'House of Cards,' 'The Wire' actors help close the 20th Maryland Film Festival

Actor Michael Kelly, taking a break from “House of Cards” to introduce his new film, “All Square,” and bring down the curtain on the the 20th Maryland Film Festival Sunday night, said he’s genuinely going to miss Baltimore when production wraps on the Netflix series’ sixth and final season.

“I really, truly love this city,” said Kelly, who’s been living in Harbor East since production began on the shot-in-Baltimore series, which debuted in February 2013. “It’s been incredible. And I don’t just say that because I’m speaking to a Baltimore publication. You can ask anyone I work with. I love it here so much.”

Baltimoreans who want to return the affection, perhaps without waiting for the series’ season 6 release later this year, should check out “All Square,” which could be getting a limited theatrical release in the fall. Shot mostly in the Dundalk area, the movie stars Kelly as a down-on-his-luck bookie who stumbles on something of a gold mine when he starts taking bets on little league baseball games. Kelly is alternately off-putting and heartbreaking as a failed pro ballplayer who, in the words of a friend, lives his life “like everybody’s trying to get in your way.”

That friend is played by another actor familiar to fans of film-shooting in Baltimore — Isiah Whitlock Jr. of “The Wire.” Whitlock, so memorable as corrupt state Sen. Clay Davis on the HBO series from creator David Simon, said he, too, retains a special place in his heart for this city.

“I don’t get back to Baltimore as much as I would like,” said Whitlock, who lives in New York, “but I do get back here, and I love it. It’s really like coming home.”

Twelve-year-old Jesse Ray Sheps, with great spirit playing a little league pitcher for whom Kelly’s character becomes an unlikely, and not always traditional, father figure, had a blast making the film. The shoot “was kind of like a huge family, kind of like summer camp,” he said. “On my birthday, for example, they bought me sky-diving tickets and they took me to see ‘Spider-Man.’”

Director says her second trip to festival felt like coming home

As much as local cinephiles enjoy going to the annual Maryland Film Festival, some of the filmmakers are equally as happy to bring their work here.

“You feel very taken care of,” said Bridey Elliott, who showed her short film “Affections” at the 2016 festival and returned this year with “Clara’s Ghost,” her first feature as a writer-director. “Other festivals can have a stuffiness, there’s a pressure. This feels like going to a hometown that you haven’t been to in a while, and it’s good.”

“Clara’s Ghost” stars Elliott — as well as her parents (her dad is comedian Chris Elliott) and sister (SNL alum Abby Elliott) — as a show-business family no longer in the spotlight, celebrating their dog’s birthday at a grand Victorian house in New England and steadily creeping apart. It’s a comedy with serious haunted-house overtones, and mom Paula Niedert Elliott makes quite the impression as a mother and wife literally possessed. But all the Elliotts bring their A-games to the film.

The Elliott family showcase earned a warm reception during a late-night screening Saturday at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Brown Center. Afterward, Bridey Elliott was happy to match the warm feelings.

“It’s a really amazing community of filmmakers here,” she said of the festival, which prides itself on offering a pressure-free environment for people showing their work here (it’s not juried, so competitiveness is kept to a minimum). “There’s no pretense to it. It’s just filmmakers meeting people and seeing each others’ work and ingesting it in a way that’s organic, and also creatively aspiring and fulfilling.”

Film shows Syrian refugees anxious to call Baltimore home, despite the odds

It’s hard to imagine a more moving experience at the 20th Maryland Film Festival than watching “This Is Home,” Alexandra Shiva’s documentary about a group of Syrian refugees working to make a new life for themselves in Baltimore.

Shiva, a Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker, eschews high drama or raw emotions in showing how four families, given eight months before their assistance runs out to find jobs and at least begin weaving their way into the fabric of the surrounding community, somehow cope. It isn’t easy; most of them don’t speak English, the jobs they’re offered aren’t commensurate with their abilities (one woman, who had been studying telecommunication in Syria, is hoping to land a job as a cashier) and the odds against them, especially given the current political climate, seem insurmountable.

But they persevere, with a generosity of spirit that rarely flags — when a man practically shoves a group of them aside as he rushes past, one of them says, in Arabic, “May God grant you a long life” — and a quiet determination to overcome whatever obstacles arise.

Several of the refugee families, including young children, came to Saturday’s showing at MICA’s Brown Center. They answered questions (a translator was on stage), posed for pictures and, after the post-film Q&A, mingled with members of the audience.

Asked of her plans for “This Is Home,” Shiva said she hoped to have it shown as widely as possible, with a goal of making it available to schools, churches and civic institutions. No film shown at the festival deserves wider distribution.

A second screening of “This Is Home” is set for 11:15 a.m. Sunday at the MICA Brown Center, 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave. mdfilmfest.com.

Maryland Film Festival alum brings it all back home

Friday afternoon was a homecoming for Lizz Astor in more ways than one.

Cool enough that she got to give her short film, “Drugstore Lipstick,” its hometown premiere. But she got to do it in the place where her calling to be a filmmaker pretty much originated.

“It was a nice full-circle moment,” she said after her 17-minute film, which watches as a teenage Catholic schoolgirl ponders losing her virginity to a lothario with a pet snake (oh, the symbolism) as reports of the death of Pope John Paul II dominate the news, played during the festival’s Character Study Shorts program. “I used to attend the film festival every year when I was in high school, and I interned for them, and now I get to be on the other side of the table, which is really cool.”

Astor, a 2017 graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts, said the film festival is “certainly part of the reason why I make films the way I do — sitting in the theater and watching these kinds of movies.”

The eight-film Character Study Shorts program gets a second showing at 7:15 p.m. Saturday at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Lazarus Studio Center, 131 W. North Ave. mdfilmfdest.com.

Speaking of characters…

John Waters did it again Friday night, using his annual presentation of a film of his choosing to introduce Baltimore audiences to someone they probably never would have met otherwise.

“I, Olga Hepnarova” stars Polish actor Michalina Olszanska as the real-life title character, who in 1973 intentionally drove a truck through a sidewalk filled with people, killing eight and injuring 12. She later said she was seeking revenge for the way she was treated by others, including her family. Hepnarova was executed by Czech authorities in March 1975, the last woman executed in Czechoslovakia.

The film, from Czech directors Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, paints a somber and unflinching picture of Hepnarova’s anger and disaffection. Olszanska is spectacular, looking for little sympathy, but portraying Hepnarova not so much as a monster but as the product of a society that simply had no clue what to do with her.

“Go ahead and enjoy this film,” Waters had challenged in his introduction. “I dare you.”

Matthew Porterfield's biggest fans are all-in on 'Sollers Point'

At least two people in the audience for Thursday’s local premiere of Matthew Porterfield’s “Sollers Point” had already seen the film, and loved it.

But then, you could have figured they would.

“I’ve loved everything he’s done,” said his mom, Vicky Porterfield, who saw her son’s fourth movie as writer-director when it played at last year’s Philadelphia Film Festival. With justifiable pride, she praised the film’s honesty and sense of place.

Equally proud was Porterfield’s dad, Gordon, who was also seeing “Sollers Point” for the second time. “It certainly captured the whole atmosphere of Southeast Baltimore,” he said.

“There’s something very authentic and honest about his work, and I think people connect to that,” Gordon Porterfield said.

Perhaps coloring his view of the film, he admitted, is that he’s in it, albeit briefly. “I’m only in it for about 15 seconds, see if you can find me,” he challenged. (Hint: pay careful attention to the bar scene.)

“Sollers Point” will get a second Maryland Film Festival showing at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Brown Center, 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave. On May 11, it opens for an extended run at the Niarchos Foundation Parkway, 5 W. North Ave. Information: mdfilmfest.com.

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

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