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High Variety

Baltimore’s Other Spring Film Festival Offers Winningly Diverse Programming

FEST LAID PLANS: (from top) Blood on the Walls, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, and Loudquietloud highlight the weekend at Hopkins.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/26/2006

Now in its ninth year, the Johns Hopkins Film Festival offers up what has become its de facto personality: four days of movies that you won’t really be getting elsewhere just now. By balancing local and regional filmmakers with unreleased fare, lesser-known buzz movies, and notable older movies, the 2006 edition corrals a smart assortment of underseen new flicks and overlooked gems.

On opening night, Roman Polanski’s 1966 Cul-de-sac is, like his Knife in the Water and Repulsion, a genre movie that so subtly drifts off into Polanskiland that it’s alarming to realize how bizarre it has all become. At a remote British seaside castle, George (Donald Pleasence) and his wife, Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), become the distressed hosts to Richard (Lionel Stander), a hoodlum hiding out at their pad while he figures out what to do next. A car wreck foiled his getaway plans, but not even George and Teresa’s dinner party with guests is going to spoil Richard’s hideout plans (he pretends to be the couple’s butler). What starts out feeling like a textbook hostage noir turns into fiendish black comedy. (At Shriver Hall April 27 at 8 p.m.)

The Hopkins Film Fest pulls off a nice little coup Friday night with the local premiere of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, actor/director Asia Argento’s all-hipster-star-studded adaptation of literary piñata JT LeRoy’s alleged semiautobiographical debut novel—which remains one of the better-written tales of teenage sexual ambiguity ever written by a heterosexual fortysomething woman. (At Shriver Hall April 28 at 10 p.m.)

Also on tap this evening are a midnight screening of local filmmaker Ryan Graham’s comic zombie flick Livelihood, now in a tighter, shorter cut than what debuted back in October, and directors Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin’s loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies, which is better than that title makes it sound. The filmmakers followed around the alternative-rock touchstone during its 2004 reunion rehearsals and its constantly sold-out spring and summer tours in North America and Europe. If loud isn’t as emotionally naked as the Metallica doc Some Kind of Monster, it is only because the four Pixies—Charles “Frank Black” Thompson, David Lovering, Joey Santiago, and Kim Deal—don’t really talk to one another. And it sounds like they needed the economic and ego boost that the tour offered: Thompson was getting divorced and looking for a label to release his latest solo album. Deal had become sober and was living with her parents. Lovering was at the tail end of a bad relationship, his magic career was doing only OK, and his father was soon to be diagnosed with inoperable cancer. (Santiago, by far the sanest person in the group, is scoring movies and preparing for the birth of his second child.) It’s worth seeing if only for the fact that Deal is, even in her 40s, girlishly adorable. (loudQUIETloud at Shriver Hall April 28 at 8 p.m., Livelihood at midnight.)

Local movies and filmmakers take over the Shaffer 3 auditorium all day Saturday. Towson University assistant professor and director Danny Mydlack will be on hand to introduce his documentary Voices From the New American Schoolhouse, which examines the experimental educational model practiced at Upper Marlboro’s Fairhaven School, where students vote and decide upon the school’s operations (at 2:30 p.m.). Filmmakers Regina Galasso and Ann de Leon introduce their Las caras de Baltimore, a documentary examination of Baltimore’s growing Spanish-speaking population (at 4 p.m.). The ghetto Warhol of Stop Fucking Snitchin’ and its Baltimore Police Department response “Keep Talkin’” screen together (at 7 p.m.). Hopkins alum Ruthie Aslan introduces her feature debut, The Turkey Alibi (at 8 p.m.).

And local writer (and occasional City Paper contributor) Barry Michael Cooper offers up the experimental narrative Blood on the Walls, which he shot and edited himself. The no-budget looks and feel can’t hide the film’s ambitions. It follows the story of Cooper Michaels—a writer who claims to have helped invent hip-hop journalism in the early 1990s and who has fallen on hard times since—who gets a magazine assignment to suss out the story behind Baltimore artist Swiss Williams, who, while on a gallery visit in New York, shot and killed a rising dealer before turning the gun on himself. At first Blood feels like a satiric redemption story taking low aim at a Basquiat figure, but about halfway through it finds a way both to retain its satiric edge and land a sucker-punch full of pathos. (At 5 p.m.)

Different shorts programs occupy Shriver Hall during the Saturday and Sunday days, with a few buzz-worthy features hitting the hall on both evenings. Joe Swanberg’s postcollegiate youth drama Kissing on the Mouth has earned praises for its edgy verisimilitude and daring (at Shriver Hall April 29 at 10:30 p.m). Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea paints an typically dysfunctional portrait of one of American development’s great accidents—a sea formed in a Southern California valley after a 1905 flood. Briefly a recreational hot spot in the 1950s and ’60s, the Salton Sea is now in a state of economic uncertainty and disarray and is fast becoming an environmental question mark; directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer get into the good, the bad, and the plain old weird of the people who call the sea’s surrounding barren desert landscape home (at Shriver Hall April 29 at 9 p.m.).

And the festival closes with bang—actually, make that a fright. Hopkins alum Wes Craven will be on hand for a festival-closing screening of his 1977 horror classic The Hills Have Eyes, arguably the best movie ever made to explore the urban-rural divide and, in Michael Berryman’s performance as Pluto, undisputedly the best introduction of a underground star of the last 30 years (at Shriver Hall April 30 at 8 p.m.).

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