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Sidney Rittenberg: “The Revolutionary”

Imagine an American investing the best years of his life in a history-altering revolution, in a country and culture that might be described as the polar opposite of his own.

This is not fiction. It is fact. And the epic tale of Sidney Rittenberg has been marvelously caught on film in “The Revolutionary” by film journalists Irv Drasnin, Don Sellers and Lucy Ostrander.

Its second showing at the 2012 BendFilm festival is at 10 a.m. today in the Oxford Hotel ballroom. An additional presentation at the Regal Cinemas may take place tomorrow.

Between 1946 and 1980 — beginning when he was just 25 years old — Sidney Rittenberg lived in China as an active and highly visible member of the Chinese Communist Party. Nearly half of those 34 years he spent imprisoned, in solitary confinement, suspected of being an imperialist spy.

Rittenberg today

Now 91 and a resident of Fox Island, Wash., near Tacoma, Rittenberg is now one of the nation’s leading experts in American-Chinese economic relationships. He consults with major corporations and frequently travels to modern China, where he is met with respect.

During a visit to Bend with Ostrander and Sellers, he spoke at length of his experiences — from his Second World War posting in China as a language specialist to his work with Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai and other Chinese leaders through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

“Mao was one of history’s great leaders,” Rittenberg said. “He was also one of history’s great criminals.”

Mao signs Sid’s “Little Red Book”

In the late 1940s — at the time of the Long March — Rittenberg lived in the fabled Caves of Yan’an with the fomenters of the Communist revolution. At one time, he worked as a translator for Anna Louis Strong, an American author and labor organizer about whom Ostrander and Sellers produced a short documentary film, “Witness to Revolution,” in 1984.  Ostrander had interviewed Rittenberg about Strong during the making of that film.

Twenty years later, Sellers read a story in The New York Times about Rittenberg’s current work, and they got back in touch. It turned out that Rittenberg, teaching part-time at Pacific Lutheran University, had not seen “Witness to Revolution.”

That led to a reunion in early 2005. Sellers and Ostrander soon read Rittenberg’s book about his life in China, “The Man Who Stayed Behind” (with Amanda Bennett). In conversations over the next five years, together with longtime collaborator Drasnin, a CBS journalist and award-winning filmmaker, they built the 92-minute feature documentary. First shown in private screenings a year ago, it has met with international acclaim.

“We didn’t base the film on Sid’s book, but we used the book as research material,” Ostrander said. “The film was an independent look at his life in China during the Maoist years.

“And it was done under fairly rigorous journalistic guidelines. Irv (Dreslin) does not let his subject matter affect his journalistic ethics. In fact, Sid never saw this film until he saw it with 150 people in its first screening last October.”

Read more about “The Revolutionary” and future screenings at www.revolutionarymovie.com.



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BendFilm Festival 2012 Is Here

BendFilm opens its ninth annual run in downtown Bend tonight. And I personally am halfway through my ninth year as a citizen of Bend.
Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But the international festival of independent film has enmeshed me in its web — first as a magazine editor that emblazoned its cover with the first festival, later as a volunteer member of the selections committee.
For the past four years, I have been a member, albeit a quiet one, of BendFilm’s board of directors.
Memories? I have many of them, starting with festival founder Katie Merritt. She built a successful event from scratch, showing amazing creativity, skill and pure moxie in shaping what has become an institution not only in Central Oregon but also among aspiring Hollywood filmmakers.
Perhaps my favorite movie ever screened here was “Born into Brothels,” which subsequently won the Academy Award as best documentary of 2004. But I recall many more, such as “9” (2005), a UCLA animated student short that Tim Burton turned into a full-length movie; “Outsourced” (2007), which later became a popular television series; and “Den Osynlige (The Invisible)” (2004), a supernatural Swedish thriller that was remade into an American feature, “The Invisible” (2007).

Personalities? I won’t forget actress Rosanna Arquette devoting much of her time in Bend developing a friendship with a young cerebral palsy victim. Actor C. Thomas Howell describing an intimate moment in his early film career to awards-banquet attendees who didn’t really want to hear it. Director John Waters enthralling Tower Theatre goers with ribald tales of “Polyester” and “Cecil B. Demented.”

This year, the roster of foreign-produced films extends well beyond neighboring Canada. Germany, Denmark, Ireland and Poland all have entries, along with Thailand, Brazil, Tunisia and South Korea. That’s five continents’ worth, in case you weren’t counting.

But the movies to which I’m really looking forward are two documentaries — “Ethel,” which opens the festival program with a 5 p.m. showing today at the Tower, and “The Revolutionary,” to be presented at 2 p.m. Friday at McMenamins and at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Oxford Hotel.

“Ethel” is a full-length documentary biopic of the life of Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy, as directed by their daughter, filmmaker Rory Kennedy. “The Revolutionary” tells the story of Sidney Rittenberg, an American who invested 35 years of his life in Maoist China.

Here’s a trailer for “The Revolutionary”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH9w34onSC8

I’m also looking forward to the West Coast premiere of “Deadfall,” with a stellar cast that includes Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson. Set in Canada in wintertime, it is billed as an “icy thriller (with) a shocking climax.”

Go online to www.bendfilm.org for complete festival information, or drop by the festival office at downtown Bend’s Liberty Theatre, just north of the Tower Theatre on Wall Street.

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Finding Bliss on East Fifth

Morris Bliss (Michael C. Hall) awakens to another mundane New York day.

When I parted company last night with writer-director Michael Knowles, he was having a drink with other filmmakers and movie lovers at a bar called Velvet in Bend, Oregon.

This was ironically appropriate, given that the genesis of his latest movie, East Fifth Bliss, may also be traced to a bar called Velvet in New York City.

Knowles is one of the luminaries at this weekend’s BendFilm Festival.  And East Fifth Bliss is a strong contender for honors when festival winners are announced tonight.

A quirky comedy-drama starring Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame, the movie follows a mid-30s New Yorker named Morris Bliss in his struggle to find self-esteem.

Morris lives in a small apartment with his widowed father (Peter Fonda), whose presence is a constant reminder of the emotionally wrenching death of his mother two decades earlier.  An introverted book lover, Morris wants to travel but has no money nor job prospects.

Enter a string of characters who include NJ (Chris Messina), his best friend, a slacker with exaggerated swagger; Stephanie (Brie Larson), a sexually precocious 18-year-old; Jetski (Brad William Henke), Stephanie’s father, anxious to relive his high-school antics with classmate Morris; Andrea (Lucy Liu), a married woman in mid-life crisis; and Hattie (Sarah Shahi), an urban rebel who is not what she appears to be.

As Morris interacts with these characters, he finds his stagnant life beginning to change.

Check out the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqVecMLeCVY

Director Michael Knowles discusses "Bliss" with this blogger. (Barb Gonzalez photo)

Knowles, 42, had already established himself as a capable actor, writer and director — Sex and the City fans may remember his role as “Marathon Man” in a 2001 episode — when he ran into author Douglas Light in 2007 at the Velvet Cigars Lounge in New York’s East Village.

Light had just finished his debut novel, East Fifth Bliss, to considerable acclaim.  He gave a copy of the book to  Knowles, who was so impressed that he suggested they collaborate on a film script.  For the next six months, Knowles said, they hung out at the Velvet Cigars Lounge, drinking, smoking and writing.

Hall was recruited to play the lead role of Morris through a mutual friend, but the demands of filming his TV series Dexter, followed by treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, didn’t allow him to shoot the movie until last year.

Produced on a $750,000 budget, it is now on the film-festival circuit, where it recently was honored as “best feature” at the San Diego Film Festival.

The general theatrical release of East Fifth Bliss, by Variance Films, is scheduled for March 23, 2012.  It will simultaneously go to Video on Demand, Knowles said.

Born into a working-class family in southern New Jersey, Knowles got hooked on acting his senior year in high school.  He studied acting and screenwriting — along with martial arts — for 4½ years in New York, appearing in numerous off-Broadway productions before landing that “first paying gig” on Sex and the City.

Somewhere along the way, he realized, “It’s hard to make a living acting.”  And while he still makes occasional on-screen appearances, he has recently focused on writing and directing.

His first two movies, Room 314 (2006) and One Night (2007), were ensemble dramas.  Now, he and Light hope to go to production soon with an adaptation of the novelist’s most recent book, Where Night Stops.

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Wild Horse, Wild Ride

A hand reaches out, a wild mustang hesitates

The answer: “Wild Horse, Wild Ride.”

The question, which I am frequently asked by friends who know that I sit on the board of directors of BendFilm: What films do you recommend seeing?

With the annual four-day tribute to independent cinema beginning tomorrow at locations throughout Bend and Sisters, the questions are coming more often these days.  I did not serve on the festival selections committee this year, but I have seen a handful of festival movies.

One of them I found particularly memorable.

Alex Dawson

It’s a full-length documentary film, written and directed by Alex Dawson (same name, different person than last year’s actress-producer of “Clara’s Carma”), co-directed by her cinematographer husband, Greg Gricus.

Here’s the trailer: http://wildhorsewildride.com/trailer.html

“Wild Horse, Wild Ride” follows eight horse lovers from different parts of the United States — Texas, New Mexico, Wisconsin and New Hampshire — who enter an event called the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge.

This annual competition gives 100 participants each 100 days to break and train a newly captured wild mustang, enabling the animal to be adopted outside of the wild-horse pens.

You’ll meet Charles and Carlos, a father and son from the Navajo Indian Reservation; Melissa, a biomedical graduate student at Texas A&M University; and Nik and Kris, home-schooled New Hampshire brothers with an intuitive training philosophy.

You’ll cheer for George, an aging Texas cowboy muddling his way through his seventh marriage; Jésus, a young construction worker who lives in Wisconsin but misses his father’s ranch in Mexico; and Wylene, the ultimate Texas cowgirl, a glamorous but tough-as-nails single mother.

The film climaxes at the end of the 100 days in Fort Worth, Texas, where the amateur handlers show their horses before putting them up for auction.  To keep the animals as their own, they must successfully bid against the public.

After more than three months of bonding with the mustangs, this is a heartbreaking moment for the trainers, many of whom are young and don’t have $2,000 or more, to spare in a bidding war.

Dawson’s story and Gricus’s brilliant photography — his past credits have included work on the National Geographic, Discovery, History and Travel channels — won’t leave many dry eyes in the house.

“Wild Horse, Wild Ride” won the Audience Choice award in the documentary category at the Dallas International Film Festival earlier this year, and it took home two awards at the Phoenix Film Festival.

The movie has been chosen to open the Sisters portion of the festival. It will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Sisters Movie House, along with an equally wonderful short called “Library of Dust.” It will be reprised in Sisters at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

The only Bend showing of “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” will take place at 12:30 p.m. at the Tower Theatre, where it is paired with “Small Town Doc,” a 12-minute short filmed in La Pine.

Individual film tickets may be purchased online for $11 at www.bendfilm.org.  They are also available for $12 at BendFilm headquarters at The Hub (the old Liberty Theatre, 849 N.W. Wall St., Bend) up to 60 minutes before the start of a show.


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BendFilm: The Perfect Age



Zegers and Ritter in "The Perfect Age of Rock 'n' Roll" (Red Hawk Films)


The first thing you should know about “The Perfect Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is that it’s not really about rock ‘n’ roll.

Selected as the opening feature of the 2010 BendFilm festival, the movie explores the boundaries of friendship within the context of the music industry.

Although the soundtrack is heavy on blues and classic rock music, from Canned Heat and Bob Dylan to Nirvana and Alice in Chains, “It’s more about people and relationships,” said director Scott Rosenbaum.


Scott Rosenbaum (Barb Gonzalez photo)


Rosenbaum and his co-writer, Jasin Cadic, were still dealing with jet lag when we sat down this morning over stiff cups of java at the Lone Pine Coffee House on Tin Pan Alley.

“Our biggest challenge was not to write a cliche,” Scott said. “But we could’ve written this story about two guys who are accountants.  It’s a story of betrayal, abandonment, loyalty, freedom … and ultimately, passion and friendship.”

“The Perfect Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll” shows tonight at 8:30 at the Tower Theatre, and again Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Sisters Movie House.  Tickets are $10, available at the door (arrive early!) or online at http://www.bendfilm.org.

The story goes something like this: Spyder (Kevin Zegers, of Transamerica and Normal) is a hard-rock musician who had huge success with his first album. When his second release flops, he returns to his Long Island hometown to reconnect with his old friend and collaborator Eric (Jason Ritter, TV’s The Event and Joan of Arcadia), whom he hasn’t seen in seven years.

An accomplished guitarist and songwriter in his own right, Eric convinces Spyder to join him on a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles, with famed music impresario August West (the almost-legendary Peter Fonda, Easy Rider, Yulee’s Gold) driving the bus down Route 66.

The movie also stars Taryn Manning (8 Mile, Sons of Anarchy) as Spyder’s manager, and features such actors as Ruby Dee, Lucas Haas, Lauren Holley, Kelly Lynch, Aimee Teagarden and Billy Dee Williams.


Jason Cadic (Barb Gonzalez Photo)


Some of the last surviving members of the great blues bands of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf — keyboardist Pinetop Perkins, now 97; guitarist Hubert Sumlin, 78; and harpist Sugar Blue, 60 — play key roles. “Rock ‘n’ roll’s the bastard son of the blues, man!” says Spyder.

Cadic, who co-stars in the film as Bixx, Spyder’s bass player, is a real-life rock musician. His new band, Star Killer, will make its debut on Halloween night at the House of Blues in New Orleans. He is also a painter of mixed-media abstract canvases, featured in New York galleries. And he designs sets for such Big Apple fashionistas as Gucci.

“I just go with the flow and don’t say no to anything,” Jasin said. “The daytime stuff helps me do stuff at night. The music is my hub. Everything else spins off that.”

Rosenbaum spent 10 years as a Wall Street trader, then turned his focus to film making. In 2006, he was given “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to join director Spike Lee as a set production assistant during the making of “Miracle at St. Ann” in Italy. “It was a great learning experience,” he said, that helped to launch him into his own career.

Check out the trailer at this site: http://www.theperfectageofrocknroll.com/

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BendFilm: Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams


Jack Roberts as Duncan Christopher


Jack Roberts and Justin Monroe grew up in Oklahoma as awkward youths with big dreams. And that’s why their new movie, “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams of Duncan Christopher,” is able to so successfully express that angst.

Already a winner of awards at five film festivals from Tulsa, Okla., to Edmonton, Alberta — and an official selection in 11 other film festivals, from Vermont to Buenos Aires — “Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams” makes its Oregon debut tomorrow, on the opening night of the BendFilm Festival.

It will be presented at 9 p.m. at the Regal 1 Theater in the Shops at the Old Mill District. Tickets are $10, available at the venue or online at http://www.bendfilm.org.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams” is a fictional work, but it’s not that far removed from the memories of Jack Roberts, the movie’s star and writer.

The movie’s main character, Duncan Christopher, is the son of a rock star who flipped out and died. That didn’t stop Duncan from wanting to be a rocker like his daddy. Raised in social isolation until his 30th birthday, he moves to Tulsa and tackles his dream … initially, in a karaoke bar.

Roberts was unable to make it to Bend for the festival, but in his place are Heather Roberts, his wife and co-star, and Justin Monroe, his longtime friend and the movie’s director. They joined me today for a round of drinks and conversation at 900 Wall.

I quickly learned that there is much more to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams” than first meets the eye.

“When you make a movie, you have so much opportunity to benefit the community,” Heather said.  “A project like this is so life-giving.”  And that, she said, is the premise upon which their production company, Hearth Creative, is founded.

“We want to go into communities and develop our films as part of those communities,” she explained.

“Duncan’s story is basically Tulsa’s story,” Justin added. “We moved from Los Angeles back to Tulsa, where Jack and I had grown up. For three years, we became part of that community again. We used as many local actors and musicians as possible. Our amazing soundtrack is 99% local (a CD will be released soon).

“This is a heartfelt story. It is about awkwardness and occupational dynamics. And we hope we take our viewers on a journey: Certainly, as you watch the movie, you get somewhere different than where you started.

“We wanted to shine the metaphorical belt buckle of Oklahoma.”

The Roberts and Monroe families — Heather (a former Congressional aide) and Jack have two young children; Justin (once a rock ‘n’ roll singer) and his wife, Kasey, have a preschool-age son and daughter — have just moved to Portland. They intend to benefit Oregon just as they did Oklahoma, and are already seeking out musicians to help them with the soundtrack of their next movie.

“It will be a modern-day Western on the Oregon Trail,” Justin said. “Jack is just finishing the seventh draft. In scope and time investment, it will be 10 times bigger than ‘Duncan Christopher.’ ”

The director said he hopes to begin shooting the movie in the spring and summer of 2011, with Jack Roberts riding horseback from Kansas City to Portland.

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BendFilm 4: Gay Comedy, Pioneer Drama

Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey lock lips (The Sundance Institute)

In his new movie, Jim Carrey is gay. So is Ewan McGregor.

In real life, the 48-year-old Carrey has been married twice, has a 23-year-old daughter, and this spring ended a five-year relationship with sexy Jenny McCarthy. And McGregor, 39 … well, he and his wife Eve have been married for 15 years and have three daughters.

But in “I Love You Phillip Morris,” Carrey and McGregor “hook up” in an outrageous romance based upon a true story.

The film has been showing in Europe and Asia since spring, but because of its explicitly gay content, it had to be re-edited before it could be released in the U.S.  The first general screenings are now scheduled for December.

“I Love You Phillip Morris” is one of two major non-award-eligible features being presented at this weekend’s annual BendFilm festival. The other is “Meek’s Cutoff,” a western adventure filmed in the eastern Oregon desert near Burns and Harney Lake. Both are likely to make a splash well beyond the film-festival circuit.

Carrey and McGregor (celebitchy.com)

“I Love You” is the story of Steven Russell (Carrey), a happily married police officer and church organist who undergoes a dramatic personality change after a violent car crash.

Russell moves from Virginia to Miami and leaps into an extravagant gay lifestyle, which he quickly discovers he cannot maintain without becoming a grifter. Jailed for fraud, he is booked into the state penitentiary,where he meets quiet, sensitive Phillip Morris (McGregor) and falls madly in love.

From that point, his devotion to freeing Phillip leads him through one con after another, not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can.”

“I Love You Phillip Morris” screens at 8 p.m. Friday (Oct. 8 ) at the Old Mill Regal Cinema 5.

Meek's Cutoff: Harney Lake wasteland (fanpop.com)

Quite opposite in sentiment and scope is “Meek’s Cutoff.” This western epic recounts a tragic episode in Oregon Trail history. In 1845, three families hired gruff mountain-man Stephen Meek to guide them on the final leg of the trail, across the high plateau and the Cascade Range.

Insisting he knows a shortcut, Meek takes the families and their ox-drawn wagons into a desert of rock and sage, where they become lost. When a native Paiute crosses their path, the pioneers must deal with harsh moral dilemmas: Do they trust their natural enemy? Or a guide who has proven himself unmoving and unreliable?

Written by Jon Raymond and directed by Kelly Reichardt, the movie was described by one reviewer, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, as “a quiet, beautiful and terrifying fable. … Its mood of desolation, danger and desperate faith affected me more powerfully than anything else I saw … at (the) Toronto (International Film Festival).”

The Oregon premiere of “Meek’s Cutoff” screens at 10 a.m. Saturday (Oct. 9) at the Old Mill Regal Cinema 5.  It stars Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood.

In all, 89 movies will be screened at five locations in Bend and Sisters over four days, beginning Thursday night. Individual BendFilm tickets are $10; a full film pass is $95.  Order online: http://www.bendfilm.org, at festival headquarters in the Liberty Theatre building on Wall Street, or at the door.

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