, films like Silver’s become more widely seen in order to fill the hole currently occupied by these unfortunate images.  “3 1/2 Minutes” will replace fear and suspicion with compassion and love.

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.