Many Times a Charm: Reflections on the 2018 Maryland Film Festival

2018 Maryland Film Festival poster on front of Parkway Theater.

As I have done almost every year since moving back to Baltimore – city where I also spent 8 years, as a child – in 2006, I attended the Maryland Film Festival (MdFF) during the first week of May (which ran May 2-6). The 2018 iteration of this terrific showcase of independent cinema – founded in 1999 – included 40 feature-lengths films (fiction and documentary) and over 90 shorts (of a multiplicity of genres), the latter organized into 11 separate programs. Though there were no world premieres among the features this time around, the festival offered local moviegoers a broad variety of content, with filmmakers attending from near and far. A good time was had by me, and I imagine by all (though tastes may vary, for sure).

Beyond the screenings, the festival offered panels, as it always does, including one on Baltimore-based stories (which yours truly moderated), of which there were more than a few on the docket, including All Square (John Hyams), Charm City (Marilyn Ness), Sickies Making Films (Joe Tropea), Sollers Point (Matthew Porterfield), and This Is Home (Alexandra Shiva). It’s wonderful to see one’s city host such a vibrant gathering and mixing of cinephiles and cinéastes, particularly when the main venue – for the second year in a row – is the beautifully restored Parkway Theater, located in the heart of the midtown Station North Arts District. There’s nothing like seeing today’s movies in a gorgeous movie palace of yesteryear.

“Making Films in and about Baltimore” at Red Emma’s bookstore, with, l-r: Alexandra Shiva, Marilyn Ness, Christopher Llewellyn Reed, TT the Artist, Theo Anthony and Matthew Porterfield. [Photo by Jessica Baroody]

I had seen some of the films in the program at other festivals, including SXSW and Tribeca, but most of what I watched was new to me. What follows is a list of my Top 10 favorites (6 documentaries and 4 fiction films), listed in alphabetical order, by category. However, since the MdFF’s opening night traditionally consists of a slate of shorts, I’ll start with those (the only shorts program I saw).


Festival director Jed Dietz introduces the opening-night shorts.

OPENING NIGHT SHORTS:

This year, there were six short films in the opening program, listed as follows, with my asterisks before each of my three favorites:

Accident, MD is a documentary that explores the lives and struggles – particularly with healthcare – of the members of lower-middle-class community in rural Maryland. They have choice words for our current system of government, though their political opinions run the gamut. It’s biting and entertaining, while also respectful of its subjects.

Agua Viva is an animated piece about the inability of a Chinese immigrant, working as a manicurist in Miami, Florida, to articulate her inchoate longing for a better life. The expressive hand-drawn, two-dimensional look to the film conveys a sense of tight quarters and lost opportunities, while the contrasting bright colors represent the young woman’s hopeful dreams. Melancholia gets a bright makeover.

Milk, though a narrative fiction film, feels very much like a documentary. A young woman – a farmworker – finds out she is pregnant, and her ambivalent feelings about this fact are confronted daily as she watches pregnant cows gives birth. The camera holds for a long time as certain animals take especially long to expel their calves (sometimes painful to watch, but with the subsequent relief of the eventual success). Milk is collected, young cows nursed, and all the while our protagonist ponders her future. Quiet and elliptical, the film implants its evocative images firmly in one’s brain.


DOCUMENTARIES:

Charm City (Marilyn Ness, 2018) [The paragraph, below, is an adaptation of both a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing, and of the capsule review I wrote about Tribeca. Yes, I saw it at that other festival, but feel it also belongs here, given its subject matter.]

Film poster: “Charm City”

From director Marilyn Ness (Bad Blood: A Cautionary Tale) comes Charm City, an insightful new documentary about the challenges faced by low-income, African-American residents of Baltimore as they grapple with profound civic neglect and its resulting violence. The title comes from one of Baltimore’s nicknames (legacy of a 1970s slogan campaign), and is certainly more than a little ironic, given what we see of the place. Ness’ movie comes on the heels of other such hard-hitting exposés of fraught urban landscapes, including The Force (about Oakland), Quest (about Philadelphia), and, also about Baltimore, Baltimore Rising, Rat Film and, the most buoyant of the bunch, Step. Here, the director turns her attention to one specific neighborhood, Rose Street, in Southeast Baltimore, where the inhabitants, suffering from a 50% unemployment rate, struggle to make ends meet and to keep their streets clean and safe. It’s often a losing battle, but someone has to try. Embedded with both community members and police officers, Ness and her crew showcase competing points of view – not always in complete opposition – to create a vibrant tapestry where hope and despair collide, the one never quite succumbing to the other.

Genderbende (Sophie Dros, 2017)

Collage of 5 different “Genderbende” posters

This fascinating examination of gender fluidity – of people who identify as “genderqueer” – follows 5 individuals in the Netherlands who defy the usual social constructs of male and female. Three of them started life as biological men, and now adopt hairstyles and clothing and mannerisms that society reads as feminine, while two others – twins, actually – are biological women with many ostensibly masculine characteristics. They are all comfortable existing in the gray zone between genders, and director Dros (whose first feature this is) employs a terrific visual device of a glass wall on which the subjects draw a line – with male at one end and female on the other – and try to place themselves within it. They stand across the glass from the camera, and we watch as they struggle to define who they are, sometimes laughing and shrugging off the whole notion. Indeed, the joy and love of self-discovery propels the movie towards its satisfying conclusion, leaving us happy to have known these good, brave, pioneering folk.

The documentary played with a wonderful 16-minute fiction short, We Forgot to Break Up (Chandler Levack), about a former female rock-group manager who shows up, years after leaving the band, as a man. It’s a reunion tour, so the performers are already stressed about the financial risks they’re taking, and none too happy to see their old friend, whose gender switch feels like a betrayal, to some. In its brief running time, the movie does quite a lot, leading us to a touching final moment of quasi-reconciliation. I wanted the film to last even longer.

The Island (Adam Weingrod, 2017)

Film poster: “The Island”

Director Weingrod (whose first feature this also is) sets his profoundly moving film in the St. Louis French Hospital in Jerusalem, which – founded in 1889 – has attended to the terminally ill since 1951. Though located in a city rife with religious discord (and occasional harmony, as well), the hospital, though Catholic, is home to patients and staff of all faiths. It can be tough to watch footage of the elderly in decline, especially since we know that many are probably dead by the time we see them (indeed, the movie’s credits indicate as much), but it is also extremely heartwarming to see the good people who take care of them and make their final days as calm and joyful as possible. Patients take art classes, discuss philosophy and history, and see family and friends, all the while in frequent pain. One attendant nurse – David, a fiftyish (he’s fit, so could be older and just looks younger) Italian monk – is the true star (though everyone shines) of the piece, selfless and committed to his work, and amazingly multilingual. The two old men with whom we spend the most time – Simon, from Tunisia, and Yigal, a local Jerusalemite – both clearly beloved by their visiting relatives, do their best to go gently into that good night, though it is not easy. Their grace and charm speak volumes about their lives, and about the beauty and tragedy of the human condition.

Sickies Making Films (Joe Tropea, 2018)

Film poster: “Sickies Making Films”

Baltimore native Tropea (Hit & Stay) has crafted a supremely entertaining and informative history of the nation’s longest-running censorship board (1916-1981) in – you guessed it – Maryland! Featuring a wealth of great movie clips, archival footage and talking-head interviews, the movie takes us on a journey through the twisted world of morality-based legislation that provokes horror and derision, both. Tropea and co-writer/editor Robert A. Emmons Jr. show great mastery of tone and aesthetics as they walk us through the high and low points of cinematic development. Cult filmmaker (and Baltimore native, as well) John Waters, subject to the board’s constant attacks in his early years, as one might imagine, shows up with some choice words about its methods, as do many other survivors of the period. “Sickies Making Films” is a direct quote from the infamous Mary Avara, who served on the board until the bitter end. That’s how she saw those who rejected her traditional Catholic mores (for the record, Waters was raised Catholic, as well). By choosing her words as the movie’s title, Tropea and Emmonds urge all to wear it as a badge of honor. Sounds good to me!

This Is Home: A Refugee Story (Alexandra Shiva, 2018)

Film poster: “This Is Home: A Refugee Story”

Winner of the Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Alexandra Shiva’s latest film follows a group of Syrian refugees as they navigate the complexities of their new lives in Baltimore. There are only 21,000 Syrian refugees in the United States right now, with 372 of them here. They have but 8 months to become self-sufficient, after which they lose all financial assistance, and if they can’t then support themselves, may not be allowed to stay. That’s a lot of pressure for folks uprooted from their homeland, without English-language skills, mostly unable to work in their original professions. We watch as the four families chosen by Shiva (How to Dance in Ohio) as her main focus each struggle in different ways to make ends meet. They encounter both prejudice and love – fortunately, more of the latter, no matter the policies of our country’s current administration – and by the end of the film are well on their way to achieving some kind of stability. Still, for some it is not so mildly bittersweet, cut off from their culture and education, adrift in the quagmire of bureaucracy. Shiva, intimately ensconced with her subjects, shows us their journey’s ups and downs, reminding us that we are all one species, no matter our differences. Welcome to Baltimore!

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville, 2018)

Film poster: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

As an American child in the 1970s, I grew up watching wonderful programming from the nascent PBS that included the great, inspiring Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. As I got older, I admit that I found the show increasingly corny, but I never doubted the host’s good will and love for children. His was always a calm, reassuring presence that represented a welcome respite from the chaos of the world (and of the other, admittedly wildly entertaining, shows on TV). Some (delusional) people may see Fred Rogers’ desire to make everyone feel valued as a pernicious evil in this world, but the rest of us know that we need more of him, and less of them. In Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) gives us the cinematic homage that Rogers deserves, rich and complex in its portrait and compelling in its delivery of narrative. No pure hagiography, the film examines the man’s motivations and aspirations, and even his occasional lapses in judgment (such as not initially supporting a gay colleague as he should have). All who knew him and discuss him on camera (even that gay colleague) speak of him with love and joy (he died in 2003). In so many ways an exemplary human being – among other things, an ordained Presbyterian minister who lived up to his calling – Fred Rogers showed us that it’s OK to be gentle and kind; that, in fact, it is necessary for us to thrive. Thank you, Mister Rogers, and thank you, Mister Neville, for this movie.

In addition to the above, I also really admire !Las Sandanistas! and On Her Shoulders, both of which I saw at SXSW.


NARRATIVE (FICTION) FILMS:

All Square (John Hyams, 2018) [The paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail at SXSW. Yes, I saw it at that other festival, but feel it also belongs here, given its status as a Maryland-shot film.]

Still from “All Square,” featuring Jesse Ray Sheps and Michael Kelly ©Mill House Motion Pictures

From director John Hyams (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) and writer Timothy Brady (making his debut) comes All Square, a rough and rowdy gem of a movie that tells of small stakes with big consequences. Michael Kelly (Doug Stamper on Netflix’s House of Cards) plays John, a bookie whose black-market business is being severely undercut by online gambling and the unwillingness of his clients to pay him the money they owe. Though not willing to resort to violence to recoup his losses, John has no compunction about robbing clients to obtain some collateral on the loans. As you can imagine, it’s a recipe for trouble. So is deciding to bet on local Little League games which turns out to be his next venture. John is a sucker for self-destruction, it seems. Kelly brings a laid-back vibe to his performance that belies the crazy shenanigans of his character. Often – though not always – amoral, he’s so chill about it that it’s hard to hate him. Set in Dundalk, a suburb of Baltimore, All Square also benefits from the unfamiliar (in cinematic terms), lived-in feel of this working-class neighborhood. The film – which takes its title from the inevitable squaring of accounts that John must face up to, at the end – combines comedy and drama in a thoroughly engaging mix.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan, 2018)

Film poster: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”

Winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, The Miseducation of Cameron Post – based on the eponymous 2012 book by Emily M. Danforth – tackles the thorny issue of conservative Christianity and homosexuality, following a group of teens sent to gay-conversion-therapy school. From director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior), the movie tells an important story of the hypocrisy, bad science and cruelty behind such places, but never quite rises beyond the minimum aesthetic challenges of the material (Sundance award notwithstanding). Starring an excellent Chloë Grace Moretz (Clouds of Sils Maria) in the title role, with John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) and Jennifer Ehle (Wetlands) as the reeducation leaders, and Sasha Lane (American Honey) and Forrest Goodluck (The Revenant) as fellow pupils, the film has no shortage of fine performances. There are also plenty of well-realized individual scenes, even if the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. An adequate representation of a vital topic – you really can’t pray the gay away – it deserves to be seen, but leaves one wanting more.

Nancy (Christina Choe, 2018)

Film poster: “nancy”

My favorite narrative feature of the festival, Nancy – winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival – stars a brilliant Andrea Riseborough (Shadow Dancer) in the title role, playing a lonely thirtysomething woman who becomes convinced she may be the grown-up version of a long-ago-abducted girl shown on TV. Poor Nancy doesn’t have much going for her, working temp jobs and living with her sick, quasi-abusive mother. When that parent dies, and she sees a program on the upcoming 30th anniversary of the kidnapping, complete with a photo of what that girl would look like – which bears a striking resemblance to herself – she contacts that family. Skeptical at first, the couple, played by an excellent J. Smith-Cameron (Christine) and Steve Buscemi (The Cobbler), slowly come around to the idea that Nancy could, indeed, be their long-lost child, all the while waiting for the DNA results. We have our own doubts, having seen questionable behavior from Nancy, earlier, but we, too, become seduced by the possibility of a heart-rending happy end. Writer/director Christina Choe, making her feature debut, has a perfect sense of mise-en-scène, cinematic composition and performance, carefully moving the story forward to the catharsis to come. I was deeply moved, though not in the way I thought I would be. This is fiction filmmaking at its emotionally compelling best.

Festival programmer Scott Braid and filmmaker Christina Choe, at “Nancy” Q&A

Sollers Point (Matthew Potterfield, 2017) [The paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I know Porterfield, casually, as the film world here is small (we call our town “Smalltimore” for a reason)].

Film poster: “Sollers Point”

From Matthew Porterfield (I Used to Be Darker) – another Baltimore native – comes his fourth feature, Sollers Point, set – as were the other three – in his hometown. A hard-hitting examination of angry male self-destructiveness, and the lonely dead end to which it leads, the film takes no narrative prisoners. If you like your cinema with a bite, chew on this. Lead actor McCaul Lombardi (Patti Cake$) – yet another local – delivers a searing performance as Keith, a twentysomething overgrown boy recently out of prison, who when we first meet him is still saddled with an ankle bracelet, under house arrest. His crime is never directly specified, though it’s most likely drug-related, based on subsequent revelations. He lives with his father (a very fine Jim Belushi, Katie Says Goodbye) in a very uneven equilibrium, all the while pining for his ex-girlfriend (Zazie Beetz, about to make a big splash in Deadpool 2) and their dog (or “his” dog, as he sees it). Though Keith seems to mean well, trouble starts, albeit slowly, as soon as that bracelet comes off. There’s a rage that simmers just below Keith’s outwardly calm demeanor, its origins never quite clear. There is also a kernel of hope in him, however, or we might not care so much, and Porterfield leaves us with a sense that the next chapter, were it told, might not be quite so desolate. For now, we have this delightfully bitter tonic to swallow.

And that’s it. See you next year!

Baltimore’s Station North Arts District, with the Parkway Theater in the background.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. He is the lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a regular film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; an occasional writer for the magazine bmoreart.com; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, starting in January, 2018, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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