Maryland Film Festival
May 5-8, Charles Theatre
For full schedule visit md-filmfest.com
Last year film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum
released a collection of his reviews and essays with the title
Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia
, he discusses the shift (seemingly permanent) of cinema as a thing associated primarily with projection on a big screen for an audience in a theater to something that, on a practical basis, more often involves people watching movies on TV monitors or laptops by themselves, or, say, seeing the latest Gaspar Noé affront via cable on-demand or online streaming or someone’s downloaded bootleg rip instead of at the Charles Theatre (where it never opened). Rosenbaum’s gist, without oversimplifying too much, is that while it’s an undeniable loss that cinema as we once understood it is waning, the possibilities for cinephilia—the love of movies, seen however, wherever—are, so far, boundless.
The 13th annual Maryland Film Festival manages to straddle these worlds of brick, mortar, and celluloid cinema and free-range cinephilia quite handily. That is, it’s all about the classic mode of cinema, taking over all five screens at the Charles as well as a couple of others nearby for ticket- and passholders to commune in the dark. At the same time, it has always offered the variety of the new cinephiliac cloud world—from shorts and obscure vintage treasures to virtually still-wet new films from established talents to all-but-unknown possible future sensations, all spanning drama, comedy, documentary, animation, experimentalism, what have you, from all over the country and the planet. It is, quite literally, our own little weekend of the best of both worlds, plus bonus interaction with fellow ’philes and even filmmakers. And once again we’re pleased to bring you our as-comprehensive-as-possible guide to your MFF options.
Our recommendations are highlighted in red.
of some of our recommendations.
's Film Fest Frenzy (which is not affiliated with the Maryland Film Festival) was written by Andrea Appleton, Michael Byrne, Laura Dattaro, Edward Ericson Jr., Jerard Fagerberg, Lee Gardner, Tim Hill, Jenn Ladd, Alice Losk, Joe MacLeod, Bret McCabe, and Wendy Ward. And as always, we thank the hard-working staffers and volunteers who make the Maryland Film Festival possible.
Perhaps it’s because it’s the simplest and most conventionally story-oriented, but Bill Plympton’s “The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger” is the program’s grinning, warm-hearted standout. A young cow is smitten by the image of a smiling hamburger on a billboard, only to discover the darker realities of being a patty. It’s more than a cute ad for veganism, but something you can see wanting to show to a kid in 20 years.
Plympton’s piece bats second to one of few stop-motion sketch-type animations, “This Room Is White,” a strange mess that games ideas of imagination and reality. Meanwhile, “Honeysuckle Blue” sets a Baltimore romance to a Celebration song of the same name. Masahiko Adachi’s “Flesh Color” is a quite successful non-narrative experiment in using human flesh as a canvas for elaborate, morphing drawing.
“Wonder Hospital,” deftly dodging between sweet and creepy, is an indeed wondrous 12 minutes of CGI showing exactly how CGI can be used for good and not evil. “Enrique Wrecks the World” falls roughly in the same poignantly cute category as Plympton’s short, telling the story of the title character who sets off a Rube Goldberg-esque chain of events that does indeed destroy the world. Also at the program’s cute pole, find “Bottle,” in which a pair of snow and sand creatures fall in love through sharing “messages” in a bottle.
Joseph Pierce’s “Family Portrait” winds up a weird sort of hi-fi take on stop-motion sketch animation, with clean lines and a certain sophisticated restraint. A family goes for a photo portrait and its various pathologies are revealed through bad-acid imagery. Also on the acid tip is “X.O. Genesis,” which plays out like a science fiction tale juiced on said hallucinogen.
Victoria Mather’s “Stanley Pickle” stands tall, a bizarre amalgam of reality and stop-motion that perfectly suits its narrative—a young man quite talented at reanimation learning the difference between mechanics and life. The program closes with Kelly Sears’ “Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise,” which would seem to be using old yearbook photos as its visual source material, subtly animating them into a not-so-tangibly sinister Ballard-esque tale of a high school population imploding. Restraint isn’t usually the mark of short animation, but Sears uses it to great effect. (MB)
For a director who has spent his entire young career using frank depictions of heterosexuality as a way to explore young relationships, Joe Swanberg feels like a reactionary prude. In
, actress Juliette (Josephine Decker) and actor Eric (Kent Osborne) star in a “sexually explicit” movie about the start of a new relationship being directed by Sam (Swanberg), who also has feelings for Juliette. He directs their love-making and intimate moments, Juliette and Eric begin to have feelings for each other, and then Sam’s feelings start getting in the way of the production. It’s all very 1960s/’70s self-reflexive auteur—see also
—only it lacks a cohesive visual personality (save for a few key scenes that take place in a pool). Worse, for being willing to show frank nudity, Swanberg’s attitude toward women as sexual beings feels downright 18th century. The only real update is that men seem to be able to express their feelings only when a camera is rolling. (BM)
Directed by Dustin Guy Defa
Eddie (Kentucker Audley) is a shy guy with aspirations of being a standup comic. Irene (Eleonore Hendricks) is a chick who wears neon stockings with shorts and hangs around convenience stores asking guys to buy her packs of cigarettes. The two meet and a sort of quasi romance evolves, involving Eddie pushing his standup routine on an unwelcoming club owner and Irene filming herself doing increasingly degrading things to Eddie to spite a man to whom she sends videotapes of questionable content for money. Audley does a strong job playing the stuttering, confused, somewhat broken Eddie, but with no soundtrack, a bleak winter setting, and extended camera shots of blank stares and backs of heads, this film leaves one wishing for a little more life. (LD)
Directed by Albert Birney and Jon Moses
A man goes on an adventure” says the screener packaging for this surreally bad black and white exercise in imaginative masturbation and uneven storytelling. Not to be mean, but
’s first 30 minutes is almost unwatchable: Abe (Moses) lives in an automated box controlled by a “machine” that he communicates with and works in a “fish” factory; has fantasies of a nice girl; and an “itch” in his side. Animated “commercials” and stop-motion filming provide bright spots—the clever “jangling” phone and Fish Chomps cereal—but the obvious symbolism, or confusing lack thereof, is a tad precious. When Abe’s “itch” gives birth to his alter ego Zach, a wee half man with a bare chest and guitar, the film finds its sea legs, moving into a natural landscape filled with costumed “trees,” “rocks,” and “water” dancing to original songs by the Beast Pageant Orchestra. Plus, full frontal, male and female. (WW)
Directed by Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega
Let the birthers, tea partiers, and Republicans worry about Obama’s birth certificate. They’ll completely miss stories more likely to rile the passions of the average American. Like
, Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s riveting documentary
chronicles another tale of solid, red-blooded American families getting absolutely fucked by a government interested in protecting its image of itself as being in the absolute right in the War on Terror. At the 2008 GOP convention in Minneapolis, early twentysomething West Texas friends and anti-Iraq War DIY activists Brad Crowder and David McKay get arrested for illegally possessing Molotov cocktails and are soon targeted as conspirators to commit terrorism. What
uncovers is how Crowder and McKay were targeted, which involves an FBI informant who organizes social justice activism, and a federal prosecutor team that isn’t going to lose. A heinous display of domestic “justice.” (BM)
Beyond the Valley of the WTF Shorts
If you like a dose of disturbing with your popcorn, this is the collection for you. The prime example: Ari Aster’s 29-minute “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons.” The veneer of a well-adjusted middle-class African-American family conceals a troubling relationship. In the opening scene, the father accidentally walks in on his young son while the boy is masturbating to a photo . . . of him. The boy grows up, the love affair between father and son blossoms. Words fail.
Chihiro Amemiya’s “Grandpa’s Wet Dream” is heartwarming by comparison. This short documentary follows a 75-year-old Japanese man who has spent his life supporting a family, collecting old movie posters, and—unbeknownst to his wife—being a porn star. A fascinating little biopic. And then we have Lisa Duva and Katherine Nolfi’s “Mouth Babies.” In this piece, a girl becomes pregnant with a “mouth baby” after giving a guy a blowjob. The fetus forms in her throat, and her neck expands as if with an enormous goiter. The birth scene is best left to the imagination.
Not all the shorts are of the gut-churning variety. Gina Hirsch’s “Facedancing” is a hilarious respite. Five performers stand perfectly still on a stage, moving their faces dramatically to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Andrew Blackwell and Andrew Goldman’s “Door Man” is simply a late-night conversation with a doorman at a bar, and Daniel Kremer’s “Ceiling-Head Angel,” is a short, funny doc about two New York roommates who can’t get along: a cranky, toothless old man and his younger roommate, who is obsessed with finding patterns in the paint on the ceiling. A woman has a creepy encounter with a high school acquaintance in Pedro Collantes’ “15 Summers Later,” and some robots and glorified bits of Kleenex dance around in the two-minute “8bit Ghost Hop.” All in all, a screening worth the lingering uneasiness. (AA)
Directed by Chi-hung kuei; hosted by Avey Tare, Deakin, and Geologist
Members of Animal Collective host a screening of a rare 35mm print of this loony 1983 psychedelic kung fu epic from the Shaw Brothers’ factory.
Directed by Richard Chisolm
Tony Geraci sees a problem—you can’t give bad food to kids and expect them to thrive—and sets about retooling the entire Baltimore City Public School System’s cafeteria program. And he’s right. Eighty-thousand-plus customers can steer a system from prepared and processed food to one that works with area farmers, and along the way teach kids the simple joy (and lifelong benefit) of eating well. Richard Chisolm’s documentary puts us front and center with Geraci’s quest—we visit a rehabbed county farm where kids learn to grow food, observe cooking workshops, and follow a group of students as they give testimony in Washington, imploring the government to push for higher school cafeteria standards. Meanwhile, Geraci gets increasingly frustrated with bureaucratic obstacles, and even crafts a resignation letter to use as job leverage. The well-meaning and captivating documentary, however, is quite dizzying, jumping from farm to school to panel discussion to budget meeting, often without context. In the end, Geraci is no longer the system’s food guru, having scaled back to part-time, and with all the success he’s achieved in such a short time, you’re not exactly sure why. (TH)
There’s an engaging comic performance here by
’s Steve Little as a mildly idiotic priest who goofs off and looks at stupid shit on the internet, tells pointless, rambling parables to his flock, and is a general disappointment to his boss (a higher-ranking holyman, not Jesus) and then meets up with a long-lost friend (well, sort of, spoiler alert) for some outdoor recreation (not a euphemism, they go canoeing—also not a euphemism), but this movie is a long-ass 81 minutes to sit through, even for a Film Fest film, and yeah, sometimes you watch a screener of one of these Film Fest films (this one has also been in the famous Sundance Film Festival) and you say to yourself, “I’m gonna take it easy here and accentuate the positive because this is a Film Fest film,” but instead of “awesome job” here, this movie is kinda anger-inducing, because it could have been way better with editing and a different way to shift gears from comedy to Troma-esque bullsplatter. (JM)
Directed by Alex Ross Perry
Advertised as “an objectionable comedy about disappointment and forgiveness,” The Color Wheel delivers just enough incestuous tension to make the audience shift in its seats. Director Alex Ross Perry plays Colin, a fast-lipped dweeb with piss-poor game, and hipster goddess Carlen Altman does sister JR, a Zooey Deschanel/Tina Fey hybrid who temps on previously unexplored geek-chic levels. The siblings take their twisted sexual interest on the road to move JR out of her ex-lover’s apartment, all the while exposing their mutual sordid past.
bleeds through as understated and genuinely awkward, making good on its imperfections. The dialogue feels right for the cast of twentysomethings celebrating their embarrassments and the film, as a whole, does not suffer. (JF)
Directed by Jarred Alterman; screens with Short film “Hilvarenbeek”
In 17th-century Portugal, the Convento Sao Francisco monastery was reportedly erected to house relics of the cross of Christ and snatches of his purple robe. It’s nestled on a picturesque hillside, and monks lived there over the ensuing centuries. Now it’s the home of Dutchwoman Geraldine Zwanikken and her sons, Louis and artist Christiaan, who makes inspired kinetic sculptures that would be downright Jean-Pierre Jeunet whimsical if they weren’t also pretty fucking creepy, with their animal skulls, hides, and, in general, scrounged dead parts. Jarred Alterman’s documentary
wisely dispenses with conventional techniques to present an immersion into the monastery as a visual, spiritual, and metaphysical place, and watches Christiaan as he imagines and brings to life the worlds of his art and Geraldine gardens and cooks. (BM)
comes off as a sort of Francophone
, complete with unsolved murders, eccentric small-town characters, and frigid snowscapes. But the film is more poem than traditional narrative. Jean-François (Emmanuel Bilodeau), a shy man with a baroque nose, lives with his 12-year-old daughter Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau, his daughter) in a rural Quebec village. He works maintenance at a duckpin bowling alley and at a motel. Julyvonne doesn’t go to school and rarely leaves their house, because her father is paranoid about her safety; she lives in virtual isolation. As the film unfolds, father and daughter make discoveries that resemble plot twists: a bloody hotel room, a pile of frozen bodies, a tiger. Curling, the sport, plays a dreamlike role. Players glide across the ice with an ease that contrasts sharply with Jean-François’ awkward existence. Then the movie is over, with loose ends dangling every which way, an indelible fairytale with an elusive moral. (AA)
Directed by Alison Bagnall
’s quirky circumstances and sparse dialogue, but, at heart, the film is a potent drama. Indie queen Greta Gerwig stars as Rose, a spurned wife with a faulty equilibrium who finds a marooned English boy (Olly Alexander) in a Delaware beach town. The runaways begin a romance that would pale if not for its palpable tenderness, despite the predictability. Rose and her Tim Burton-looking new friend shack up in her parents’ summer cottage while she formulaically harasses her husband’s mistress. The boy serves as a conduit for her anger, offering his own insecurities to levy hers, a relationship both actors play coyly. Though the plot is sometimes hard to digest, the whimsical
is a rarity: a well-acted low-budget indie that does justice to an old cliché. (JF)
The adult babies and celebrity impersonators of the world will keep documentary filmmakers in material pretty much until the end of time. And it’s “Two” and “Just About Famous” that bookend MFF’s shorts program of short docs. The prior’s a quickly told story of a middle-aged British man whose primary life activity is role playing as a 2-year-old that, just past its weirdo spotting exterior, slyly becomes at least somewhat about class privilege. Meanwhile, “Just About Famous” is a breezy, Christopher Guest-but-real look at the smalltown-y folks that look like, kinda look like, or barely look like celebrities, but are way into it anyway.
Director Mary Robertson dares to dig a bit with her “Missed Connections” short, and finds actual human beings behind the titular Craigslist postings: a woman with an obvious birth defect that makes her about a thousand percent more searchable than your average person on the site—and so she searches for herself constantly—and a man hunting earnestly for a woman (not a stranger) he understands to be the love of his life. Unexpectedly touching and rather sad. Charles Wittenmeier’s “Oaks” rounds out the program’s narrative offerings, telling the story of an unlikely cultural intertwining between electro-acoustic ambient musician Ethan Rose and the longtime pipe organist at the roller rink at Portland, Ore.’s Oaks Amusement Park.
The program delivers two non-narrative respites via Richard Wiebe’s “Aliki,” which documents the flamingos living and dying at Cyprus’ migratory resting spot Lake Aliki, and Michael Shamberg’s “Tribeca,” which gives us a mesmerizing 12-minute music video (of sorts) from early-days postpunk band A Certain Ratio compiled from historic footage. (MB)
Directed by Patric Chiha; hosted by John Waters
So deceptively simple and unshowy. Iconic French star Béatrice Dalle plays Nadia, a formidable middle-aging mathematician with a sense of style, an independent streak, and a purposeful stride. Isaïe Sultan plays Pierre, her bright-eyed teenage nephew, with whom she has a peculiarly close relationship. As writer/director Patric Chiha’s story unfolds, you wonder which fairly predictable path it will follow from there. It then surprises you slightly, and then slightly again, and then slightly, continuously, all the way to the jaw-dropping but perfectly fitting conclusion. A low-key marvel you’ll still be thinking about weeks later. (LG)
Most of this year’s drama shorts—eight gems of rapidly developed plots and characters—remind us that quotidian events can assume a cinematic quality. In Mark Pagan’s “Raymond and Lina,” a grandfather prepares to take in his granddaughter. Raymond searches grocery store aisles for items to entertain Lina; he struggles to comb Lina’s brittle hair; he walks her to school in the morning. Its pedestrian premise and minimal dialogue interlace to emphasize the realism in “Raymond and Lina.”
That same subtlety characterizes the rest of these shorts (save for “One Smart Indian” and “Knife,” the latter of which employs a movie-trailer technique that makes it like a short on steroids). “Bemvindo” follows a Brazilian in his first week in the United States, a storyline that could have focused on its protagonist gaping at New York City. Instead, director Alexandra Roxo lavishes time on unremarkable actions, such as unpacking a suitcase. In David Lowery’s “Pioneer,” a mustachioed father quells his son’s fear of a thunderstorm by telling him a bedtime story as extravagant as his facial hair. Lowery could have overembroidered, but he wisely limits his use of effects to sound and lighting. Nothing distracts our attention from the father-son interaction, thus putting our focus on the short’s emotion—another recurring theme here.
When a teenage daughter, after spending an uncomfortable, underage night at a club in a skimpy bustier, is retrieved by her father in “The Palace,” one feels relieved. When the woodsy huntress in “Gravity” undergoes two changes of heart and leaves her gritty, wordless partner, one feels edgy but exhilarated. When real-life mother and daughter Julie and Logan Gould frolic around a baseball stadium to memorialize a deceased husband and father in “8,” we feel at once the abiding sadness and love that trails after death. (JL)
Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone
Directed by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler
This portrait of Los Angeles’ punk/funk/soul/rock/kitchen-sink band Fishbone does an ever better job than James Spooner’s
at articulating how segregated the business side of the music industry is. Directors Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler place the late 1970s origins of Fishbone by a ragtag group of black teens in the larger socioeconomic context of Los Angeles’ African-American creative cauldron, and then checks in on this anything-goes sextet as its live shows set LA punks’ hair on fire during the 1980s. What follows is what happens when a seminal force meets an unmovable marketplace—too black for rock/punk/metal, too punk for “urban music,” too genuinely weird to fit anywhere at all, really, Fishbone never achieved the commercial success of the bands, interviewed in the movie, it inspired (Primus, No Doubt, Red Hot Chili Peppers).
captures the moving story of a group of friends facing the hard facts of how to keep a youthful dream alive while trying to be fathers, husbands, and, in general, grown-ass men. (BM)
This program is bookended by its in-your-face highlights: two short films by Baltimore’s Jimmy Joe Roche. In “Electric Piss Test” and “Neutral Death Test,” Roche delivers bursts of what appears to be free-improv filmmaking with exploded and pixel-mangled images (Roche’s mug popping out here and there) accompanied by blasts of racket. Bracing stuff.
At 22 minutes, John Sturgeon’s polished, rigorously composed “The Archivist: A Cleaving Among the Houses” is both the longest and perhaps most ambitious short, juxtaposing images of archival materials (from old wartime photographs to a preserved corpse) and their handling, footage shot from trains, and muttered text to uncertain effect. Most of the rest of the 13 shorts here are split between two camps. There are shorts built around abstract imagery, from the vivid color layers of Peter Byrne, Carole Woodlock, and Allan Schindler’s “Roundabout” to the jejune digital images and electronic hum of Vin Grabill’s “Frontier.” Then there are shorts building on recognizable imagery, abstracted through its treatment or its lack of narrative context, such as Isaac Diebboll’s gorgeous black-and-white pastoral “Portrait of a Memory” and Robert Todd’s color urban counterpart “Bridges: Blocks.” The analog folksiness of Matt Meindl’s “Inside Out/Side One”—credits painted on a spinning LP, distorted old photos accompanied by a banjo-led soundtrack—provides unique appeal. And then there is a minute of a street bum under alien control vomiting various fluids (that’s Brian and Kevin Lonano’s “Martian Precursor”).
Michael Langan’s “Heliotropes,” featuring animation done with what look to be old illustrations of birds and planes, seems somehow less conspicuously “experimental” than some of the more foreboding shorts, but Langan’s visual knack make it appealing nonetheless. Likewise, Nathan Duncan’s “Ghost Mall” trades in subject matter that’s rapidly becoming cliché (dying shopping centers) and the situational hallmarks of a student film (
Hey, there's a shoe store—why don't I try on some shoes and film that?
). But the shots of nearly deserted retail walkways combined with the voice-overs of memories of happier, more prosperous times and Duncan’s dry wit save it from tedium. (LG)
Directed by Robert Greene
Maybe you didn’t know it, but dozens of independent, semipro wrestling outfits survive still in working-class enclaves throughout the South and Midwest, all full of guys hoping to make the big leagues. By now everyone knows “fake” pro wrestling, with its acrobatics and body slams, is arduous and painful, and that reality is on full display in this documentary. But these characters—the characters they are when they’re not playing their wrestling characters—are what you see. Though it could have been 15 minutes shorter,
is a beautiful slice of small-town awesomeness in the finest Mickey Rooney put-on-a-show tradition. (EE)
Directed by Danny Boyle; hosted by Kwame Kwei-Armah
” Boyle recently mounted a production of Mary Shelley’s monster tale for British television; Center Stage’s Kwame Kwei-Armah hosts its Maryland debut.
Directed by David Koslowski and Skizz Cyzyk
Erstwhile Baltimorean David Koslowski (of Liquor Bike) and Skizz Cyzyk (of a kabillion Baltimore bands) have created an exhaustive documentary celebrating the 25 years (and counting) lifespan of the band Alice Donut, so if you know from Donut, you will enjoy this, and you will get sucked into this film even if you ain’t never heard of no Alice Donut and even also-still if you kinda do not enjoy the Alice Donut sound, which we will leave to the filmmakers and subjects to describe and classify, which they do, and it helps. You will also come to understand how much the amazingly normal human beings who call themselves Donuts do not give a fig about trends or popularity (although the filmmakers show some magazine-chart-topping moments), which also means they do not care much about money, and you’ll see what that attitude has earned them. Yeah. Spoiler Alert. (JM)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Directed by Sergio Leone; hosted by Marin Alsop
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Music Director Marin Alsop presents this screening of the widescreen spaghetti Western classic.
This close look at an imperfect relationship cold opens with a telling scene at a party: Hip-’stashed Sebastien (Lawrence Michael Levine) discusses literature with another young man while his girlfriend Genevieve (Kate Lyn Sheil) mumbles and emotionally stumbles her way through disagreeing with him, being dismissing by him, and then laughing
him. Leaving her bookstore job and their life in Brooklyn to live in the country (West Virginia?) while he sublets a house and land to farm and blog about it, Gene soon realizes she’s just the tart, sweet glaze on his pound cake of purpose. When the needy neighbor girl Robin (director Sophie Takal) comes calling, Gene’s slow but steady to befriend her. Deft treatments of jealously and classless cultural snobbery are marred by screens of “green,” a foliage palate-cleanser of sorts between the action that feels refreshing at first but heavy-handed midway through. Plus, full frontal, male. (WW)
begins modestly, introducing a simple family in working-class Tokyo whose life is suddenly interrupted and irrevocably changed by the introduction of a stranger. In come the issues of apathy, Japanese xenophobia, adultery, personal isolation, and the search for happiness within the constraints of a dysfunctional family, illustrating that none of the characters is what he or she first seemed and that every family hides its own secrets. It’s an interesting meditation on human interaction explored through deadpan delivery and droll comedy, though
sets its sights too high for what it ultimately achieves—none of the issues are fully explored and thus nothing is truly revealed. But Fukada’s light touch and the movie’s surreal undertone help keep the story in the memory long after the movie has ended. (AL)
Directed by Marshall Curry
The Earth Liberation Front made headlines in the early 2000s with a string of fires purportedly aimed at sabotaging the timber industry. This documentary profiles Daniel McGowan, a pudgy, middle-aged white guy arrested in 2005 with 13 others. “It’s horrible to be called a terrorist,” he says, adding that no one was hurt by what he did, “and I’m facing life plus 325 years.” Two perfect anecdotes sum McGowan up. His sister says he obsessively peeled the labels off all the cans in her pantry and threw them into the recycling bin. “Now I don’t know what’s in any of the cans,” she says. Toward the end there’s another one as he prepares to enter federal prison. McGowan is trying to peel an antacid out of its package and tells his wife, “No, I got it, I got to be independent,” before giving up and handing it over to her to do. The look on his face makes the movie. (EE)
—co-produced by journalist Alex Kotlowitz and director Steve James (
—follows three “violence interrupters” in Chicago as they try to take on the culture of violence to which they all once belonged. They are employed by CeaseFire, an initiative that attempts to stop violence through street-level outreach. (Baltimore’s Safe Streets program is based on it.) Shot over the course of a year, the documentary follows some of their cases: a teenage girl who’s in and out of detention; a young girl whose brother has been murdered; a pair of brothers who belong to opposing gangs; an angry victim gunning for retaliation; etc. The result is a sprawling film that captures what a monumental task the interrupters are up against, and the creative tactics they employ. But its tone is glowing and uncritical, complete with mournful piano music and slow-mo. Heroes or not, the interrupters—not to mention the viewers—would have been better served by a more focused, critical approach. (AA)
Directed by Don Argott and Demian Fenton
Can’t say the last time we’ve actually misted while watching footage of a doom-metal concert, but that’s only one of the very unlikely feelings piqued by
. The thoroughly engrossing documentary tells the story of Bobby Liebling, the disappointed, delusional, and self-destructive lead singer of coulda-been-a-contender Mid-Atlantic metal band Pentagram, and the young guy whose passion for the band’s music drives him to literally lift the singer out of ruin. When we meet Liebling he’s addicted to crack, compulsively picks his skin, and wallows in his parents’ sub-basement in Germantown. Sean “Pellet” Pelletier wants to get the original band back together—Pentagram fans will swoon over the archival footage, interviews, and dramatizations—but soon realizes there’s a reason the band has gone through dozens of personnel changes: Liebling is impossible to work with. With Pellet’s help and perseverance, though, the 54-year-old damaged man is given a chance at redemption, whether he realizes it or not.
is a wild, satisfying ride, a real story of love, friendship, and self-acceptance beneath the tantalizing surface of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. (TH)
’s opening title card tells us, 523 American teachers were sent to the Philippines to establish a public school system. Now, the United States recruits teachers from the Philippines to fill the gaps in its own teaching shortage; this documentary tells the story of four of them. Dorotea Godinez, Angel Alim, Grace Amper, and Rhea Espedido decide to spend a year teaching in Baltimore City, leaving obedient students and a beautiful country for a cold Baltimore winter and its rowdy, difficult student body. There’s nothing fancy in the filmmaking here, and it serves these women well, telling their story in a simple and straightforward way that clearly captures all their emotions, trials, and triumphs. A wonderful film. (LD)
Directed by Alex Gibney and alison ellwood
Documentarian Alex Gibney leaves behind Enron and Eliot Spitzer to train his lens on Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the bus-riding pied pipers of ’60s psychedelic consciousness.
Various directors; live score by Alloy Orchestra
A selection of classic silent comedy shorts gets a live score from MFF vet Alloy Orchestra.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Kelly Reichardt follows up the indelible
with another film starring Michelle Williams, this time as a member of a small group of pioneers following an unreliable guide through the forbidding back country of the Old West.
Judging by this year’s entrants, “Modern Love” means not getting what you want. Jess Manafort’s “A Shore Thing” opens with a couple on a beach holiday that quickly turns sour when the prodding girlfriend asks the old question with no right answer, “Why do you love me?” The two start bickering and a subtle tragedy goes by unnoticed, which Manafort reveals in a way that resonates.
“Little Horses” comes on a lighter note. Patch Darragh’s portrayal of Dave, a father struggling to regain his son’s attention from his wife’s live-in boyfriend, has a ne’er-do-well charm that makes his character both laughable and relatable. On the PG-13 side of the coin, Michael Mohan’s “Ex-Sex” is a tribute to the deadly “We’re broken up, but let’s still hook up” logic ex-lovers often employ for a familiar lay.
Poking fun at love in a very casual way, “The Hunter and the Swan Discuss Their Meeting” does wonders to mock fairytales while still remaining relevant and a satisfying piece of schadenfreude. “Parts and Labor” is laughable for another reason. The film stars two not-so-good-looking kids in a not-so-interesting 10-minute piece that would make for a good exposition to a low-budget porno.
Most impressive is “God of Love,” a classic nerd-goes-big love story with a true sense of wit. In its 18-minute run, the film keeps fresh with in-jokes and developing plotlines that tie together naturally, and director Luke Matheny manages a refreshing homage to the wallflower—a lively modernization of an old emotion. (JF)
Directed by Sergei Loznitsa
In this Ukranian film, rugged young truckdriver Georgy (Viktor Nemets) finds himself shaken down, diverted, waylaid, stripped of his cargo, and eventually stripped of speech and his very identity in a Candide-like journey through the checkpoints, bad roads, and grotty little villages of contemporary rural Russia. Writer/director Sergei Loznitsa’s shaggy-dog narrative wanders away from Georgy’s plight to explore tangentially related characters and their travails, even flashing back to the Soviet era here and there, as if taking pains to underline that fear, thievery, petty abuses of power, and random murder are as much a part of the land as the weeds and snow. Loznitsa’s spartan but surprisingly lively mise-en-scene (there always seems to be someone wandering by in the background, even if just a goat) helps animate this grim portrait of a place still bearing a bootprint on its neck. (LG)
Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza bring the creepy-child bar to new heights in their strange “Rita,” a resolutely cold narrative of a blind girl wandering a house in the midst of what we’re never told exactly, just that it involves blood, a suddenly absent family, and a wanted young man. In 19 minutes of showing the viewer barely anything and slyly nicking our sense of reality, they’ve made a film utterly disorienting and quite scary, albeit in a most unexpected and uncomfortable way.
“Crazy Beats Strong Every Time” is a truly excellent story about a young African-American man forced to haul his mother’s alcoholic, possibly homeless ex-husband around for a night, debating whether or not to save him—or kill him. The program also delivers a quick story of love and tradition in Japan in “First Sunrise.” “Flow” tells the somewhat glib story of an OCD woman who quits taking her medication to find that her compulsions become, not an illness so much, but a sort of musical foundation.
Like “Rita,” Thomas Hefferon’s “The Pool” takes a sharply minimal palette—here, four kids at a somewhat creepily lit pool—and turns it into subcutaneous fear and anxiety. Andrew Blackwell and Andrew Goldman’s “Jim Kirby’s Pizza” ventures into family drama, presenting a frustrated and afraid non-custodial father trying, and perhaps failing, to connect with his son. Like the best shorts, it succeeds in not trying to condense a larger story, but by only hinting at that larger story, making a narrative all the more concentrated and affecting. (MB)
Directed by Pedro Costa; hosted by Matthew Porterfield
Manna from heaven for anybody who gets intoxicated on luxuriant black-and-white (but mostly black) cinematography and a beautiful French woman singing gorgeously melancholic music—which, honestly, should be just about anybody with a pulse.
—”change nothing”—is one of those simply perfect pairings of director and subject. Portuguese director Pedro Costa has an uncanny knack for massaging a glacial cinematic narrative flow into an unforgettably hallucinatory experience. Actress/singer Jeanne Balibar (from Olivier Assayas’
) sings with the effortlessly sleepy phrasing of Chet Baker and voices a breathy seduction equal parts Marlene Dietrich challenge and Nico permafrost. And for
roughly 100 minutes, Costa points a stationary camera at Balibar as she rehearses and performs—a little opera, “Johnny Guitar,” French chansons. There’s no plot per se, there’s no story being told.
does just that: lets sound and image conspire to create a divinely strange enchantment. (BM)
Directed by Patricio Guzmán
Documentarian Patricio Guzmán builds a strange tale from pieces that don’t at first seem to fit. He peers at Chile’s Atacama Desert, a dry, lifeless vastness littered with a distant past of nomads and herders and a recent history of prisoners, torture, and murder. And in the middle of it sit telescopes, clean white structures of knowledge, staring into the sky for answers to humanity’s questions. What ties them all together, Guzmán shows us, is a fascination with our past: the astronomers who read light millennia old, the archaeologists who point out 1,000-year-old etchings, the aging women who sift the sands for their loved ones’ remains, which vanished under the rein of Pinochet. Guzmán narrates with a lilting Spanish, placing bits of poetry here and there that create for his viewers a sense of purpose and peace: “In the glow of the night, the stars observe us.” (LD)
Directed by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean
A drama centering on two Inupiaq Indian teens in frozen Barrow, Alaska.
A sampling of some of the festival’s better shorts.
Directed by Calvin Lee Reeder
If you took Alejandro Jodorowsky’s
and placed its wanderings in rural Oregon with some David Lynch characters and plotting insanity, you’d wind up with something that feels like
. We’re introduced to a young woman living on a farm with an alcoholic lover and a presumably rather ugly, shrouded past. On her escape, there’s a car wreck and she enters a surreal and mostly empty world, which she wanders through on a quest for a phone/help/reality. A man pisses in multiple colors, a leering Cookie Monster-costumed man masturbates in a window, an old lady does creepy stuff with her eyebrows. Never mind plot, this is about atmosphere, becoming a psychic space. And if the mark of a great cinematic atmosphere is how long it manages to linger in the viewer’s head,
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History
Directed by Chad Freidrichs
Almost everyone has seen the iconic photos of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe housing project: the shots of the buildings imploding into rubble during their 1972 demolition. With interviews of former residents, and lots of historical documents,
takes aim at the story that grew up around that photo—that Igoe, and by extension all high-rise low-income housing, was a well-meaning failure done in by federal incompetence and residential squalor. It is no secret that racism played a major role in Igoe’s downfall, and the film looks at that and at the territorial violence that came to dominate life inside the project. But the revelation is the skewed projections that led to Igoe’s 1952 construction. Planners figured that St. Louis (and all cities) would keep growing as it had in the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s. Turns out the suburbs doomed the high rises in more ways than you know. (EE)
Directed by Andrew Dosunmu
Twenty-one-year-old Senagalese immigrant Djibril (Sy Alassane) is an aspiring musician who spends his days motorbiking around Harlem with earphones glued to his head, selling bootleg CDs, and seeking a place in a tight-knit African community. He has grand aspirations, but no plan. He falls for prostitute Trini (Sky Grey) while paying a visit to local crime boss Bekay (Anthony Okungbowa) to re-up his CDs, and their developing relationship naturally gets them in hot water with Bekay and his cadre of thugs. First-time director Andrew Dosunmu’s story is artfully told, avoiding the mob-romance clichés—there are no motorbike chases—in favor of a stew of local color and flavor. Many scenes are beautifully shot in partial focus, in mirrors, and through reflections, weaving a visual atmosphere of tension, uncertainty, and alienation.
is a slow-burning, visually dense flick that belies its simple tale. (TH)
Directed by Brian Ashby, Ben Kolak, and Courtney Prokopas
What becomes of the used-up detritus of our consumerist society? Much of it winds up in the pickup trucks of men like Oscar and Otis, Chicagoans who roam the city’s alleyways looking for bits of discarded metal to collect and sell by the ton as scrap. Of course, when the recession of 2008 drops the price of scrap from around $250 a ton to around $60, it imperils an already marginal living. That last bit is about it for narrative drive in this well-executed, straightforward documentary, though filmmakers Brian Ashby, Ben Kolak, and Courtney Prokopas manage to extract sufficient interest from spending time with hustling immigrant Oscar and hale septegenarian Otis and their families, as well as from glimpses of the little-known industry that keeps them (barely) fed. (LG)
Directed by Michael Tully
A man returns home to his family farm in this eccentric indie quasi-comedy.
Best to put aside your notions of narrative or character development when watching
, a lush paean to life’s mysteries filmed in South Dakota’s Badlands. Sure, there are a few characters—among them Donna, a psychic who helps a family come to terms with ghosts in their old farmhouse, and Ed, an old soldier who tools around a reservoir in his fishing boat—but there is no
is a feast of image and sound. It features some of the most beautiful cinematography we’ve ever seen, weaving snippets of conversation and macro closeups of animals, people, and insects going about their business with wide panoramas of that vast, big-sky country landscape. A Walt Whitman influence suffuses Gardella’s first feature film, and you leave with that open-ended appreciation of life’s tiny wonders, but no conclusions. Lovely. (Tim Hill)
the Joe Swanberg movie for people who can’t stand Joe Swanberg movies. Actress Claire (Kate Lyn Sheil), the girlfriend to no-budget filmmaker Ethan (Swanberg), gets a starring roll in the new werewolf movie being directed by Ben (
director Ti West). Claire taking a job in such a commercial entertainment causes Ethan, a genuine douchebag, to cast her friend Charlie (Amy Seimetz) in his next movie, which will involve a fair amount of making out with Ethan. So far, so Swanberg: sex and relationships, fact and fiction, art and commerce get thrown at the walls to see what sticks while people talk about it. What sets
apart is Swanberg’s mise-en-scene, in which he’s actually adhering to a visual logic entirely his own, and an editing pulse that generates momentum rather than hoping his audience cares enough to follow along. It’s not quite on the same level yet, but
shows Swanberg capable of creating as distinct a cinematic voice as somebody like that true American maverick Jon Jost. (BM)
Directed by Susanne Rostock; hosted by Harry Belafonte and Taylor Branch
A documentary on the life and career of multi-hyphenate performer and activist Harry Belafonte.
Directed by Catherine Breillat
Intellectually rigorous French director Catherine Breillat doesn’t sound like fairy tale material—after all, she is the mind behind such measured considerations of sexuality as
. Fairy tales, though, provide Breillat an ideal portal through which to address the challenges facing young women in their heroines, and in her adaptation of Charles Perrault’s late 17th-century
she turns the familiar tale into an exploration of a young girl becoming a young woman. She’s considerably aided in this endeavor by Carla Besnaïnou, the young actress who occupies the bulk of the movie as the prepubescent Anastasia, a 19th-century tomboyish princess cursed to sleep for 100 years and wake up at 16. During that deep sleep, Breillat plunges Besnaïnou’s Anastasia into a dream world adventure that’s an amalgam of many world cultures and fairy tales as she falls in love, travels, searches for the boy she fell in love with as a girl, and then wakes up 16 in the 20th century and quite literally falls for the first guy she sees.
is a heady, witty comment on how notions of romantic love get poured into girls via children’s lit such as fairy tales, and in Besnaïnou the director has a young actress with so much moxie that the 16-year-old Anastasia’s eventual fate feels all the more poignant. (BM)
Despite a pretty cast and appearances by an up-and-coming NASCAR driver, an obscure indie band frontman, and the brilliant Ann Magnuson, nothing actually happens in this low-key, albeit competently acted feature. And that, apparently, is the point. Kirsten is a vacant young thing stuck in a pizza job and your typical beer-swillin’, pharmin’ post-college funk. She has a dream, though (literally: We know she wants to work for a record company because of a couple of dream sequences). A mildly disfiguring recreational drug mishap finally moves her to make that fateful call, and as the film closes she’s on her way. . . to being some kind of volunteer roadie, apparently. So remember, kids: Always have a dream, and drugs are bad. Thank you and good night. (EE)
Who doesn’t love a sick joke? OK, so maybe a lot of people, and it’d be a mistake to assume that’s all this program of somewhat warped shorts has to offer, but the best bits here are wickedly funny in that particular way.
Take “Sis,” by British filmmaker Deborah Haywood. Ignored by the adults around her, precocious tot Lauren (Demi-Jo Parker) overhears word of a pedophile living down the street. When she’s informed that a “pedo” is “someone who likes children,” she and her itty friend Amy (Billie-Lee Parker) get tarted up in mum’s makeup and set off to meet this intriguing gentlemen and show him their gymnastics. It’s funny, and surprisingly sweet for something with such an ill premise.
D.W. Young’s “Not Interested” and Chris “Casper” Kelly’s “Please Please Pick Up” follow similar drifts. In the former, a young knife salesman knocks on the door of a woman being held hostage. In the latter, a logorrheic young man (standout Randy Havens) summons a prostitute to his apartment to help him with, ahem, a personal matter he can’t attend to due to two bandaged hands. The twist in the latter is just exquisite, though both films would have been absolutely perfect if each had lost their final 45 seconds or so. Strange, but there it is.
Zachary Treitz’s “We’re Leaving” is more odd than anything else. Focusing on a man (Rusty Blanton, maybe not an actor?) who keeps a pet alligator in his trailer and finds himself forced to look for a new place to live, it boasts several surreal laughs, though the story is a nonstarter. “Sleep Study,” meanwhile, has no real story, just an overdone joke about an overactive sleepwalker, tweaked a bit.
The screener copy of polished Spanish short “Socarrat” came with no subtitles. Benny and Josh Safdie’s “John’s Gone” was not provided for review. (LG)
Directed by André de Toth; hosted by Chris Kaltenbach
The annual MFF 3D presentation (a tradition begun long before the current multiplex vogue) presents this 1953 multidimensional Western, hosted by
’s resident B-movie guru Chris Kaltenbach.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs
The director of 2008’s slept-on, drily witty
returns with a new film toplined by John C. Reilly.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
It’s tempting to recommend the latest film from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul strictly on its bravura set pieces: a family dinner invaded by departed loved ones, including a glowing-eyed monkey ghost; a disfigured princess who makes love with a catfish in a jungle pool; a journey deep into the mysteries of a dark and glittering cave. But the heart of Weerasethakul’s latest elliptical epic resides in the titular uncle (Thanapat Saisaymar), who retreats to his bucolic farm with a few family members and a servant as he dies of kidney failure, and the interconnectedness of not only Boonmee’s past lives, but also the lives of his family—of us all, really—close or distant, past and present, this world or another. As is usually the case with Weerasethakul’s films, it’s a bit of a puzzle, yes, but a gorgeous and rewarding one. (LG)
Kent Osborne (played hopefully not too close to the bone by Kent Osborne) just turned 40, and he's a guy who watches lots of Internet porn, surfs Chatroulette, and draws cartoons for a living from his beautiful L.A. apartment. Rough life, eh? See, sad-sack Kent avoids long-term relationships, preferring the liberty of morning wake-n-bakes, daily masturbation, and doting on his fluffy cat. Enter Kate (Jennifer Prediger), an attractive writer-type from New York he met on Chatroulette who (rather unrealistically) flies out to spend a weekend with him. The two seem to connect only through third-party devices: cameras, video, and performing for Internet voyeurs. When they pick up a bi-curious woman on Craigslist, the pair's tenuous relationship is put to the test. Uncle Kent is a slow, agonizing grind through the stumbling intimacy, dull undergrad conversation, awkward exhibitionism, and frustration. Filmed partially on Flip cameras (RIP) and pretty much a no-budget, mumblecore affair, Joe Swanburg's feature-length take on Internet-flavored superficial relationships--prescient as it is--could be half the length, and still pack the cringe-humorless factor. (TH)
Directed by Federico Veiroj
In black and white with an often orchestral soundtrack,
is both a long-running joke on and a warm homage to classic film. The plot follows Jorge, who works at a Uruguayan film archive that’s fallen on hard times: The rent is late, membership is declining, and the foundation that supports it is pulling its funding. When the archive closes, awkward, film-obsessed Jorge must reinvent himself. He decides to ask a woman he likes out on a date. That’s all. But the camera and the soundtrack treat him like a conquering hero from a silent film, as he gets a haircut and walks down the street to find her. The result—with echoes of many a classic film—is poignant and funny. A charming love note to the movies. (AA)
Directed by Djo Tunda Wa Munga
This feature film debut by a Congolese documentary filmmaker was shot on location in Kinshasa, with a mainly local cast and crew. The cinematography is professional, the acting no worse than that in many Hollywood flicks. The plot, while unnecessarily convoluted, isn’t fatally flawed: It follows a cocky young man named Riva as he tries to make a buck off the populace’s desperate need for gasoline, and falls in love with the seductive girlfriend of a notorious crime boss. Meanwhile, Angolan gangsters are on his trail. But the characters are cardboard and the script heavy-handed, and the unrelenting misogyny makes the film hard to stomach, let alone like. Give this one a miss. (AA)
Directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber
God, what a gut punch. David Weissman and Bill Weber follow 2002’s
, their exuberant doc on the pioneering drag troupe, with the rest of the story, so to speak.
revisits the early days of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco by building on the talking-head accounts of a handful of men (and one woman) who took part in the flourishing of gay culture in the city in the ’70s only to watch in horror as a mysterious “gay cancer” started killing friends, lovers, co-workers, and neighbors on a devastating scale. (More than one interviewee sums up the fate of a particular group of people with some variation of “everyone died but me.”) Yet these men survived to look back and help Weissman tell this enormously moving and important tale. Expect regular welling. (LG)
Sure, it’s a bit like a gay
set in London, but more emotionally and intellectually challenging if, thankfully, not as conventionally romantic. The quiet, reserved Russell (Tom Cullen) lives alone in a small high-rise flat, which is where he brings the chatty Glen (Chris New) after picking him up at a club. What both assumed is a one-night stand becomes something else the next morning when Glen pulls out a recorder to interview Russell—about life, love, and everything in between. What follows is a weekend-spanning tête-à-tête involving two out men who lead very different lives, and what’s modestly revelatory about writer/director Haigh’s second feature is how comfortable it is with being mundane.
is a disarmingly candid snapshot of that moment when two people realize their feelings for each other run deeper than desire, that wonderful and frightening limbo when you’re willing to be utterly candid and honest with this brand new person and maybe freaking out a little bit about why he or she is interested in you in the first place. (BM)
moves at the pace of a dripping faucet. The story follows Joslyn (Joslyn Jensen), a 19-year-old who accepts a temporary job taking care of an old man in a vegetative state (Ron Carrier) on an island in Puget Sound. In the silence of the house and in the company of an entirely unresponsive person, Joslyn at first sticks to her duties, which include awkward tasks like washing his crotch and transferring him from his wheelchair into bed. But soon she begins to behave as if she were alone. She pees in front of him and enacts fictitious scenarios, erotic and otherwise. These scenes are embarrassing, and intriguing; the framing emphasizes our voyeurism, as the camera peeks from behind a chair or through a doorway. Under it all flows a current of sadness, which isn’t explained until the end. But you don’t find yourself waiting. The strange, full moments between a girl and a man who isn’t there—or is he?—are compelling all by themselves. (AA)
Mitch, a scrawny guy who plays Dungeons and Dragons and says “sorry” like it’s a verbal tic, is a replacement teacher at the high school he attended. He lives with his mom and abusive sister and, generally, lives up to the film’s title. A great deal of ass-getting-kicked ensues, he gets into a pseudo-romance thing with a bad-ass female student with the ability to protect him from said ass-beatings, the plot twists, gets heavy even, and our protagonist is left as weak and alone as he was in the beginning. It’s a dark comedy and, like its dark comedic peers (the work of Todd Solondz, say), it’s a tad tone-deaf. Like, vicious/bloody/realistic beating preceded and followed by cartoony comic moments does not edgy make; it makes for discontinuity. In any case, Nate Rubin is aces as the
life sucks, and how did it get this bad?
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’s Tony Hale as the creepy band teacher. (MB)