Maryland Film Festival updates: Going a little ape over 'Sylvio'

Note: This article will be updated throughout the weekend with dispatches from the 2017 Maryland Film Festival. 

“Sylvio,” one of the quirkier pleasures of this year’s Maryland Film Festival, is a home-grown product in just about every sense.

Not only was this tale of a passive-aggressive gorilla seeking life’s simpler pleasures, and having an existential crisis while pursuing them, shot right here in Baltimore. And not only is its co-director, Albert Birney, from Baltimore. But Birney and his directing partner, Kentucker Audley, first met at a previous MdFF.

It happened about six years ago, Birney told his audience Saturday afternoon at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway during the post-film discussion. Maybe that explains why he believes this is the best film festival “on the planet.”

“Sylvio,” a piece of absurdist cinema (what else do you call a movie with a necktie-wearing, hoops-shooting gorilla as its hero?) with a gentle heart at its center, clearly delighted its audience. And the tale of its making illustrates how serendipitous artistic inspiration can be.

Many of the film’s most sublime moments involved a hand puppet named Herbert Herpels — a character that comes to life during a dream sequence after Sylvio has an unfortunate encounter with a deer while driving on I-83. For that scene, Herpels is portrayed by an actor who is the striking image of the puppet. But Birney insisted to an incredulous questioner, the puppet came first, and the actor “magically appeared” at an open audition.

The puppet’s origin is nearly as extraordinary. According to Birney, he was purchased for $15 at a Delaware thrift store. “I bought him, and he’s been my muse ever since,” Birney said.

(“Sylvio” will get a third and final MdFF screening at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Maryland Institute College of Art Gateway building, 1601 W. Mount Royal Ave.)

John Waters and the 'Roar' of the crowd

John Waters may have finally topped himself.

His annual picks for the Maryland Film Festival are always a treat, but this year’s entry, “Roar,” stands alone. The acting was atrocious; its lead actor, Noel Marshall, who also directed, seemingly spends most of the film in a torn shirt, running around with his arms flailing and screaming the name “Togar.”

The screenplay is execrable; the lions get all the best lines, and all they do is what the title says. The plot makes no sense, something about a family going to visit their estranged father in Africa with his thousands of pet big cats (and one really ticked-off elephant). And the forced happy ending only fits if you ignore the 90 minutes that preceded it.

It’s hard to imagine any movie more riveting.

Waters, who chose “Roar” as his 19th annual pick to show and talk about at the MdFF on Friday night, certainly thinks so. “It’s a movie that I am just stupefied watching,” he said when it was all over.

Released in 1981 after being in the works for 11 years, “Roar” stars Tippi Hedren, director Marshall’s then-wife (they divorced three years after the movie’s release), their two sons, John and Jerry, and Hedren’s daughter, Melanie Griffith (whose film career would improve substantially in later years). None, one suspects, wears their participation in this film as a badge of honor. (Most movie lovers know Hedren as the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” precious few for her starring role in “Roar.”)

Happily, as a title card at the beginning of the movie states, no animals were hurt in the making of this film (except, perhaps, for the carcass the lions are shown eating at one point). But plenty of people were; reportedly, there were 70 separate animal attacks.

Marshall was bitten so many times, he developed gangrene. Hedren broke her leg. Griffith was bitten on the face and needed reconstructive surgery. Cinematographer Jan de Bont (who would go on to direct 1994's “Speed”) needed 120 stitches to re-attach his scalp to his head.

Nice family project, huh? And yes, a lot of those attacks are captured on camera.

“This is actually a snuff family film,” joked Waters, recalling a film genre in which people were (allegedly) actually murdered as part of the movie. “It’s a stunt movie without stunt doubles. That was the problem.”

Oh yeah, it also cost around $17 million to make, and only brought in about $2 million at the box office. The Marshalls, who largely financed the movie themselves, lost nearly everything they had, including the California preserve on which the film was made.

Then again, “Roar” played to a packed house of more than 400 people at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway on Friday night. Maybe it’s finally found its audience.

Great stuff, in little packages

Sometimes, the best stories are the shortest ones.

The Maryland Film Festival’s Documentary Shorts program includes eight films, ranging in length from six to 23 minutes. There’s a visit with two Omaha, Neb., friends who stumbled upon a collection of movie newspaper ad printing plates valued at around $10 million (“The Collection”), a brief encounter with a man looking for places on Earth with no man-made sounds (“Thrush”) and an uplifting encounter with Atlanta musician and artist Lonnie Holley, who simply says of his found-object creations, “I take things and put them together … what humans call art” (“The Man is the Music”).

But none of the shorts were more affecting than “Nidal,” from Baltimore-based filmmaker Tarek Turkey, the story of a transgender boy (born Nagham) living in Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. His mother thinks her child is possessed by demons, but Nidal simply wants to live his life, in a society that has little patience for, much less understanding of, such things.

“There is no empathy to understand what he is going through,” said Turkey, himself a refugee from his native Iraq who came to Baltimore in 2009.

His goal with the film, which is being screened at the MdFF for only the second time, is to promote understanding not only for people like Nidal, Turkey said, “but to build some kind of empathy for refugees in general.”

(A final screening of the Documentary Shorts program is set for 4:20 p.m. Saturday at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Lazarus Studio Center, 131 W. North Ave.)

Barry Levinson returns home for 'Wizard of Lies' premiere

Barry Levinson is an Oscar-winning director making his home in New York City, but he’s not above getting excited about having his newest film premiered in his hometown. Especially when that premiere helps open a newly renovated 102-year-old movie theater.

“It’s fun to come back,” said Levinson, who took the train from New York for the day to host Thursday afternoon’s Maryland Film Festival screening of “The Wizard of Lies,” which will premiere for the rest of the world May 20 on HBO.

Levinson’s presence at the newly restored Stavros Niarchos Parkway provided a nice piece of symmetry for the film festival. It was Levinson’s documentary, “Diner Guys,” that kicked off the first festival, in 1999. Eighteen years later, “The Wizard of Lies,” with Robert De Niro as Wall Street fraud extraordinaire Bernie Madoff, was the first feature film to be shown in the restored Parkway.

“When you can come back 18 years later and show something as the festival continues to expand, using this facility ... it’s fun to be able to do that," Levinson said. 

Following the 4 p.m. screening, Levinson took questions from the sold-out Parkway audience —  including several from the long-time friends he used as inspiration for his breakthrough film, 1982’s “Diner.” Baltimore lawyer Donald Saiontz, for instance, wanted to know if Levinson knew he wanted to be a filmmaker back when he was dragging his pals to the 5 West — as the Parkway was then called — to watch foreign films.

Not exactly, Levinson responded. “My greatest ambition in life was not to work in my father’s appliance store.”

Like John Waters, Levinson, too, frequented the 5 West, back in the days when it and the nearby 7 East and Playhouse were pretty much the only only places around to see films by such seminal directors as Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. Levinson, who grew up in Park Heights, said he was glad to see the old movie theater back in the game.

MdFF head Jed Dietz “kept saying ‘The Parkway,’ and I kept thinking, where the hell is The Parkway?" Levinson said. "Because when I was a kid, it was the 5 West. That’s where you saw all the foreign films. In the early ‘60s, it was super cool.” 

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