12th Maryland Film Festival – May 6 – 9, 2010

After a somewhat mediocre festival in 2008, festival director Jed Dietz has put together outstanding back-to-back events the last 2 years. He served up a brilliant coup getting 2009’s eventual Oscar winner “The Hurt Locker” to close the 2009 fest; and then followed that with the outstanding “Mother and Child” this year. Although it will probably not win Best Picture, Rodrigo Garcia’s movie was a wonderful way to close out this year’s proceedings. Jed & his staff continue to pluck fine offerings from the nation’s top festivals (including Sundance, Toronto, & SXSW) and the result are 3 days worth of selections that will amply fill the palate of most ardent movie goers. In fact, a common complaint is having to eliminate films of interest because it bumps up against another choice.

My only gripe was an occasional delayed screening which affected getting to another film on time that immediately followed in another venue. However, the crowds, even on the usually slow first day on Friday afternoon, seemed more abundant than in years past. And the Charles Theater hub is the perfect setting for taking in the wonderful filmic ambiance this festival brings to Baltimore year after year. Attendees have these annual festival staples to look forward to: Baltimore’s own John Waters, and other celebrities, selecting and presenting a favorite film; the phenomenal Alloy Orchestra supplying an exciting score to a silent classic; a 3-D presentation; unique surprises such as the screening of this year’s AA Short Documentary “Music By Prudence” including a performance by the Africa musician; eclectic shorts programs; film making conferences & panel discussions. All help in making this festival a perfectly relaxing way to spend a beautiful spring weekend in dear ‘ol Balmer. Bravo to the folks at The Maryland Film Festival for another glorious 3 days in May!

MY TOP 5 FILMS AT THE 12TH MARYLAND FILM FESTIVAL

(1) “Mother and Child”
(2) “Cyrus”
(3) “Dogtooth”
(4) “Beautiful Darling”
(5) “Lovers of Hate”


“Mother and Child” (***1/2– 126 minutes)

An absolutely outstanding film which is the latest from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia. As I first mentioned, it would be hard to top last year’s closing night film, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture screened months before its first release. However, MFF Director Jed Dietz has nearly come close with this magnificent film. Garcia (whose father just happens to be the 20th century literary giant, Gabriel José de la Concordia “Gabo” García Márquez) took 10 years to construct and finalize a script that features the incredible acting of Hollywood standouts Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, & Samuel L. Jackson-to name but a few, in this sensitive portrait of 3 characters whose lives as mother &/or child intersect in ways that are unexpected but true. The overall theme is adoption but there also is an undercurrent of family and marriage that will hit home to most as the story unfolds on the screen. Garcia explored this dramatic style of intersecting story lines in one of my favorite films of 2001: “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her”. And, as in that film starring Glenn Close & Cameron Diaz, he’s assembled a group of actors that will astound you by their acting chops here in so many ways. Add in a glorious score by veteran Edward Shearmur, who also scored Rodrigo’s previous 2 films. The director has an astounding ability to portray women sensibilities (during the Q&A he admitted that he was “a junkie for female behavior”), and his talents as writer & director have now been honed to such a degree that by year’s end, I predict, “Mother and Child” will be listed on many top 10 lists-including the Academy Awards. The Sony Classics film, which is executive produced by Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Amores Perros”, “21 Grams”, & “Babel”), began its limited release on May 7th.

Paul (Samuel L. Jackson) & Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) on their first date

Karen (Annette Bening) & Paco (Jimmy Smits)

Ray (Shareeka Epps) interviews Joseph (David Ramsey), & Lucy (Kerry Washington) who are vying for her unborn child

“Cyrus” (***1/2 – 92 minutes)

One of the best proponents of mumblecore, an American independent film movement that began in the early 2000’s and noted for one-take improvised scripts, are the Duplass brothers Mark & Jay. Their initial film was one of my favorites at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, “The Puffy Chair”. The brothers are going more and more big time and now have made a film starring some A-list Hollywood talent on a film that, I predict, will produce some acting nominations come Oscar time. Lovable loser John (John C. Reilly in a breakout role) is down in the dumps when he finds out that his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), who previously dumped him 7 years ago, is about to wed. After she convinces him to attend a party to try and meet a new lady, it starts disastrously when he proceeds to get disgustingly drunk. However, Molly (the wonderful Marisa Tomei), somehow, sees a sensitive sole who has lost his way and before too long they actually connect that night. However, when Molly repeatedly and mysteriously leaves his pad in the middle of the night, John gets suspicious and decides to follow her home one night. Falling asleep in his car, he awakens the next day to inadvertently meet her peculiar son Cyrus (Jonah Hill who is sure to be nominated). I don’t want to give too much away, but the script, acting, and execution of this wonderfully moving story is sure to put the Duplass brothers on the Hollywood map big-time. Great fun! The Fox Searchlight Sundance hit is being platformed on June 18th.

(l to r) Molly (Marisa Tomei), Cyrus (Jonah Hill), John (John C. Reilly) & Jamie (Catherine Keener) enjoy a Kodak moment

“Dogtooth:” (***1/2 – 96 minutes)

One of my favorite films is a 2005 French independent entitled “Irreversible”. I saw this astounding film, directed by Gasper Noe, at the Sundance Film Festival and, it remains one of the most amazing cinematic works I have ever seen. However, that film, as this film, is also one that is quite polarizing: one either “likes” it or abhors it-there are no inbetweeners. Here is another one that occupies the exact same polarizing territory. At the screening I attended, clearly 25% of the nearly full audience walked out before the final credits rolled. Afterwards, I heard such comments as “Brilliant”, “disgusting”, “great”, “awful”. You can put me in the “brilliant” category. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2nd feature is a dark “comedy” that is simple in execution but disturbing on so many levels. The basic premise: a father and mother have imprisoned their 3 children, who, when the film opens are older teenagers, behind the walls of their mansion for their entire lives. Everything the children do are under complete control of the parents. They are taught incorrect meanings of words (“zombie” is a small yellow flower) and are even led to believe the planes that fly overhead are actually miniature toys that will someday fall onto their lawn for them to find. Although there is humor in some of this (you can hear audience nervous laughter/chuckles throughout), there is also a lot of surprising darkness that will startle &, for some, disgust. The screenplay is surprisingly quiet but the acting, especially by the teens, is nothing short of incredible and is totally believable in projecting how they would react to a life of total seclusion. The film has won numerous awards, including the top prize from the 2009 Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, and picked up for distribution by Kino. Devoid of any soundtrack, this haunting film will stay with you long after the lights come up.

The 3 secluded teenagers perform for their parents during a birthday party

“Beautiful Darling” (*** – 86 minutes)

The subject matter of this wonderful doc is one of underground cinema’s most glamorous divas: Candy Darling. Born James Lawrence Slattery in, what is generally believed 1944, Candy was a woman in a man’s body who yearned to be a famous Hollywood bombshell in the footstep of her idol Kim Novak. A staple in Andy Warhol’s Factory, she made 2 of his films, “Flesh” (1968) & “Woman in Revolt” and even was cast by Tennessee Williams in his play “Small Craft Warnings”. Appropriate interviews with Fran Lebowitz & John Waters (who seems to be everywhere nowadays) are provided but the film mainly focuses on the recollections of producer Jeremiah Newton, Candy’s longtime friend, confidante, & executor of her estate. Interestingly, the documentary is not only is a portrait of a talented actress, but an fascinating snapshot of the times where transgenders were persecuted and thrown in jail for acting out in public. Director James Resin has crafted a loving portrait of an intriguing personality, who died way before her time of cancer before she turned 30. (James stated at the Q&A the cancer was probably caused by the hormone pills Candy was taking before they were banned & taken off of the market.)

Candy Darling

Director James Rasin

Producer & Candy’s close friend Jeremiah Newton

“Lovers of Hate” (*** – 93 minutes)

Another fine narrative feature is this offbeat relationship comedy/drama by writer/director Bryan Poyser. Sibling rivalry, mixed with a romantic triangle, is the subject matter. Rudy (Chris Doubek) is living in his car after being dumped by his wife (Heather Kafka). Unbeknownst to him, his successful literary brother Paul (Alex Karpovsky) is about to move in on Rudy’s wife. When Rudy gets suspicious, he decides to visit Paul when he sets up shop for a weekend getaway in Utah. However, while in the condo, and before he makes his presence known, he is surprised when Diana shows up at the house. Meanwhile, although he is hiding in the spacious home, he gets to hear all of the romantic goings on-much to his dismay. A touching sensitive subject given credence by a group of competent actors with fine direction by Poyser. The film is currently available on-demand over the Comcast network.

Paul (Alex Karpovsky) & Diana (Heather Kafka)

Rudy (Chrus Doubek) hides from Paul & his wife Diana in Paul’s resort condo

“Casino Jack and the United States of Money” (*** – 120 minutes)

The latest documentary from Alex Gibney, who won an AA for his doc “Taxi to the Dark Side” in 2008. As in his 2005 “Enron” The Smartest Guys in the Room”, the doc is thorough (maybe a little too much so) & entertaining in delivering a complex in-your-face look at illegal/immoral Capitol Hill lobbyists, in general, and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, in particular. Very slick and using a multitude of effective techniques in telling his story, Alex may have had too much information to convey in the end as its 2 hour running length requires the viewer to give complete attention to a subject. The film will leave you outraged, but not surprised, when you see the extent of the corruptness of some of the elected officials that we voted into office. Worth seeing but not nearly as strong as Gibney’s previous efforts. The doc is in limited distribution by Magnolia.

“Casino” Jack Abramoff

Director Alex Gibney

“William S. Burroughs: A Man Within” (*** – 87 minutes)

An impressive first effort by 25 year old Yony Leser who actually was kicked out of a Chicago high school. Originally conceived as a short, Yony instead turned this into a full blown comprehensive look at the literary icon who is best known for “Naked Lunch” (made into a movie by David Cronenberg) and introducing into our language such terms as “beatnik”, “heavy metal” & “punk rock music”. Harvard educated Burroughs, who hung out with Allan Ginsberg & Jack Kerouac, was a homosexual (who actually married and shot and killed his wife!) who was also a junkie. Burroughs was an enigma who is tried to be explained using interviews with Peter Weller (who also narrates), Patty Smith, John Waters (who also joined Yony during the Q&A), & Iggy Pop, among other notables. Using music by Smith & Sonic Youth, this is a fascinating profile of one of 20th century’s most important cultural figures. The film, which had its world premiere at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, has been picked up by Oscilloscope for a planned fall release, as well as a PBS Independent Lens presentation during the 2010/2011 season.

William S. Burroughs

Director Yony Leyser (l) is joined by John Waters during the Q&A

“And Everything Is Going Fine” (*** – 89 minutes)

This documentary is from accomplished Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) on the late Spalding Gray. Gray was a live theater genius who is best noted for his monologue performances (one of which was made into a film by the great Jonathan Demme in 1987: “Swimming to Cambodia”)-but he tragically is believed to have committed suicide in 2004 at the age of 62 after his health had steadily eroded following a traffic accident in Ireland. Soderbergh culled over 120 hours of material to produce to this homage to a man who used the stage as his personal therapeutic couch to entertain theater goers with his unique style and talent (he had an uncanny ability to string together nonstop streams of consciousness). Unfortunately, I feel the film will suffer for those who are not familiar with him as the clips really do not give his talent full justice. However, for those who give their time to explore the genius, you will be awarded with this intimate look into a unique artist. His 17 year old son, Forrest, created the soundtrack. The film is due to be released later this year.

Spalding Gray

Kathleen Russo, Spalding’s widow and producer of the film

“Cold Weather” (** – 90 minutes)

A mumblecore production that, unfortunately, was virtually unwatchable. Director Aaron Katz’s tale of a loner (Chris Lankenau) who drops out of college and moves to Portland where his sister (Trieste Kelly Dune, who appeared in “United 93”) resides. He gets a job in an ice factory when his ex-girlfriend (Robyn Rikoon) comes to visit. He then befriends a co-worker (Raul Castillo) who takes an interest in the loner’s obsession with Sherlock Holmes. When the ex-girlfriend suddenly disappears, the story is supposed to take on mystery (I get the Holmes connection). However, by that time, you could care less about the disappearance, the suitcase full of money, the clues in a motel room, and all the other nonsense because the characters, as well as the plot, are as interesting as a watching paint dry. This one gives mumblecore a bad name. The film has been picked up for distribution by IDC and is due to open in NY, Portland, and a 3rd city in the fall or early next year. It will also be made available on IFC On Demand.

Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), Doug (Cris Lankenau) & Carlos (Raul Castillo) chum it up before the mystery begins

Director Aaron Katz

“Night Catches Us” (*** – 90 minutes)

Jamaica born Tanya Hamilton took nearly 10 years to make this film that won high praise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival after initially being created in the Sundance Labs. Taking place in 1976 Philadelphia, the story concerns ex-Black Panthers who have moved on from their political beliefs but must deal with them years after their activism has ended. Marcus Washington has returned home for his father’s funeral and must confront his past including an ex-girl friend he abruptly abandoned, and those who hold him responsible for events in the past that he thought he had left behind. Tanya has assembled an exquisite ensemble of actors who have given credence to the quiet, but powerful script. Superb acting from Kerry Washington (“Ray”), who also appears in the “Mother & Child”), Anthonie Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”), and from HBO’s “The Wire”, Wendell Pierce and Jamie Hector, including an effective soundtrack from The Roots, help make the earnest 90 minutes worthwhile. However, even though I feel its marketing appeal is limited, it has been picked up by Magnolia for distribution in the fall.

Marcus (Anthony Mackie) & Patricia (Kerry Washington) in a quiet moment

Director Tanya Hamilton & moderator, professor & radio host Mark Steiner

“Family Affair” (*** – 80 Minutes)

Film maker Chico Colvard’s first film, which premiered at this year’s Sundance, is a doozy, as he focuses on his dysfunctional family. Chico begins telling the story of how he, at the age of 10 in 1978, acting out TV’s “The Rifleman”, actually shoots & wounds his sister in the leg. However, the story is not about that incident but about the dark secrets of his family. What seemed like a horrible accident at the time, turned out to be a blessing in disguise when it led to revelations of years of familial abuse. Elijah, an African-American soldier who wed a Jewish German woman he met while in the service, continually sexually abused Chico’s 3 sisters, Paula, Angelika, & Chiquita, for years. This revelation begins his 9 year journey to uncover the secrets that, unfortunately, are way too prevalent in our society. Told mainly through the words of the victims, instead of the usual psychoanalytic talking heads, makes this film that much more powerful. The film was produced by award winning Liz Garbus (“The Execution of Wanda Jean”) and includes music by Grammy nominee Miriam Cutter and is an impressive first effort by the director who has a law degree and currently teaches at University of Massachusetts. At the Q&A, Chico revealed HBO was interested but ultimately wanted more professionals quoted in the film (he said they wanted to “cloak his film in a world of expertise”). He decided not to go in that direction (“I didn’t want to silence my sisters”) & wanted to make it more a personal document instead-a decision that makes the doc even more effective. I couldn’t help wondering how different his life might have been had he been born a female. The film will debut in 2011 on OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s network and is the first film for her Documentary Film Club.

Elijah Colvard, the patriarch

Director Chico Colvard

“Saturday Night” (**1/2– 96 minutes)

Actor James Franco (who also has 2 short films at this year’s fest: “The Feast of Stephen” & Herbert White-both based on poems) gives us an up close and personal look into the inner makings of NBC’s Saturday Night Live” giving us an inside look at what it takes to put on a weekly episode. Franco, who twice hosted the show, turned his NYU graduate film school project into this feature length doc which would have been more successful as a short documentary. From the first day on Monday (Pitch Day) to the last dress rehearsal just hours before the live broadcast, we are given a detailed (and I do mean detailed) fly-on-the-wall view of the proceedings. Each day is given a thorough going over as cast members are shown presenting ideas, and interacting with each other, SNL producer Lorne Michaels , the host, etc., ad infinitum, until the jokes and story lines of each skit become more and more monotonous & tedious to us in the audience. Tuesday appears to be the more strenuous day when the writers put in such long hours creating ideas they end up using their office as a bedroom. Everything involved with the weekly show is included, including set construction. We see decisions being made to include & exclude skits (one involving an ad for Empire Carpet was cut almost right up until show time) depending on the rehearsal audience response. In the end, only 9 of the 50 initially submitted skits make the final cut to air on Saturday night. The show was originally broadcasted on December 6th 2008 and hosted by John Malkovich. Although a fascinating look into the process, this one needs extensive editing as much of it is repetitive and goes on way too long. A 45-60 minute concise version would have made it much more watchable.

Special events

“Music by Prudence” (**** – 32 minutes)

Not only was it the highlight of this year’s festival, but the most memorable event of the previous 11 years! The short documentary that won the category at this year’s Academy Awards (if you saw the show, you’ll recall the Kanye West moment when the angry red-haired ex-producer, Elinor Burkett, rudely interrupted director Roger Ross Williams’ acceptance speech) is so inspirational and true, I’m getting chills just writing about it. The doc relates how the 23 year old Prudence, the Zimbabwe native stricken with the debilitating condition, arthrogyposis, rose to prominence as an accomplished singer, despite the tribal tradition of neglecting and even killing disabled children they think were the result of witchcraft. Abandoned by her birth parents, Prudence was saved and raised by her maternal grandmother and later entered the King George VI School, a private school for disabled children where she formed her own band, Liyana (which means “it’s raining”). A truly inspirational film that will have you rethinking how important each of us are and the potential we all bring to this table called “life”. Afterwards, the audience was then graced with the presence of Prudence who, along with Baltimore musicians Shodekeh and drummer Jason Baker, put on a 15+ minute performance that had the crowd literally dancing in the aisles by its conclusion. This lady has more beauty and charisma than any performer I have ever seen (and I’ve seen plenty!) making this event truly a once-in-a-lifetime happening. Producer Patrick Wright mentioned that the performance at some point will be available online. This beautiful documentary began its run on May 12th on HBO and on-demand.

Prior to the screening, MFF director Jed Dietz pointed out the Baltimore connection: co-producer and assistant editor Patrick Wright runs the Video and Film Art Department at the Maryland Institute of College of Art (MICA), where the screening was being held. Then Patrick followed Jed stating that MICA threw their support behind the project that included a MICA grad, Erik Webber, as the cinematographer. Director Roger Ross Williams followed saying that the film would not have been made if it wasn’t for MICA, supplying him the camera when he went to Africa the first time. Following the screening was that electrifying 15 minute concert by Prudence. Following the well deserved standing ovation, the charismatic subject of the Short Documentary Award winner answered questions from the enthusiastic admirers. When asked if she had reunited with her natural parents, who essentially abandoned her to be raised by her grandmother, she informed us that, after the Academy Awards, her parents came back. She revealed that they now realize that being disabled doesn’t mean that “you’re inhuman”. She said they “talked & talked & talked”; then she poignantly added that “I forgave them”. When asked by a little girl in the audience is it OK to be in a wheelchair, she replied that it was 50/50 as she gets to be lifted up every day but yearns to be independent. When quizzed as to who her favorite musical artists were, she mentioned Mariah Carey, R Kelly, and, whispering and urging the audience not to tell, Eminem. Finally, in the film she is shown wearing a t-shirt that says “So What?”When asked what that means, she said that, in other words, “I’m disabled . . . so what!’ After being in her presence, I could not have said it any better!

Prudence before her performance at the screening

Prudence performs after the screening with Baltimore musicians Shodekeh (l) & Jason Baker (r)

Director Roger Ross Williams (l) & co-producer/assistant editor Patrick Wright

“Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness” (**** – 64 minutes)

The world renowned Alloy Orchestra makes their annual appearance by providing the live music for the remarkable 1927 staged documentary, “Chang” which won an Academy Award for “Unique and Artistic Production” at the initial 1929 Oscar ceremony. Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack went on to make the classic “King Kong” in 1933 and much of the style and techniques they used here can be seen in their narrative masterpiece 4 years later. Filmed in what today is the Thai jungle the film makers used staged sets and real actors to tell their story of life for a family in the Siamese jungle and how they cope growing crops and dealing with the myriad of animals-tame and wild-that were part of their universe. The filmed action is breathtaking and the killing on screen, unfortunately, was real (yes, animals were harmed in the making of the movie) and unpredictable. The original score by the talented Alloy members, Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur, & Roger Miller (who seem to reinvent itself with every new film they score) was a perfect complement to the action. Equally exciting was the announcement that they would be returning to Baltimore later this year with the score for the latest version of the Fritz Lang 1927 classic “Metropolis” and that their score was being considered as an alternate version on the official DVD release. An amazing performance for a beautifully conceived classic silent.

The Alloy Orchestra (from l to r): Terry Donahue (accordion, musical saw, vocals). Roger Miller (keyboards), & dir Ken Winokur (junk percussion, & clarinet

Film critic, author, & columnist Michael Sragow introduces the film

To protect from the jungle predators, the Kru family mansion is built on stilts

Chang

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