Film Fest Frenzy
Our guide to the 2012 Maryland Film Festival
Published: May 2, 2012
The think pieces are flying regarding the future of film. Filmmakers and other cinephiles are shaking their heads about the fate of actual film stock—the digital revolution has finally overtaken 35 mm, bringing with it affordability and versatility and the prospect for easier distribution, but whisking away that almost alchemical magic of capturing light on chemical-coated celluloid and later projecting light through it. Meanwhile, the forces that forever altered the music business in the ’00s are starting to have the same game-changing effects on the movie biz, leaving the old system of blockbusters, wily indies, theatrical distribution, and back-end home-video profits gasping and scrambling to adapt. Depending on which pieces you read, the prognosis isn’t often rosy.
And yet, watch a few dozen hours of new films, as those of us who’ve worked on City Paper’s annual independent guide to the Maryland Film Festival have, and you might come away more sanguine. There are still great stories to be told, and filmmakers are finding ways to tell them, despite the hurdles and the Chicken Little worries. And as the 14th annual MFF takes over a chunk of Station North this weekend, you need only spend a few hours in the various theaters or hobnobbing with the filmmakers and film fans that help make it what it is to realize that whatever the concerns are about the nature of the supply, the demand for cinema isn’t going anywhere, and, as usual, MFF presents one of the local cinephile’s best options to drink deep.
City Paper’s Film Fest Frenzy (which is not affiliated with the Maryland Film Festival) was written by Andrea Appleton, Laura Dattaro, Michael Byrne, Edward Ericson Jr., Lee Gardner, Erin Gleeson, Joe MacLeod, and Joe Tropea. Alex Fine provided the cover illustration. And as always, we thank Jed Dietz, Eric Allen Hatch, Scott Braid, and all the other hard-working staffers and volunteers who make the Maryland Film Festival possible.
Unbylined blurbs indicate a movie not screened before press time. An asterisk by the title indicates a must-see favorite recommended by the CP Film Fest Frenzy review crew.
It’s been a long time since “animation” meant flipbook-style cartoons, and this year’s collection of animated shorts is a perfect microcosm of the experimental directions animators have taken, though some are more successful than others. Many border on the too abstract, straddling that line between artistic merit and self-indulgent navel-gazing; see Miranda Pfeiffer’s “Food for the Worms,” made from thousands of hand-painted cells, which demonstrates quite a bit of work but which lacks in story and relatability. A few, however, embody the best qualities of short animation: a fully developed but succinct story, an immersive aesthetic experience, a bit of humor alongside a bit of emotion. Tor Fruergaard’s “Venus” is a clever story of a young couple whose sex life is on the rocks visiting a local swingers’ club, rendered in chunky clay-mation; Jonah Ansell’s “Cadaver” is similarly animated, and follows an old man who awakes on the autopsy table to say one last goodbye to his wife. If we had to pick a winner, though, it’d be Pedro Rivero’s Spanish-language piece “Birdboy,” a bizarrely touching story of a fairy-tale-esque world populated by mousy creatures that starts out as a beautiful little fable but quickly turns dark: A factory explosion rocks the creatures’ tiny island, the titular Birdboy is taunted for being a loner and snorts coke up in a lonely tree. It’s utterly surprising in the best way possible, and, mostly, so is this collection of shorts as a whole. (Laura Dattaro)
The Atomic States of America
Directed by Don Argott and Sheena Joyce
As certain as Uranium-239 decays to Plutonium-239, this movie was going to happen. A year after the biggest nuclear power plant disaster since Chernobyl, a rather alarmist movie about nuclear energy would precipitate from the aftermath because we demand it. And so here it is, and it’s worth watching. Find within an explanation of just how bought-and-sold nuclear regulation in the United States is, a cursory overview of the ever-looming issue of nuclear-waste disposal, a sassy local activist, some extremely sad stories of nuclear-plant-community cancers, Alec Baldwin saying the “f” word loudly, and a bit of actual science but not nearly enough. Which is unfortunate. The result feels a bit manipulative—’tis a very neat story presented—but of course it does. An important if flawed movie. (Michael Byrne)
Directed by Athena Rachel Tsangari
Judging by the current wave of Greek cinema, there must be something in the air in Greece, something sparking films that are altogether desperate, ludicrous, creepy, and gorgeous. Much like Dogtooth (2010), Attenberg explores characters cut off from the rest of the world, thrown into a situation in which they must take the first steps toward integrating themselves into civilization. The film’s central character, Marina (Ariane Labed), still lives with her father at age 23. She spends her time watching nature programs on TV, goose-stepping around her decaying town with her promiscuous best friend, and blowing raspberries from the safety of a window several stories up. When her father is diagnosed with terminal cancer, though, she wobbles awkwardly toward adulthood, or rather, what she assumes to be adulthood as seen from her rather skewed point of view. (Erin Gleeson)
“The Black Balloon”
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie
This 21-minute short uses an old trope: following an object (here, a black balloon, duh) as it is whisked around a city and encounters all kinds of people along the way. “The Black Balloon” opens with a frazzled man carrying a whole heap of balloons and trying to keep a large group of kids together on a crowded city street; he accidentally lets go and all the balloons go free. Brothers Josh and Benny Safdie follow the lone black balloon through New York as it helps a man steal a dress and offers solace to an angsty preteen, among other adventures, set to original music that feels straight out of the ’70s, which totally works here for some reason. The short is presented along with three other balloon-related quickies: Albert Lamorisse’s “The Red Balloon” (1956), Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline’s “The Balloonatic”(1923), and Ub Iwerks’ “The Pincushion Man”, aka “Balloon Land” (1935). (LD)
The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best
Directed by Ryan O’Nan
A pair of musicians (Michael Weston and director Ryan O’Nan) hit the road in this picaresque indie.
Come Back, Africa
Directed by Lionel Rogosin
The dialogue is stilted, the acting wooden, the narrative hard to follow, and there are seemingly random musical production numbers scattered throughout (penny whistles, Elvis impersonators). So if you didn’t know Come Back, Africa’s back-story—that this bit of agitprop was made on location in South Africa in 1959, under the noses of the burgeoning apartheid regime, using non-actors—you could leave the theater wondering, in the immortal words of Krusty the Clown, “What the hell was that?” What it was was an early demonstration of the power of film in service of resistance instead of state power. The musical scenes were shot as part of the cover story director/producer Lionel Rogosin gave authorities in order to get permission to film. What’s left is an amazing time capsule. (Edward Ericson Jr.)
Directed by Rick Alverson
If ever a movie screamed anything, The Comedy screams “hipster”—or, more accurately, “cliche hipster.” Swanson (Tim Heidecker) is 35 years old and living on a boat in Brooklyn, thanks to his dying father’s money. He wanders around the city in short shorts and boat shoes, his protruding belly barely contained in a too-tight button-down, his shaggy hair falling in his sunglasses-covered eyes. The movie professes to be a sharp-witted comedy, exploring the dark side of humor as Swanson and his similarly dressed friends crack deadpan jokes at each other, but really it just feels like a bunch of assholes with too much time on their hands: See Swanson and friend in the back of a cab obnoxiously improv-ing a song about how the cabbie’s not gonna get a tip because he ain’t got no radio. The song is funny, yes, but it’s less so because the poor cabbie did nothing to deserve this dick move, which basically goes for the movie in its entirety. Also, a lot of PBR. (LD)
Directed by Craig Zobel
A prank phone call goes awry in this thriller.
Dark Comedy Shorts*
All shades of dark are represented in this hilarious batch of shorts. Blood pours in Todd Sklar’s “’92 Skybox Alonzo Mourning Rookie Card,” featuring brothers Dave and Jim beating the hell out of each other while the rest of the family tries to mourn the loss of their father. Puke flows in Ricky Camilleri’s uncomfortably funny “Bad Penny,” in which Linas Phillips (from last year’s Bass Ackwards) plays hearing-impaired party animal Shawnsey Nolinski as the pasty-white apartment guest from hell. Meanwhile, a middle-aged mama’s boy can’t leave his own apartment in the amusingly eerie “Beau” directed by Ari Aster. Extreme amusement-park-ride enthusiasts take note: Till Nowak’s CGI mini-masterpiece “Centrifuge Brain Project” is the stuff of your wildest dreams. This mockumentary imagines the rides we might enjoy next century once the bothersome problems of gravity and human frailty are solved.
Three shorts in this collection take a tragically funny look at childhood. Kevin Meul’s “The Extraordinary Life of Rocky” is this program’s standout. Since birth, unfortunate fatal occurrences have plagued Rocky’s loved ones, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to meet Mrs. Right. Director Kat Candler dishes out the kind of beatings you wish you had had as a kid in “Hellion.” Seven-year-old Petey takes one for the team when his older brothers spend the day wreaking havoc on everything and everyone. First they duct tape the babysitter to the house. Then they build a front-yard bonfire. Man, there’s gonna be hell to pay when dad gets home.
Pedro Collantes’ “Hourglass” has a dark laugh at young love’s expense, while Tatjana Najdanovic’s “Pass the Salt, Please” talks dirty to you, featuring Seymour Cassel and Fionnula Flanagan as a married couple getting filthy/nasty over dinner.
Bringing it home, literally, is Sarah Milinski’s “Sometimes.” This hometown production paints artistic reward as a fickle mistress. Pardo (Cricket Arison) is the brains behind YouTube sensation “Hammock Fail.” But she can only sit back and watch—and open grant rejection letters—while her unwitting hammock star fails upward into hipster douchebag superstardom. (Joe Tropea)
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
The documentary team behind Jesus Camp and Boys From Baraka returns with this portrait of crumbling Detroit.
From the familiar to the not so familiar, this year’s Doc Shorts program covers a lot of ground. David Khachatorian and George P. Pozderec’s “The Joseph Szabo Project” looks at the work of an American photographer and former high school teacher whose photos will be familiar to fans of Dazed and Confused, Dinosaur Jr., or anyone who’s ever stepped into an American Apparel store. Szabo’s work is all about empathy for the teenager, and you’ve probably already appreciated his work whether you realized it or not. Nellie Kluz’s “Young Bird Season” explores the hidden world of pigeon racing. Think of the insider look at horse racing offered by HBO’s Luck, only with pigeons, smaller prizes, and owners who hang out in trailers eating hot dogs. Jonathan Bougher and Nicholas Corrao’s “Come on Down and Pick Me Up” looks at Fred Kress, a Rosedale-based outsider artist who appears to have given himself liver failure for the sake of his black-light alien artwork. Music by hometown weirdos the Dirty Marmaduke Flute Squad mixes nicely into Kress’ strange world.
Lindsay Lindebaum’s “Necking” lovingly asks couples who’ve stayed together past the 50-year mark how they did it, while the experimental Dustin Guy Defa’s “Family Nightmare” is exactly what it sounds like. Imagine the family get-togethers thrown by the stars of “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.” Evan Rothman’s “I Fuck With My Voice” is a peek into the porn lifestyle of Ashley Thrill, a hentai voice-over artist. If you don’t know what that is, suffice it to say that this short earns the program its “intended for mature audiences” warning. Finally, Kenneth Price’s “Wilbert and Vern” offers a return to sweetness with its inspiring look at the relationship between two longtime friends, Wilbert Banks and Vern Switzer. (JT)
Daddy issues dominate the dramatic shorts program. Jonas Carpignano’s opener “A Chjána,” is based on recent events that occurred in the southern Italian city of Rosarno. In an area known as “the Plains,” members of a small African immigrant community are squeezed between their exploitative Mafia-controlled employers, who need them, and their fascist Italian neighbors, who want them to leave the fatherland. Forget getting by—when riots and counterriots break out, Ayiva and Chico are only trying to make it out of town alive.
In “The Father,” a gritty offering from Australian director David Easteal, Walter has returned home from prison looking to redeem himself to the only family he has left. After trying in vain to reconnect with his son and grandson, an opportunity presents itself, and Walter gives his progeny the only thing he has left to offer them.
Angel Williams’ “The Christmas Tree” is set in wintery gray Chicago, where down-on-his-luck Warren is trying to hold it together in front of his 8-year-old daughter, Rasheeda. It’s their first Christmas together since the divorce. When the only gift he can afford to give her is stolen, Warren has to make some big decisions knowing that Rasheeda’s eyes are fixed on him. A devastating look at what it means to be a dad.
Annie Silverstein’s “Spark,” meanwhile, travels to Texas to find young Ricky waiting in his dad’s pickup truck while dad is busy “servicing” a lady customer. Ricky is told to stay put, but when the precocious young daughter of his dad’s lover taunts him from the truck, they turn the Texas landscape into a playground, if only for a few moments before being yanked back to harsh reality.
Rounding out the father quartet is the program’s high point, “First Match” by Olivia Newman, which single-handedly redeems fatherhood for program viewers. This emotionally arresting 15-minute short centers on a Brooklyn teen as she prepares for her first wrestling match. Having just won a spot on the team by beating a boy, Monique not only has to struggle with being the only girl on the team, she also has to win her dad’s approval.
Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck’s “Waiting Room” is the sole curiosity here, in which a man goes through the motions of what would appear to be a typical morning. As time stops with microscopic precision, we learn that it’s anything but.(JT)
Directed by Kris Swanberg
After an unexpected pregnancy, Jenny (Kate Lyn Sheil) is a stay-at-home mom, raising her infant son and living with a husband she admits isn’t the man of her dreams. She ends up with a plot of land in the country, though, and makes her way there with the baby to fix up the cabin before her husband arrives. Alone in the wilderness, she strikes up a friendship with a man (Bill Ross) hired to make repairs on the property, and the two develop the kind of relationship one dreams of in the woods: lots of chopping wood, cups of coffee while watching the rain, and reading books to the baby before bed. But how could the pleasantries continue with Jenny’s husband due to arrive in a few days? Empire Builder moves to its conclusion with graceful precision, full of long takes and carefully composed shots that, like Jenny, embrace the beauty of the here and now, but know deep down that none of it will last. (EG)
Directed by Rory Kennedy
A documentary portrait of Ethel Kennedy, directed by her daughter.
This totally-worth-it lineup of 13 experiments (if you’re into that kind of thing) includes the unsatisfying and irritating, but also the transcendent and spectacular. The films feature an assortment of techniques in cartoon and stop-motion animation, traditional cinematography, state-of-the-art computer effects, and, in the case of Adam Badlotto’s “Only in Dreams,” thousands of passes on a flatbed scanner. The great part is these are shorts, so don’t get impatient when you hit one that drags or makes you cover your ears, it will be over soon. The soundtracks range from stuff resembling dragging a microphone around the inside of a loaded street dumpster all the way through to musical-instruments music. (Filmmakers, consider a simple string group or a piano for your film. Trust us, you’re not helping with stuff that sounds like a tinnitus attack.)
Standout shorts include Isaac Green Diebboll’s “Requiem for My Father,” a spare, moving visit with a fragile man discussing music and ultimately, natural “sounds we don’t control, including silences.” With a stop-motion effect on immobile subjects, “Coversong” by Marylander Eric Dyer briefly and thoroughly exhausts the topic of manhole covers—and everything on the street that looks like one—to the accompaniment of a whirring mechanistic soundtrack credited to “Foley Artist” Mia Jane Dyer. A more traditional-looking stop-motion piece is Clarissa Gregory’s “walk through forest, enter water, build fort,” featuring a cloth doll doing just that, in a fully realized setting of forest materials and yarn. While the pace is a little too deliberate, the craft is impressive and compelling.
Michael Langer and Terah Maher’s “Choros” is a trippy multiple-exposure study of figure movement. It’s certainly not a requirement, but if you’re peaking on that one-hitter you fired up in the parking lot, this one will resonate. “Melt,” by Noémie LaFrance, is another crazy dance number, featuring a day in the life of a group of lean, dripping-wet dancers wearing Fiber Arts Thesis-looking costumes, behaving almost like plants, hanging off a wall through darkness and sunlight. Our fave-rave film of the group is Andrew Huang’s “Solipsist,” arguably another dance study with a Fiber Arts undercard, incorporating flawless, seamlessly surreal effects as a pair of dancers are merged with colorful organic forms and textures, and fantastic creatures move and interact and imitate life. We felt like we were witnessing an amazing something we’d never seen before. (Joe MacLeod)
Directed by Julia Murat
Twentysomething drifter Rita follows the train tracks to Jotuombo, a village tucked away in Brazil’s Paraíba Valley. She finds a town that is slowly being reclaimed by the jungle, inhabited only by old folks. They act out village life as if by rote memory, performing the same daily tasks and arguing the same daily arguments among themselves. It seems there is no place or need for youth in Jotuombo. Madalena, the town’s widowed breadmaker, agrees to let Rita stay with her for a few days. At first greeted skeptically as an intruder by the villagers, the young woman sets about photographing the village and its inhabitants until she realizes that there is something she can help them with. Beautifully shot and interspersed with photography from the decades-spanning array of cameras Rita mysteriously travels with, Found Memories is a contemplative, poetic film that steers far from being overly sentimental. (JT)
Directed by Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky
The incomparable Melissa Leo stars in this disturbing drama about a woman who is released from prison and struggles to find her place in the outside world. Like Cassidy and Shatzky’s documentary The Patron Saints, also in the festival this year, the film takes place entirely in the present tense. One barely learns Francine’s name, let alone her history. It’s immediately clear, however, that she is a lost soul; her people skills are, shall we say, lacking. But she feels a deep emotional bond with animals, so much so that by the end of the film she has spiraled into something that resembles addiction. While Leo is powerfully compelling and the movie has an arresting, gritty realism, in the end it feels slight. The back-story seems unnecessary in the aforementioned documentary—perhaps because the characters are instantly believable, since they are real—but here, without the slightest clue as to what has shaped this strange woman, one feels a bit cheated. (Andrea Appleton)
From Morning tilL Midnight
Directed by Karlheinz Martin
The Alloy Orchestra provides the score to this 1920 German Expressionist film, until recently thought to be lost.
Directed by Jonathan Lisecki
Two close friends in their 30s are fed up with waiting for the perfect mate to come along. Though Jenn (Jenn Harris) is straight and Matt (Matthew Wilkas) is not, they decide to have a baby together—the old-fashioned way. This feature-length comedy veers toward the ridiculous at times (think horny goat weed-induced insanity and a touch of pole dancing), but the humor remains smart throughout. Harris’ prowess as a comedic actress shines. (EG)
This program is a mixed bag, but in a collection of eight shorts, there are only a couple of real duds. They happen to be the first and last pieces. “High Maintenance,” Shawn Wines’ slapstick short about a scheme gone wrong, leads off. Here a passive husband has “dick surgery” to produce more sperm and thus impregnate his wife; he is instructed to have copious sex with her, but the nosy mother-in-law intervenes and must be dealt with. Unconvincing and not particularly funny high jinks ensue. Clay Weiner’s “Happy Father’s Gay,” a cliched montage about an effeminate father with floppy wrists and a penchant for cross-dressing, ends the program.
But in between, there’s a good deal of engaging work. “Madame Perrault’s Bluebeard” by A.J. Bond is a captivating reimagining of author Charles Perrault’s fairy tale about a nobleman fond of murdering his wives. In Bond’s silent short, Bluebeard/Perrault has a beard made of moss, and the woods seem to encroach upon the castle. Madame Perrault is beautiful and beautifully attired, and the gorgeous cinematography deepens the story’s sinister overtones. “Grounded,” a sci-fi flick by Kevin Margo, is equally evocative and also lovingly shot, with a brow-furrowing, Borges-like narrative. A rocket ship explodes, an astronaut lands on a foreign planet . . . and things get repetitive and weird.
Joey Ciccoline’s “88:88” concerns a young woman who attempts to stave off the supernatural through the creative use of power tools, but Russell Appleford’s “40 Years” features the best special effects of the bunch: A man returns to a childhood haunt to confront a giant Transformer-like monster made of boulders that has haunted him his whole life. “Bear” is a dark comedy—it doesn’t get much darker—about a boyfriend who goes way, way too far in trying to surprise his girlfriend on her birthday. “Two-Legged Rat Bastards” by Scott Weintrob is also a dark comedy, this time with a hardboiled crime flavor. An old man explains to his grown son how he came to have a wooden leg. It turns out he lost his leg in a card game as a young man. The short moves back and forth between their conversation and the smoky environs of this brutal card game, where all the participants are missing fingers, eyes, ears. It’s brilliantly played to the ridiculous hilt, with moody soundtrack and atmospherics to boot. (AA)
God Bless America
Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
Comic/auteur Bobcat Goldthwait’s new film sounds a little like a Bizarroworld take on Kevin Smith’s Red State, except possibly good.
The International Sign for Choking
Directed by Zach Weintraub
Set in Buenos Aires, The International Sign for Choking follows two Americans (director Zach Weintraub and Sophia Takal) placed in adjacent rooms in a boarding house. Faced with a shared sense of isolation, the pair develop a bond, but their own insecurities start to pull them apart. While the style is consistent and strong, the film’s approach becomes distracting at a certain point. Much of it is shot with a long lens, keeping just a small portion of the frame in focus. Conversations are shot with only one person visible, or just torsos or halves of faces, driving home the notion that no one can truly connect here. It all becomes a little too obvious; it’s a film that would make an exquisite short, but there just isn’t enough here to sustain a feature. (EG)
Directed by Chris James Thompson
Don’t let the name fool you. This is not another indie dramedy about a quirky grown-ass man living at home in his mom’s basement. Chris James Thompson’s minimalist documentary about Jeffrey Dahmer may be one of the best films on the subject, and of the festival lineup. The most famous of famous serial killer/cannibals is remembered by three people whose lives intersected with his: a neighbor, a detective, and a medical examiner. Through archival footage, photos, and diagrams, the horror of Dahmer’s small Milwaukee apartment is unpacked. It’s as gruesome as you’d imagine it should be, but Thompson takes special interest in the spaces between Dahmer’s evil deeds. When not busy disassembling his 17 known victims, Jeff lived a seemingly dull life. By focusing on the humdrum aspects via re-enactments, it’s all the more jarring when we are reminded that the man kept severed heads in his fridge and probably fed his neighbor a victim sandwich. (JT)
Directed by David Zellner
A little blond girl stares blankly into space, chomping on a rainbow lollipop as large as her head. For no reason that we can see, she shifts, smashing the candy against a tree, her face contorted with anger. Such are the scenes of childhood mayhem brought to us by Kid-Thing. The film follows Annie (Sydney Aguirre), a fair-haired whirlwind of angst, as she lashes out against the world. When she stumbles upon an old woman trapped in a well, she has her shot at redemption—or will she perpetuate the pain of the one person who seems just as miserable as she is? Kid-Thing is surreal, beautifully crafted, and heartbreaking. (EG)
Love Free or Die: How the Bishop of New Hampshire is Changing the World
Directed by Macky Alston
As Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in Christendom, decorates his Christmas tree with his longtime partner Mark, it’s hard to believe that so much controversy could surround him. Warm and soft-spoken, Robinson commands a crowd with a compassionate and accepting spirit, but his rise to bishop of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church has drawn outrage from the religious right. Love Free or Die charts his struggles within his own community, including facing screaming protesters during one sermon in England, death threats, and shunning by his fellow bishops. Filmmaker Macky Alston follows him through it all, and Robinson proves himself strong enough to carry both a film and an entire movement within his church. (EG)
Directed by Eduardo Sanchez
When you spot the little red rec• of a home-video camera display in the upper right corner of the screen in the opening minutes of Lovely Molly, you might suspect co-writer/director Eduardo Sanchez is up to his old The Blair Witch Project tricks. And in some ways, he is, but they’re good tricks, and far from the only things the Maryland-shot Lovely Molly has going for it. The titular young newlywed (Gretchen Lodge) moves back into her remote childhood home with her husband (Johnny Lewis), a truck driver who’s often gone for days. Strange things start happening, and during Molly’s extended stints in the house alone, things get really strange, and her sinister family past bubbles up. One of several nifty tweaks here is Molly’s substance-abuse history; when she starts acting odd, her loved ones and co-workers assume she’s using again. There are some loose ends and borrowed tropes here, but Sanchez gins up plenty of hair-raising moments, assisted by a shooting style that splits the difference between low-budget horror and indie drama. Newcomer Lodge delivers a performance of impressive range. (Lee Gardner)
Directed by Sheldon Candis
MC-turned-actor Common toplines an impressive cast (Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Lonette McKee, and Michael Kenneth “Omar” Williams) in this family drama.
There is one short in this lovely collection that stands out, not in the sense of quality, but more in a “which of these things doesn’t belong” kind of way. While four of the pieces are classic, slice-of-life short stories brought wonderfully to the screen, Josephine Decker’s “Me the Terrible” is an oddball of a short, following a school-aged girl (Lisa Diaz) as she and her stuffed bear play pirate, taking over Manhattan one landmark at a time, until a similarly aged bicycle gang of three beats her up and takes teddy as spoils. It’s weird, but entertaining.
The other four in the collection are equally strong. Diego Ongaro’s “Bob and the Trees” does nothing more or less than show one day in the life of Bob, a logger with a penchant for gangster rap and beer. Subtle bits of foreshadowing are woven into the narrative—Bob warns his younger co-worker not to get too drunk, hands get awfully close to the broken engine of a logging machine—and though it seems clear that this is not the kind of story where outlandish tragedies would happen, your heart tenses up a bit anyway. “Another Bullet Dodged” is awful, and beautiful—a story of a guy taking his ex-girlfriend (or ex-something) to get an abortion and acting as painfully insensitive as possible. It’s followed by Andrew van Baal’s “Wonder Valley,” in which a Ken and Barbie-eqsue Manhattanite couple split up and Ken wanders out West seeking cowboy-dom. Finally, we have “Rolling on the Floor Laughing,” a painful short about two grown sons returning home to visit their mother for her birthday; their mother has invited her new boyfriend, and the sons turn obnoxious as they fight for her attention. What starts as innocent teasing quickly turns drunken and dark, and the audience is left with an entirely different story than they expected. (LD)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia*
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Talk about a police procedural. For nearly two hours, the camera follows a small detachment of Turkish police officers, a prosecutor (Taner Birsel), and a doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) as they drive around the bleak hinterlands looking for the corpse of a man their prisoner (Firat Tanis) has admitted to murdering. They drive, they small-talk, they bicker, they make fruitless stops at identically nondescript locations, they drive some more. But by the film’s end, writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Climates, Distant) has planted enough innocuous-seeming information along the way and established enough rapport with this caravan of characters that the revelations of the final reels deliver a slyly devastating impact. A wordless scene in which the investigators are confronted with the humble beauty of a small-town mayor’s young daughter (Cansu Demirci) as she serves tea by lamplight is unlike anything you’re likely to see onscreen this year. (LG)
Oslo, August 31st
Directed by Joachim Trier
Oslo, August 31st opens on the empty streets of a city that will seem familiar to many in Baltimore. Unseen strangers recall memories of everyday life spent in the Norwegian capital. Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a recovering addict on a short leave from rehab, a trial run at returning to normal life. He keeps himself busy—perhaps too busy—with a full day’s itinerary: He visits with an old friend he used to party with, interviews for a job at a magazine, tries to meet his sister for lunch to discuss family matters, all the while ringing up his girlfriend, Iselin, who appears to have moved on with her life. Anders can’t seem to remember what exactly normal life is supposed to be. Based on the novel that inspired Louis Malle’s The Fire Within, this second feature from Danish-born writer/director Joachim Trier is bleak and may not be for everyone. But it’s graceful. A filmmaker to keep an eye on. (JT)
The Passion of the WTF Shorts
Overall this selection of hard-to-categorize films offers audiences a chance to see exciting stuff from some awesome weirdos. Take Carlos Puga’s “Satan Since 2003,” a documentary about a moped gang and its escalating rivalry with another local gang. As tensions reach a breaking point, you’ll scramble to separate fact from fiction. And then there’s “The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke,” starring 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell and based loosely on Chris Marker’s “La jetée.” There’s also “Tempest in a Bedroom” (from Maryland Institute College of Art’s Laurence Arcadias and collaborator Juliette Marchand), a strange little stop-motion short bursting with sexual frustration, role-playing, and disappointment—all expressed by dolls. If you’re the sort to turn to film fests for fascinating new work from filmmakers on the periphery, don’t miss this session. (EG)
The Patron Saints*
Directed by Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky
The husband-and-wife team behind the documentary The Patron Saints take the viewer into a nursing home, a place most of us would rather not think about. But the home does not seem a bad one nor is the documentary investigative, or even particularly fact-heavy. With its operatic soundtrack and slow, meditative cinematography, it is rather more like a poem. James, an apparently partially paralyzed man with a gravelly voice and humorless, staccato laugh, serves as our Virgil. He introduces the viewer to characters like Mary, “who used to make toothbrushes for Colgate” and now spends her days wondering when her son will visit; to an old Hungarian man who, at night, yells endlessly for his deceased wife; to Rosemary, a developmentally disabled woman who was horrifically abused by her brother. It may seem fodder for despair, but this small, surreal community is treated with dignity, and there is thus something transcendent and lasting about this odd little film.(AA)
Directed by Martha Stephens
After being on the losing end of a school’s budget cut, music teacher and semiprofessional fiddle player James decides to embark on a two-month hiking trip, leaving behind an overly supportive girlfriend and a life he seems to care little about. Utterly inept and passive, he allows his girlfriend to buckle his seat belt for him and quietly mumbles responses when questions are posed. The notion of following this guy alone into the woods is worrisome from the start, since he can’t seem to carry his own life, let alone a feature-length film. And despite some nice cinematography and some interesting interactions he has with strangers along the way, Pilgrim Song lacks the substance to keep viewers engaged. It’s not until the end of the film that James reveals any shred of his character, but by then it’s too little and far too late. (EG)
Directed by Alejandro Landes
A based-on-a-true-story comedy/drama from Argentina about a handicapped man who comes up with a bold scheme to improve his lot in life.
Directed by Edward Tyndall
Reconvergence is a bit odd, and that’s entirely welcome. The documentary, Edward Tyndall’s feature directorial debut, has no narration nor any other way of telling its viewers what it’s supposed to be about. Instead, it simply alternates between four men—naturalist Eustace Conway, neuroscientist Preston Estep, historian Waite Rawls, and poet Caleb Whitaker—telling their own stories, which start out fairly disparate and slowly spiral inward to something like a shared statement of purpose. Rawls, a Civil War enthusiast, looks backward, asserting that we cannot understand our present or build our future until we identify with our past; Whitaker looks inward, exploring the connection between the spirit and physical worlds through the use of hallucinogenic ayahuasca; Conway looks around him, believing in nature as reality and emitting a sort of melancholy wisdom, as though his grasp on how the world should be is slowly slipping through his hands; and Estep looks forward, seeing a future where technology and humanity—and thus individuals and the collective—begin to merge until they are intertwined, indistinguishable, reunited. A thought-provoker if there ever was one. (LD)
Save the Date
Directed by Michael Mohan
An indie-ish romcom starring Alison Brie and Party Down’s Lizzie Caplan and Martin Starr.
See You Soon Again*
Directed by Lukas Stepanik and Bernadette Wegenstein
Two generations later, the horrific story of the Holocaust is just that—something that the current generation knows only through textbooks, museums, and movies. It’s the dwindling community of survivors that keeps the history alive, and it turns out Baltimore has the largest community in the country. Lukas Stepanik and Bernadette Wegenstein’s difficult but touching documentary See You Soon Again follows two of those survivors, Leo Bretholz and Bluma Shapiro, as they tell their stories time after time after time to schools, community organizations, and the like. It’s a fascinating examination of the strength it takes to recount personal horrors, and the inner struggle to decide if the importance of spreading the story is justification for such trauma. Bretholz’s sharp sense of humor and strong moral backbone fill out the story; perhaps most touching is how deeply affected his teenage audiences—Jewish, Catholic, black, white—are, and how his story transcends that age group’s usual tendency toward self-involvement. A standout—and a tearjerker—for sure. (LD)
Directed by Jodi Willie and Maria Demopoulos
Super-awesome sex-party cults are not interesting. They become interesting when the super-awesome sex-party cult—in this case, the Source Family—turns icky, when its stylishness withers, when people grow up and develop grown-up problems, and when the maybe not-so-benevolent leader, here Father Yod, starts calling himself “god.” The following becomes some mixture of fear and faith and emotional dependence and, eventually, things start getting really weird, in the words of one ex-follower (140 people, three bedrooms). Using a mix of modern-day interviews, archival footage/audio recordings (including a particularly surreal pre-death one), and photographs, the film documenting the ’70s cult of the same name isn’t particularly interested in judging Yod (né Jim Baker) or his followers (though some of his followers are, justifiably, interested in judging him) nor in flattering them. Good stuff. (MB)
Sun Don’t Shine
Directed by Amy Seimetz
Oppressive wet heat emanates from the screen in Amy Seimetz’s directorial feature debut, which follows two deranged lovers driving through Central Florida trying to figure their shit out. Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Leo (Kentucker Audley) together are a grimy, sweaty mess who’ve done some very bad things. They’re en route to the Everglades where things will presumably not be a mess. Think Badlands with more closeups and sweat, but less Sheen bravado and gunplay; Seimetz admits to being influenced by Two-Lane Blacktop and Deliverance. Intense performances by Audley and Sheil drive this noir thriller, but Seimetz’s molding truly brings out the Florida yuck. (JT)
Directed by Daniel Schechter
Daniel Schechter’s second feature is a crowd-pleaser that mixes comedy, drama, and a smidge of romance without ever upsetting your stomach. More impressive still, it’s a movie about likable people making a movie, which puts it on a short list alongside David Mamet’s State and Main and, well, not much else. Not so much a film within a film as a view of filmmaking from the editor’s suite, Supporting Characters is about decision-making and relationships. Nick (Alex Karpovsky) and Darryl (Tarik Lowe) are editors (and close friends) trying to fix Adrian’s (Kevin Corrigan) troubled feature. As Adrian struggles with the loss of control of his film, Nick and Darren struggle with their work, their next paycheck, and their significant others (played respectively by Sophia Takal and Melonie Diaz). Filled with laughs, solid performances, and an obligatory appearance by Lena Dunham, Schechter offers a refreshing take on his own industry. (JT)
Directed by Bill and Turner Ross
Tchoupitoulas (named after a street in New Orleans) follows three young boys from Algiers as they take the ferry downtown for a night of adventures. But with its slow, atmospheric pace—fans of Matthew Porterfield, take note—the documentary is a portrait of the city and its music as much as it is of the boys. One never learns their names, and though their dialogue is often funny—“She’s like the beautifulest girl I ever seen. Don’t tell nobody,” the youngest tells the filmmakers at one point—it is also often muffled and difficult to understand. Beautifully shot with handheld cameras, the film takes detours to focus on people the boys glimpse during their explorations—strippers, street musicians, a trio of transgender performers—and the vibrancy of the city reverberates long after the credits roll. (AA)
This Is Not a Film
Directed by Jafar Panahi
When Iranian director Jafar Panahi (Crimson Gold, The White Balloon) was placed under house arrest by the government, he made the best of it by making a film about a man trapped in his house and forbidden to make films.
Those Redheads From Seattle
Directed by Lewis R. Foster
The annual MFF vintage 3D presentation, which the festival was doing way before it was cool.
The TurIn Horse*
Directed by Bela Tarr
An old man (Janos Derzsi) and his middle-aged daughter (Erika Bok) live together in a rude stone farmhouse that is constantly whipped by vicious winds. Water must be hauled in from a well, dinner is a boiled potato eaten with fingers in silence, and their lone asset is a bedraggled-looking cart horse. But the horse has stopped eating and refuses to haul their wagon. Then the well runs dry. Septuagenarian Hungarian director Bela Tarr (Satantango, The Werckmeister Harmonies) has said that The Turin Horse is his last film, and it’s difficult to imagine a more final final statement. Half Biblical, half Beckettian, Tarr’s meditation on the repetitiveness and ever-growing burden of life would be almost forbiddingly bleak if not for the beauty and power of his trademark long takes and black-and-white cinematography (the latter courtesy longtime collaborator Fred Keleman). A monument as much as a film. (LG)
Under African Skies*
Directed by Joe Berlinger
Paul Simon’s seminal album Graceland was born of a chance encounter Simon had with a cassette tape of a South African band called the Boyoyo Boys. He was captivated by the sound and sought out South African musicians—including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, an a cappella group that consequently became an international phenomenon—to create an album that blended traditional rhythms with American pop. Under African Skies beautifully traces the musical development of one of the best albums of all time but also represents a fascinating, balanced take on the controversy it engendered. South Africa was in the grips of the struggle to end apartheid when Simon visited; he broke a United Nations cultural boycott in creating the album, infuriating the African National Congress and anti-apartheid activists the world over. Twenty-five years later, he returns to South Africa for a reunion concert, and to reconcile with former outspoken critics, like Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid. While the story will be familiar to many, the approach is nuanced, the archival footage riveting, and the music as powerful as ever. A fantastic film. (AA)
Very Extremely Dangerous
Directed by Paul Duane
It is wildly unlikely that you’d know the name Jerry McGill. His wider claims to fame, as established by filmmaker Paul Duane, include playing himself in photographer William Eggleston’s obscure short film “Stranded in Canton,” cutting a lone single for Sun Records, and his commemorization in Robert Gordon’s indelible account of mid-South cultural weirdness It Came From Memphis. The few who did know McGill had little or no clue about his whereabouts for decades after he fled federal criminal charges. When he resurfaced in the ’00s, Duane was on-hand with a camera to catch the septuagenarian reuniting with his high school sweetheart, trying to revitalize his stillborn music career, facing a lung cancer diagnosis, alienating most around him, and, at one, point, banging Dilaudid into a vein in the back of a car. McGill is a colorful character for sure, and Duane is there for every tantrum, minor triumph, and ugly incident. Like watching a gruesome car wreck with an upbeat ending. (LG)
The found-footage horror genre crashes into the omnibus film as a gaggle of up-and-coming directors (including MFF vet Joe Swanberg and The House of the Devil’s Ti West) collaborate on this genre pigpile.
Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz
Film nerds will know Vito Russo as the film historian/author behind The Celluloid Closet, the revelatory 1981 book that cataloged the vast number of sneakily omnipresent images of gays and lesbians throughout cinema history. But as Jeffrey Schwarz’s fine biodoc relates, Russo was also a gay-rights Zelig—he watched as the Stonewall Riots went down and was among a handful of co-founders of a series of seminal activist groups, including GLAAD and ACT-UP. Indeed, Schwarz’s somewhat hagiographic account seems to make a case that Russo helped invent gay disco too, among other seminal gay-culture pillars. But Russo’s life-long activism/agitation and his devotion to the Celluloid Closet project (Russo was a freelance writer, not an academic or an established author living on an advance) makes for a stirring and inspiring tale. (LG)
Directed by Rúnar Rúnarsson
Volcano, set in the gray, epic expanses of Iceland, is a portrait of a rigid, bitter man named Hannes (Theódór Júlíusson). Retired after 37 years as the building superintendent at a school, he initially finds his life bereft of meaning. His grown children hate him, his grandchildren fear him, and even his loyal wife is sick of his constant bile. But a series of events—a sunken boat, a sudden illness—thrusts Hannes into redemption late in life. The film is, finally, a portrait of love—including a tender sex scene between a sixtysomething couple, something one isn’t likely to see in an American movie—and of the mundane tragedies of old age. The cinematography is patient and painterly, often focusing on the subtle play of emotion across Júlíusson’s stern face. By the end, you want to pull everyone you love in close, though you’ve just been reminded that ultimately you cannot hold onto anyone. A simple, powerful film.
Volcano screens with “Revolution ReykjavÍk,” directed by Ísold UggadÓttir. This 19-minute short paints a picture of the financial crisis in Iceland through the gradual disintegration of a middle-aged bank employee who loses her job. Gudfinna (Lilja Thorisdottir) is a proud woman, ever critical of her grown daughter, who works at a grocery store. By the end, the capable Gudfinna is a shell of her former self. A bit one-note, but a rare glimpse of the human side of the Icelandic collapse. (AA)
Directed by Barbara Loden; Presented by John Waters
In this 1970 proto-indie, a poor woman (Barbara Loden, who wrote and directed) from Pennsylvania coal country winds up on a petty crime spree. This is John Waters’ annual MFF pick and no wonder; it sounds sort of like a neo-realist Female Trouble.
Wild in the Streets
Directed by Peter Baxter
It turns out New Orleans has some competition when it comes to wild antics for Mardi Gras (or Shrove Tuesday, as it’s called in some parts of the world). Shrovetide Football, a game known and loved in the tiny English town of Ashbourne, has lived on since the Middle Ages, passed from generation to generation, despite pressure from the church and ruling powers to shut the game down. In this massive two-day battle, the entire town gathers, divided into two teams. Both sides come with the same intent: to get one handmade, four-pound ball to one of two goals, each placed on opposite ends of Ashbourne. This boisterous, raucous documentary shouldn’t be missed. (EG)
Directed by Andrea Arnold
British director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road) tackles Emily Bronte’s classic novel.