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Maryland Film Festival: opening night shorts: the seltzer brought the fizz

The Maryland Film Festival Opening-Night Shorts usually leave you sated. Last night's program left you feeling, "OK, on with the show!"

Three of the four selections were similar in length (15 minutes), mode (live-action drama) and muted tones  (tender, sardonic and ominous). They were engaging but not inspiring; they left you wanting more.

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Musician-actor Will Oldham brought lyrical line-readings to the tall tales in "Pioneer," as a single father conjuring an epic bedtime story for his four-year old boy. But you hoped his whoppers would merge into incandescent metaphors -- and they didn't. Writer-director David Lowery's color-blind casting of an African-American as a white man's son proved more fascinating as a source of potential ideas than anything Lowery actually did with it.

Zachary Treitz' "We're Leaving" immediately gripped the audience with its story of three unapologetic individualists -- a man, his wife and his pet alligator -- who are forced from their longtime home. But you wanted them and the man who throws them out (and his unusual collection of friends or associates) to be more than intriguing eccentrics. Treitz never took you under their skins. Not even the alligator's.

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"The Strange Ones," by Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein, conjured creeping dread from the interaction of a helpful motel lady with an enigmatic man and boy. But it remained a craftsman-like experiment in understated terror; it never made the leap into extreme, illuminating drama or even jolting, original melodrama. (One of the skilled directors, Wolkstein, was born in Baltimore and raised here by her schoolteacher mother and Air Force colonel father.)

Happily, you could wash it all down with the evening's grand finale: Jessica Edwards' sprightly seven-minute documentary, "Seltzer Works." It salutes the valiant art of the spritz practiced at the Gomberg Seltzer Works in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. Traditional seltzer use has been fading away, but third-generation seltzer maven Kenny Gomberg keeps the faith. He utilizes real siphon bottles: unlike plastic supermarket bottles, they retain two-fisted carbonation at 60 pounds of pressure per square inch. Gomberg's voice has a mellow kick to it -- when he says, "Good seltzer should hurt -- it should hurt the back of the throat," you savor his pride and satisfaction, and yearn for a jolt of the good stuff. (That's some of it, up top.)

Palette cleansed. On with the show.

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