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Baltimore Women's Film Festival

Reviews of Select Films Screening at the Festival

A still from Patricia Baltimore

Posted 10/22/2008

Oct. 23

8 p.m.: Stories of Love, Intimacy, Romance shorts program

"Assault In Brooklyn" A put-upon Polish immigrant (April Sigman) fights with her husband (Frank Vince) and flees, knocking over the recent victim of a purse-snatching (Veena Datta) before hailing a taxi driven by a sympathetic cabbie (Charles Bruce). Violence against women is a terrible thing, and screenwriter Arlette Thomas-Fletcher obviously has her heart in the right place, but this clunky, heavy-handed fragment is unlikely to convince anyone of anything other than its own half-bakedness. (LG)

Victoriana Victoria (Carson Maness) is having a hard time. A Southern-accented ingénue making her way in New York after fleeing her abusive family, she finds herself in another abusive situation with her asshole boyfriend (Aaron Pierce). She copes by retreating into writing stories, where her protagonist, Jana (Melissa Ferrer), lives out Victoria's dream of being a dancer when she's not hanging with her perfect boyfriend (Pierce as well); Victoria's life, and the movie, soon blur the line between reality and fiction. It is perhaps to be expected that Victoria's writing is clichéd and without nuance; unfortunately, writer/director Katka Konecna's script is little better, and her cast is no help. (LG) 10 p.m..

Oct. 24

Patricia Baltimore It's amazing how alike Baltimore and Philadelphia streets look in a film, especially when the camera is focused on the homeless and the abandoned houses, shelters, and sidewalks where they sleep. Filmed on the Philly streets in 2005, this documentary aims its shaky camera on Patricia Baltimore, an older black woman who's been living hand-to-mouth for decades. It pains her to talk about the reasons why--and like so many of the homeless, her answer is a vague series of bad decisions, bad situations, and bad luck--but it doesn't dampen her gregarious personality. She ends up in an apartment with the help of Home First, an agency that really makes a difference in a mostly indifferent world--the filmmakers' interest and willingness to drive her places probably helped too--and working a job that she keeps for a while. But for Baltimore, just as for so many on the street, mental-health issues are huge obstacles for those on the fray of society. Yes, it's a sad look at sad streets. (WW) 11:30 a.m.

Orgasmic Birth Director Debra Pascali-Bonaro's documentary Orgasmic Birth manages to take a movement that is gaining steam in America--natural birthing with midwives as opposed to a medical approach to birth--and make it seem totally oogie. The movie is engaging and makes its point well--if not subtly--when it focuses on couples doing home births and discusses the differences between home births and hospital births. The concern being that hospitals see birth as a problem that needs to be fixed, leading to what some argue are often unnecessary interventions like inducing labor and C-sections. It loses its audience when the experts talk over and over and over again about how sensual and sexual birth is. And its dated aesthetic--like a mix between a '70s porno and an '80s after-school special--doesn't help. Having a healthy baby is carrot enough for natural child birth. There are easier ways to have an orgasm than passing a person through your vagina. (AD) 4:30 p.m..

6:30 p.m.: Age of the Advancement of Time shorts program

"The Freeze" Wonderful European fairy tale about an old woman's birthday party attended by long-gone family members and filled with music, scones, and shots of something strong. They arrive to her cottage in a burlap bag that had fallen off a cart and was carried through the woods by a young woman with straight black hair as long as her back. Sweet and sad. Don't leave your seat before the charming end credits. (WW) Screens .

"Morning Glory" This seven-minute short written and directed by Nicole Emanuele suggests that Emanuele's wheelhouse is directing, not writing. "Morning Glory" is shot beautifully--the final scene of light pouring through a massive tree is especially lovely--but the story of a religiously devout woman who forgets to be charitable in her actual life is obvious and familiar. (AD)

Ready? OK! Comparing an independent film to Little Miss Sunshine is something of a cliché, but James Vasquez's directorial debut, Ready? OK!, hits many of the same notes: an unconventional family and an adorable child with ill-suited dreams, all wrapped up in a mix of comedy and drama. And like Little Miss Sunshine, Ready? OK! succeeds in turning this setup into a thoroughly entertaining and touching movie. Single mom Andy (Carrie Preston) is stressed by her job as a TV producer, her irresponsible twin brother, and the fact that her 10-year-old son, Josh (Lurie Poston), dreams of joining the cheerleading squad at the Catholic school he attends, which isn't going over well with the clergy. Michael Emerson (aka Ben from Lost) plays a neighbor who tries to help Josh fulfill his dream. Preston does an excellent job portraying Andy's conflicted emotions as she tries to reconcile her desire to support her son with her concern about him being a target for ridicule. And the precocious Poston steals every scene he is in. Prepare to be charmed. (AD) 8 p.m..

10 p.m.: Film and the Boundaries of Gender shorts program

"The Little Knave" Filmed in Portland Ore., this gritty short follows a young woman's path of thievery from a necktie to a Nikon camera. She explains that she takes only beloved items in the voice-over narration in an otherwise silent film--people either communicate with each other through gestures or are alone in their thoughts. A lesbian relationship and the city's Japanese Garden also play a part. (WW)

"Private Life" Written and directed by Abbe Robinson, "Private Life" manages to tell a complex story in a short space, with slick production values and a sense of intimacy. It centers on Ruth (Lucy Liemann) an office worker in Yorkshire, England, in 1952, who is a lesbian. Robinson depicts a world of secret clubs for gay men and lesbians and creates wonderfully human characters dealing with a serious dilemma while still allowing humor and sexiness to come through. Pretty impressive for 15 minutes and 49 seconds. (AD)

Oct. 25

2:45 p.m.: Animation and Music Videos shorts program

"The Tale Of Callalily" A brief bit of sorta-surreal puppet theater, "The Tale Of Callalily" is heavy with secondhand Brothers Quay atmosphere, from its freaky piano-playing baby dolls to the moldy and musty (and ersatz) Victorian set dressing. But unlike the genuinely unnerving works of the acknowledged masters of stop-motion weirdness, this short's goth gloom is mostly playful and empty. Topped with some truly alarming rhymed narration, the short slowly builds up to little more than a visual pun used in service of a rather bald storybook "moral." (JH)

4:30 p.m.: Comedic Short Film Series

"Miss Bertram's Awakening" Frumpy Miss Bertram is in love with the boss. Now is her chance. Everyone in this short is over the top, and only one of them--the lady at the lingerie shop--is funny about it. You'll spot what Miss Bertram is about to be awakened to long before she does (the CEO's desk lamp is only one of several too-big hints). Suddenly, frumpy Miss Bertram lets down her hair, loses her glasses, and becomes--who could've known?--a hottie! Basic film-school assignment gets a B. (EE)

"Sarah In The Dark" A little British comedy about awkward Sarah, a young woman whose insecurities are manifested in a man who shadows her lonely life saying out loud the self-destructive thoughts in her head. When she finally tells him to shut up and stops listening to his insults, her head and heart open to a sexy co-worker at Twice Shy (get it?). (WW)

"Woman's Work" A hot iron causes Janet Sancy to discover that she is really Lady Adrenaline, made to fight crime with speed and attitude. Her blundering, much put-upon husband and very cute son don't understand. When representatives from the Hall of Super Justice tell Janet she'll have to relocate for her job, she has to make the choice all working women face. "Woman's Work" is a brilliant mix of comic-strip illustration and hilarious, pitch-perfect live action. (EE)

Katrina's Children Sometimes this documentary about the tween victims of Hurricane Katrina pumps up the pathos to a unfortunate degree. When a little girl visits her cat's grave and some mournful Big Easy jazz band starts to toot out a sad tune, you'll likely cringe. But certain scenes--like one young African-American girl describing the "maggots on the bodies" of dead victims floating by her house as looking "burst . . . like [they] took so much water [they] just couldn't take any more"--are almost unbearably painful. But while obviously traumatized in greater or lesser ways that their displaced parents and underfunded school systems can barely begin to redress, some of these kids are optimistic (and realistic) about the future to a degree that's almost shocking. Coupled with some gorgeously downcast cinematography capturing the post-Katrina rot in all its horror, the impossible-to-fake optimism in those guarded smiles is ultimately why Katrina's Children is affecting in a way that transcends its hokey animations and sometimes stagey setups. (JH) 6 p.m..

"June Weddings" This short almost feels more like a dance than a film, even though hardly anyone moves other than to shift on his or her stool. R.J., played by the great character actor Tom Noonan (probably best known for playing the killer in Michael Mann's Manhunter), stops for a shot and a beer between his son's wedding and the wedding reception, obviously more at home in a dim bar than at a joyful outdoor celebration. He finds himself buttonholed by Sonja (the delightful Elzbieta Czyzewska), a Russian woman so slyly, seductively Old World and languorous she gives "v" its own beat when she says "love." The conversation that follows adroitly seesaws between lust and romance, as well as cynicism and hope. Adapted by fledgling director Barbara Hammond from her own play, "June Weddings" has some of the feel of a short shot to raise completion money, but we'd pay to see the rest of this. (LG) 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 26

4:15 p.m.: True Stories From Daring Filmmakers program

"De'routes Et Rarcours" ("ON A MOVING PATH") Through imagery, music, and women speaking, this French movie with English subtitles is a meditation on breast cancer and its survivors. Bare women swim in a pond full of lily pads; soap up chests with one breast, no breasts, one misshapen breast; build clay figurines; and paint with their fingers while women speak of chemo, fear, being 26 or 58 years old when they were diagnosed, art therapy. If you don't already check your breasts regularly, you will after this. (WW)

"Dirty Girl" Jennifer Clary's short "Dirty Girl" starts with the following scrawled across the screen in red: cancer is an all out war. I am invaded by an enemy. That's pretty much all you need to know about this five minute and 31 second movie. Well, that and the fact that cancer is depicted through the wonders of clay animation, making it a bit cuter than you would expect. (AD)

What A Booty! Originally a television documentary on Canada's W network (sponsored by Jell-O), What a Booty! chronicles filmmaker Tatyana Terzopoulos as she investigates the booty phenomenon in light of her own (allegedly poor) body image. Some of the most successful scenes involve a rearward-facing hidden camera carried by a well-endowed woman--men are pigs! But endearing pigs--and a series of interviews with the models of Atlanta photographer Hotep, all of whom break the current mold for "sexy" body types. But Terzopoulos' shyness rings false, and the whole production never questions the primacy of the male gaze even as it celebrates and promotes the kind of confident curviness that this male has always respected. Would that she interviewed someone like Naomi Wolf for just a little perspective on why so many women suffer from poor body image, and why such suffering usually has nothing to do with the actual shape of their bodies. Or--and this would have fit--what if she tracked down Chicago burlesque performer Michelle L'amour's ex, who allegedly told her she did not have a good enough body to be a dancer? (EE)

6 p.m.: Documentaries From Around the World shorts program

"My Dead Husband's Land" The bummer vibe conjured by the title of this short, unassumingly straight-ahead documentary is a bit misleading; intimate despite the stuffy narration, "My Dead Husband's Land" turns out to be a rather uplifting look at a recent wave of grass-roots feminism that's swept a tiny village in Kenya. As the men of the village of Orongo succumb en masse to the African AIDS crisis, you find yourself rooting for unexpected heroes--a female chief and a female-run advocacy center for widows and orphans--as they work to rewrite the laws of land ownership to benefit women in a place with decidedly retrograde views on female empowerment. (JH)

"Seen But Not Heard: Black Women And Aids" This very short documentary is a strident, deeply politicized look at the marginalization of black American women with HIV and AIDS. Activists and community organizers unsurprisingly all agree that there's a startling lack of resources available for black women--not only to combat the disease but to avoid catching it in the first place. Unfortunately, at less than 10 minutes, the short is unable to probe very deeply, leaving viewers charged by this introduction to the crisis but slightly frustrated by the film cutting off just as it starts to dig into possible solutions. (JH)

Reviewers: Anna Ditkoff, Ed Ericson Jr., Lee Gardner, Jess Harvell, and Wendy Ward

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