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Frenzy Reviews

Coming Attractions

Our Comprehensive Guide to the Maryland Film Festival 2006

Animated Shorts: Dragin' On

Browse a gallery of film stills from Maryland Film Fest shorts.

Aurora Borealis

Browse a gallery of film stills from Maryland Film Fest features.

Film Fest Frenzy 2006

Taking Communion For a lot of us, going to the movies is sort of like going to church. We file in, observing the cust...

Schedule and Venues Thursday, May 11 The Senator Theatre ...

Coming Attractions Our Comprehensive Guide to the Maryland Film Festival 2006

Moving Pictures Matthew Porterfield Creates a Laconic Art-House Ode to Northeast Baltimore | By Eric Allen Hatch

He’s Al That The Veteran Television Writer Turned Political Commentator And Radio Host May Make a Run For Office | By Lee Gardner

He Who Cannot Be Pronounced A Novice Director Brings An Ancient Horror To Unsuspecting Audiences Via Silent Film | By Violet LeVoit

Posted 5/10/2006

Uncredited blurbs indicate a film not available for screening before press time. All screenings take place at the Charles Theatre unless noted otherwise. Please check www.mdfilmfest.com for up-to-date schedule information.

A * indicates a must-see favorite recommended by the CP Film Fest Frenzy review crew.


Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story*

Directed by Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim
May 13, 12:30 p.m.; at MICA’s Brown Center

If you don’t tear up at some point during this riveting documentary about the abduction of the titular 13-year-old Japanese girl, there is something wrong with you. Husband-and-wife directing team Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim create a deeply moving and suspenseful movie, revealing layer after layer of a story that feels too surreal to be true. Megumi went to school one day in 1977 and never came home. Years later her parents learn that Megumi, along with at least a dozen other Japanese people, were abducted by North Korean spies and held captive to teach the spies about Japanese language and culture. Megumi’s parents and the families of the other abductees become tireless crusaders for the abductees’ return, fighting the Japanese government, which is more interested in creating diplomatic relations with North Korea than bringing their children home. Eventually the North Korean government admits to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens, including Megumi, but finding out what happened to the abductees and trying to bring them home leaves many of the families with more questions than answers. Sheridan and Kim reveal the story slowly, creating moments that feel like endings that really open whole new chapters. The camera work is at times shaky, but watching Megumi’s aging parents as they struggle to find their daughter is worth momentary motion sickness. (Anna Ditkoff)

Al Franken: God Spoke*

Directed by Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob
May 12, 8:30 p.m.

See full-length review.

Animated Shorts

May 14, noon

The animated shorts offer a range of techniques from traditional line drawing to puppetry to mixed media, but, as you might expect in 2006, CGI dominates. The computer animation ranges from quite good to awful. The plastic-looking “Dragin’ On” is at least mercifully brief and “Blowin’,” where a mass of noses with feet run around a city, is a lot of work for a very bad booger-picking joke. Better is Shaun Martin’s “King Baby,” with an adorable-cum-frightening mono-browed fetus, sperm with teeth, and the funniest in utero sex joke of the year.

The best of the line drawings include “Fumi and the Bad Luck Foot,” directed by David Chai, a marvelously cruel tale of a girl whose bad-luck foot finds her attacked by a moose and stabbed with scissors among other traumas, and Cecilia Aranovich’s “To a Man With a Big Nose,” a gentle Bill Plympton-esque clip about a sad homunculi with a bowler hat and a big schnoz.

The stop-motion and puppetry tends toward the dark: Adam Parrish King’s “The Wraith of Cobble Hill” is a bleak black-and-white tale of poor city dwellers with some arresting lighting and excellent voice acting—Nick Park meets Mike Leigh, maybe? And only a few pieces, especially the faintly terrifying-looking cutouts of Jill Johnston-Price’s “Prickle Britches,” feel like refugees from a mid-’90s episode of Liquid Television. (Jess Harvell)

Aurora Borealis

Directed by James Burke
May 12, 5 p.m.; May 14, 11:30 a.m.

Minneapolis resident and hockey aficionado Duncan (Joshua Jackson) was bound for greatness both in the classroom and on the ice before his father died while Duncan was still in his teens. Since then, Duncan has drifted from job to job, broke and irresponsible, depending on the charity of his older brother. But unexpected hope for Duncan comes while visiting his ailing, suicide-obsessed grandfather Ronald (Donald Sutherland) at a nursing home; there he meets nurse Kate (Juliette Lewis), whose just-do-it attitude to life has Duncan in love for the first time in ages, and contemplating a life outside the Twin Cities for the first time ever. While Duncan (not to mention his spacious, modern apartment) isn’t believable as the down-and-out type, there is something likable about him and Kate both, so one could do much worse than spend some time watching romance blossom between the two of them. Still, director James Burke’s plotting is a bit predictable, and some of his supporting actors play things a touch too broad, making this a solid but unexceptional outing. (Eric Allen Hatch)

Avant-Garde Shorts

May 13, 5 p.m.

The avant-garde shorts pose an interesting question: When did “avant-garde” come to mean “trying its best to make us dizzy and nauseous.” The bulk of these 10 shorts feature plenty of flashing, spinning, blipping, strobing, and just plain chopped-up images at speeds guaranteed to cause seizures in the unsuspecting. Lots of geometric shapes, colorfield abstractions, and noisy soundtracks. “Cicada Songs,directed byVin Grabill, syncs the glorious massed droning of the titular insects to exceptionally disorienting visuals. Fred Worden’s “Here” begins by slowly splicing together footage from various silent films until the pileups become frantic and exhausting. “Opus,” directed by Mary Helena Clark, is, more than anything, blessedly slow, a series of chiaroscuro images (man with a tuning fork, closeup of face, balloons, etc.) that provides a bit of relief. “Satan’s Blood,” directed by Nikc Miller, matches the voice of a preacher ranting about the hidden messages in “Stairway to Heaven” with some flashing red lights, but the end credits, where a child being taught to hunt is intercut with the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination, are both funnier and more disturbing. More than anything, the avant-garde shorts prove that Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner remain powerful influences on a new generation of experimental filmmakers, even if these kids feel the need to shove their movies through an amphetamine scrim of Pixy Stix and Jolt Cola. Bring the Dramamine. (JH)

Black Maria Shorts

May 13, 2:20 p.m.

A package of short films from the Black Maria Film Festival.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros

Directed by Auraeus Solito
May 12, 3:30 p.m.; at the Rotunda Cinematheque May 14, 11 a.m.

A coming-of-age story set in workaday Manila.

The Call of Cthulhu*

Directed by Andrew Leman
May 13, 5:30 p.m.

Accounts of strange phenomena peppered the newspaper for a handful of spring days in 1925. Why did the recently deceased Professor Angell save all these clippings? Is there some connection between these news accounts of mass hysteria and the local artist compelled to sculpt the visions revealed in his frenzied fever dreams, or the mysterious tentacled grotesque unveiled at an archaeological society meeting decades before, or the Norwegian sailor who remained tight-lipped unto death about the details of his strangest voyage? A contemporary silent film based on the 1928 H.P. Lovecraft short story, this interpretation pulls its look from a grab bag of RKO monster movies, Harryhausen stop-motion, deco grandeur, raking expressionist angles, and a healthy dollop of Caligari, adapting the too-strange-for-its-time literary horror classic to the screen in a historically grounded style. (Read more in Violet Glaze's full-length review, a Citypaper.com exclusive)

Cocaine Angel

Directed by Michael Tully
May 12, 4:30 p.m.

Cocaine Angel tells the story of down-on-his-luck Jacksonville, Fla., resident Scott (Damian Lahey, who also co-wrote), a former businessman who’s lost his job, friends, and family to drug addiction. Scott now lives in a milieu populated by dangerous and helpless characters, and while echoes of his former life resound from time to time, his hopes of reclaiming it become dimmer with each passing day. Cocaine Angel aims high but doesn’t hit its mark—director Michael Tully fails to avoid the many clichés of the genre as his movie maps out Scott’s decline. Meanwhile, Lahey turns in a rather thin performance; his unkempt appearance, nervous tics, unsteady walk, and fatalistic attitude don’t add up to anything believable and, at their worst, feel like failed attempts to be edgy, tragic, and cool. All in all, the movie has the same hollow feel as many of the low-budget Quentin Tarantino knockoffs that popped up in the mid-’90s—like we’re not seeing a real-life story here, but rather real life dubbed down from movie to movie to movie. (EAH)

Comedy Shorts

May 13, 9:30 p.m.

This year’s comedy shorts program varies from the cute to the painful, with a few smiles but no real laugh-out-loud moments. In “Closing Time,” writer/director Chris Brandt has a deft understanding of how long to hold a gag in his amusing tale of a man in a tiger suit holding up a burger joint. “K-7,” written and directed by Christopher Leone, offers slicker production values and a nice performance by Jarrad Paul as a man who gets a psych test while interviewing for a job and finds out some disturbing things about himself. The plot is silly, but Paul keeps it grounded.

Writer/director John Bryant has two offerings in the program, both of which were shown at Sundance. Despite that fact, Bryant’s shorts are the most painful of the bunch. “Momma’s Boy” is about two brothers, blow-hard Todd (Mark Reeb) and sensitive Jason (co-writer Jason Foxworth), whose squabbles at Thanksgiving turn the family meal into an episode of Cops. Todd is so meanspirited that whole thing feels tragic rather than comic. Still, “Momma’s Boy” is a joy compared to “Oh My God,” in which a man (Foxworth again) comes home to find his family massacred and yells, “Oh, my God,” in varying tenors for the entire 10-minute run, while he comically tries to stop his wife’s bleeding, funnily finds his son shot to death, and oh so humorously gets fried in the electric chair.

Fortunately, “One Sung Hero,” written by Lara Spotts and directed by Samantha Kurtzman-Counter, comes right after it to rinse any bad taste out of your mouth. Joy Gohring is adorably awkward as Sarah, a woman who helps people find their inner karaoke star. Mad TV’s Nicole Sullivan plays a cold TV reporter and Tenacious D’s Kyle Gass has a lovely cameo as a bartender converted by Sarah. The program is rounded out by Greg Jardin’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind redux “The Problem With Fiber Optics” and Peter Craig’s The Office wannabe “Nevel Is the Devil.” (AD)

Conversations With Other Women

Directed by Hans Canosa
May 13, 7 p.m.

Split-screen is every film nerd’s favorite gimmick, so a whole feature shot in split-screen intrigues right from the premise. And as a forlorn-looking bridesmaid (Helena Bonham-Carter) and a rakish guest (Aaron Eckhart) strike sparks at a wedding reception, director Hans Canosa’s pas de deux of perspectives impresses. But as Conversations With Other Women unspools, viewer reaction is as likely to be as divided as the frame. Bonham-Carter makes the most of her broody, broken-doll fragility, and Eckhart turns in yet another soulful better-than-average-looking everyman; Canosa’s technique and a crafty script by Gabrielle Zevin slowly reveal the pair’s super-plot-twisty secrets while plumbing the nature of attraction, love, and fidelity. Yet the movie goes literally nowhere (a hotel ballroom, a hotel room, the hotel roof), trapping the characters and the viewer in a stifling series of conversations and subdivided two-shots. Conversations With Other Women is an interesting experiment, if not a wholly successful one. (Lee Gardner)

Crossing Arizona

Directed by Joseph Mathew
May 13, 10:30 a.m.

There is much more telling than showing in Crossing Arizona, a documentary about the plight of migrants and citizens at the U.S. border with Mexico. And there’s much to tell: 3,000 migrant deaths in the desert since 1995, when the U.S. Border Patrol closed off safer routes. A momentary glimpse of one such victim—a single, pregnant woman found by a county sheriff—does more to drive home the humanity of so-called illegals than two dozen talking-head interviews surrounding it. In another of the movie’s flashes of cinematographic savvy, two farm workers playfully shadowbox. Much of the rest of the movie overbears, treating the ranchers (whose cattle are killed and eaten by migrants, or killed by trash they leave) perfunctorily and doing little to understand Chris Simcox of Arizona, co-founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps of volunteer border agents. Driving to the Minuteman rally, Joseph Mathew’s camera focuses on the cigar in Simcox’s hand, resting on the steering wheel of his truck. Gotcha. (Edward Ericson Jr.)

Darkon*

Directed by Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer
May 13, 5:30 p.m., at MICA’s Brown Center

See this week’s CP cover story.

Documentary Shorts: Music

May 14, 5 p.m.

These music shorts, all four of them, are actually rather long. They range from straightforward PBS style to, well, whatever that thing is that Marylander Jeff “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” Krulik does.

“Adolph’s Beautiful America,” directed by Geoff Gruetzmacher, is the story of Western swing singer Adolph Hofner, the first man to have a hit with “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” who responded to fame by deciding to sing in his native Czech. Built mostly on the traditional documentary mix of archival stills and interviews, with staid POVs and setups, it’s a mildly entertaining story of a musical footnote. Merv Conn, on the other hand, doesn’t even qualify as a footnote. Jeff Krulik’s “The Legend of Merv Conn” is the story of some guy who plays accordion for the Masons, with all of the director’s usual b.s.—find some nut and put him on camera, shoot it on the ultracheap, obliterate the fourth wall—plus the added bonus of agonizing old man interviews. The shot of Conn playing accordion to an empty pool hall is just kinda heartbreaking, probably not what Krulik intended.

“The Organistas,” directed by Bert Shapiro, is the story of people who make pipe organs for churches. Despite Shapiro forgoing narration, the images give a sense of the immense effort, craft, and care that goes into making one of these monsters without actually taking you through the process. You also get a lot of very serious organ makers rhapsodizing about their work. And Matthew Buzzell’s “The River in Reverse” puts New Orleans’ soul legend Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello together to celebrate Toussaint’s work and the spirit of the city. Like all post-Katrina art, it skirts the maudlin but mostly comes away with its dignity intact. (JH)

Documentary Shorts: Other Worlds*

May 12, 1:30 p.m.; May 13, 8 p.m.

Credit the Maryland Film Festival for roping together documentaries from three of the world’s most newsworthy nations: Iran, China, and India, though no other particular theme ties these three shorts together.

Mahmood Karimi-Hakak’s “Dream Interrupted” is, by far, the least successful short on this program. While its subject is compelling enough—a Tehran production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is shut down midperformance by Revolutionary Guards—its execution is strictly snoresville. After a title card lays out the scenario, the cast and crew talk, and talk, and talk some more about what it all means, with very occasional peeks at grainy footage of the AMND performance, or maybe rehearsal—it’s not clear. A more visually interesting style may have salvaged this short, but it’s more the cast and crew’s egotism that vexes.

The Ali brothers’ indefatigable enthusiasm, on the other hand, makes “Have You Eaten?” the program’s most enjoyable segment. The three all-American boys bike around Beijing and eat: at roadside carts, farmers’ markets, side-street restaurants, a lower-class Chinese family’s home, and pretty much anywhere else they can chow cheaply. And that’s pretty much it. A voice-over from director Khalid Ali attempts to make a point about food knocking down barriers and such, but the bright, smiling faces of the brothers and their eating companions make his point better than any amount of words could.

“Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night,” directed by Sonali Gulati, takes us into New Delhi call centers, where we meet telemarketers who adopt aliases and new accents to deal with customers all over the English-speaking world. Not much new is learned here, and Gulati’s attitude is a little off-putting (she sounds at times like she’s rushing to finish a school project, and she clearly isn’t pleased when the call centers turn out not to be sweatshops). But some details stick, like the engineer whose strong accent is clearly going to keep him off the phones and out of what may be the most desirable job in India. (Christopher Skokna)

Downtown Locals

Directed by Robin Muir and Rory Muir
May 12, 11 a.m.

Directors Robin Muir and Rory Muir announce their refreshingly no-nonsense approach in the swooshing opening moments of Downtown Locals, as a polyphony of voices whirs by mumbling “What’s wrong with him?” and “What is she doing?” as their camera stares at the constantly changing scenery out a moving subway window. Localsýfinally settles on who those unknown voices may be chattering about—a young man named Paul playing his guitar in the subway for change. And for the next eightysomething minutes the movie winningly contents itself to follow the lives of its six chosen New York buskers—young on-again, off-again drug addict Paul; veteran subway singer/guitarist and maintenance-user Ron; accordion cabaret act Helen; struggling actor-turned-stationary artist John; lifelong performance hustler Kenny; and Columbian immigrant and dance sensation Julio—and the veteran cop who monitors the subway corridors where they work. The performers’ attitude toward their chosen profession ricochets from rosy not-working-for-the-man freedom to the doldrums of only making $15 on the bad days like a coin in a guitar case, and the directors do a nice job of never dwelling on either impression for long. Locals presents the complex, disarmingly human humdrum of a very different kind of daily grind, commendably skirting comfortable outsider-artist romanticism on its way to delivering a richly entertaining ethnography. (Bret McCabe)

The Eagle

Directed by Clarence Brown
May 14, 11 a.m.; May 14, 7:30 p.m. (closing night screening)

This 1925 silent features the legendary Rudolph Valentino as a Russian officer-turned-masked outlaw; the Alloy Orchestra provides a live soundtrack.

Full Metal Jacket*

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
May 13, 4 p.m.; hosted by Matthew Modine

The late Stanley Kubrick accomplished a rare and worthy thing with Full Metal Jacket: He made a war movie that in no way glamorizes war, even by accident. Sure, the machine guns rattle, and the camaraderie among the Marine grunts slogging their way through Vietnam is sometimes enviable, but Kubrick precedes these bursts of blood and glory with one of the most indelible extended sequences in recent cinema as a brutal drill sergeant (R. Lee Ermey) literally breaks down a platoon of raw recruits (including Matthew Modine and Vincent D’Onofrio) into killing machines. Nothing that happens from then on seems fun; in fact, the rest of the movie, which follows Modine’s Pvt. Joker to Vietnam, is something of an anti-climax. Kubrick’s exacting, clinical style isn’t a natural for depicting the fog of war, but it serves the dehumanized chill of killing for duty’s sake rather well. (LG)

Hamilton*

Directed by Matthew Porterfield
May 13, 7:30 ; May 14, 5:30 p.m.

See full-length review.

Head-On*

Directed by Fatih Akin
May 12, 8 p.m.; hosted by John Waters

Cahit (Birol Ünel) is an utter mess, a drunken Hamburg nightclub janitor so angry and depressed that one night he drives his car full speed into a brick wall. Waking up in a psychiatric hospital, he meets fellow failed suicide Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), who, on discovering that he’s Turkish, too, asks him if he wants to get married—she’s desperate to escape her repressive first-gen immigrant family, and any single Turk, no matter how pathetic, will do. She wants to sleep around and party, he wants to be left alone to drink and mope. But just as you’ve got writer/director Fatih Akin’s Head-On pegged as a darker, more profane take on ethnic opposites-attract rom-coms—a Turkish-German Moonstruck, if you will—things take a turn for the darker, indeed. Akin steers the characters’ displacement—neither properly Turkish nor German—and star-crossed relationship into a somber romantic meditation on trying to find a home in the world, even if it’s just one other person. Neither Akin’s writing nor directing are particularly dazzling, but he manages the drastic shift in tone without derailing the story. It helps that Ünel brims with goatish, sad-eyed charisma and the sexy, soulful Kekilli turns in what would be a star-making turn if it weren’t buried in a peculiar foreign import. (LG)

Home Front

Directed by Richard Hankin
May 12, 7 p.m.

A new documentary about an Iraq war veteran returning home.

Hybrid Shorts

May 14, 2:30 p.m.

Expressionistic images and quasi-experimental film language used toward conventional narrative and documentary ends constitute the Hybrid Shorts program; unfortunately, most of the filmmakers have neither stylistic panache nor an engaging story to tell. In fact, a few of these shorts hew too close to the intimately personal to be of much interest to anybody that’s not a relative—and for some reason reproduction dominates the themes of many here. Jennifer Hardacker’s “Ghost Stories” uses old photos, aged home movies, and original footage to braid together three tales: one of a young woman who became pregnant at 17 and passed away at 33; one of her daughter, now grown up and expecting a child of her own; and one about the legend of a local female ghost, meant to suggest it’s the aforementioned mother’s spirit. Three different women provide voice-over narration to the photos and old-movies collage that provide thumbnail sketches but never deign to interlock themselves into something more

That same sense of loose ideas forming even looser shorts pollutes Liss Platt’s “You Can’t Get There From Here,” Sasha Waters’ “The Waiting Time,” and Scott Ligon’s “Escape Velocity.” Teenage yearbooks and old tape-recorded voices form a shaky scrapbook of jittery high-school angst in Platt’s short, which at least has the decency to be terse. Waters’ collage of stock footage and film stock stumbles through a protracted meditation on pregnancy and parenting, fumbling over trite metaphors and high-school science to mine blandly intellectual vertigo about soon-to-be parenting. And at nearly 30 minutes, Ligon’s meandering “Escape Velocity” advertises itself as a mash note to attention deficit disorder and succeeds only at telling its creator’s brisk and relatively pedestrian journey to the middle, from a so-called high-school “freak” to a married father of two.

These pseudo-experimental shorts as visual diaries don’t work very well; better are the films that content themselves with smaller ambitions. Scott Calonico’s “Full Metal Slacks” takes the Terry Gilliam-esque piss out of President Lyndon B. Johnson ordering pants over the telephone. Deborah Wing-Sproul combines disconnected sounds and visuals of people in India’s Gujarat and Rajasthan regions working on rugs and weaving to produce a purely sensory ethnography in “Cycles of Repetition.” And Richie Sherman’s “Demolition 7,” the most accomplished short here, streams together grainy black-and-white footage from a demolition derby into an imagistic document of the event that conveys its active sights and percolating sounds in a blithely brief nine minutes. (BM)

The Guatemalan Handshake

Directed by Todd Rohal
May 12, 1 p.m.

No, really: Mad love for any movie that doesn’t bat an eye at the idea of a disarmingly pretty, pregnant young woman with one broken arm getting behind the wheel at a demolition derby. Helmed by the restless cinematic mind behind previous MFF shorts favorites such as Hillbilly Robot and Knuckleface Jones, The Guatemalan Handshake is director Todd Rohal’s feature debut, and it bristles with his anarchic visual language, offbeat humor, ephemeral sense of narrative, circuitous character sketches, and freewheeling sense of mirth. It’s also infused with an elusive but profound sense of sadness, as if something truly horrible lurks just outside of each frame or shortly in the future for each character. Set in a small Pennsylvania town near the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, Handshake follows its characters various searches for something. The town’s slightly different local boy Donald (Will Oldham) chases after a dog and then mysteriously wanders off. His best friend, a 10-year-old girl named Turkeylegs (Katy Haywood), meanderingly looks for Donald following his disappearance. Donald’s kinda/sorta girlfriend, Sadie (Sheila Scullin)—the broken-armed, pregnant woman—looks for something, anything, and thinks she might find it in the annual demolition derby that her Guatemalan father usually wins. Donald’s father (Ken Byrnes) looks for his electric car that Donald was last seen driving. And the skating-rink employee Stool (Rich Schreiber) looks for anybody he can call a friend or, better, girlfriend. Rohal illustrates this whimsical tale in visually vibrant vignettes, lending the movie a feel of inspired, interlocking short stories. (BM)

King Leopold’s Ghost*

Directed by Pippa Scott and Oreet Rees
May 14, 11:30 a.m.

Based on Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book of the same name, this documentary details the epic scam in which King Leopold II of Belgium laid claim to a vast expanse of central Africa as his own personal humanitarian cause in the 1870s. He then set to work squeezing the territory of its natural treasures to flood his coffers with the unwilling help of the native population, who were urged on by hippo-hide whips and the threat (often carried out) of having their hands chopped off. By the 1900s, when Leopold’s virtual slave state was exposed and the monarch died, an estimated 10 million Congolese had died. Furthermore, Scott and Rees make a compelling argument that while Congo gained its independence from Belgium in 1960, the pernicious economic and social exploitation of the still-struggling Congo by developed nations (and the occasional fellow African, e.g. dictator Mobutu Sese Seko) goes on today. Ghost is beautifully shot and fact-jammed, although it occasionally feels a little too overheated and fact-jammed for its own good (enough with the title-card epigrams already). Still, given the outrageous nature of the crimes it recounts, perhaps a little too much passion is understandable. (LG)

The Lady From Sockholm*

Directed by Eddy Von Mueller and Evan Lieberman
May 14, 1:30 p.m.

Film noir with sock puppets sounds like it might make for an OK three-minute Saturday Night Live sketch. Producer/screenwriter Lynn Lamousin’s The Lady From Sockholm mostly succeeds, however, by playing it straight (besides the constant stream of footwear puns) and following through on her bar-napkin-simple idea. The Lady From Sockholm is a traditional noir, complete with twisty-turny plot, femme fatales, and private dicks, done entirely with sock puppets. Like many noirs, the story line—something about the search for a missing husband and the discovery of a secret fabric being used by Knitler’s soldiers during Wool War II—hardly matters, as long as it keeps you confused but interested; Sockholm scores on that count. However, the socks look quite a bit like Muppets, and the expressiveness of Jim Henson’s creations is missing here. And while Sockholm hits many of the expected clichés—Irish cops, a carnival scene, a Chinatown twist—some noir touchstones, such as black-and-white photography and Dutch-angle-heavy cinematography, are missing and could have helped Lamousin’s puppets overcome their limitations. (CS)

Look Both Ways

Directed by Sarah Watt
May 13, 4:30 p.m.

This acclaimed Australian comedy/drama/romance uses an accident as a way of drawing together characters, themes, and plot lines.

LOL

Directed by Joe Swanberg
May 12, 1:30 p.m.; May 14, 2 p.m.

LOL falls into the hey-isn’t-this-awkward school of indie films. Written by its stars—Joe Swanberg, C. Mason Wells, and Kevin Bewersdorf—the movie follows three friends as they substitute technology for real human interaction. Alex (Bewersdorf) is an experimental musician so fixated on a girl he met online that he butchers a viable romance with the girl right in front of him. Tim (Swanberg, who also directs) is constantly on his computer or cell phone, ignoring his girlfriend. In one particularly identifiable scene, she comes over to his apartment to watch a movie, and he spends the whole time IMing his roommate who is sitting next to him on the couch. And then there’s Chris (Wells), winner of the hotly contested honor of most unlikable guy in the movie, who fights with his long-distance girlfriend because she doesn’t want to have phone sex, and the naked pictures she sent him weren’t sexy enough, while ignoring her call when she’s upset. LOL has some clever moments as it hammers home its point about hiding from intimacy behind a wall of gadgets, but you don’t need to sit through 81 minutes of watching these cads to know that someone talking on their cell phone when they’re supposed to be hanging out with you is annoying. (AD)

The Mad Magician

Directed by John Brahm
May 13, 11 a.m.

A 1950s Vincent Price horror flick presented in 3-D.

Mentor

Directed by David Langlitz
May 13, 3 p.m.; at MICA’s Brown Center

David Langlitz’s look at the world of literary academia holds some extra appeal for Maryland Film Fest patrons, primarily because a large number of scenes were shot in and around Johns Hopkins University. Furthermore, leading man Rutger Hauer tries really, really hard as Sanford Pollard, an author whose books have changed the face of modern literature. Carter (Matthew Davis) enrolls in a class of Pollard’s with starry eyes, but has his preconceptions challenged by Pollard’s fiery temper, dubious morals, and tumultuous relationship with Carter’s classmate and crush Julia (Dagmara Dominczyk). The movie is far less successful than, say, the itself less-than-perfect Wonder Boys (to say nothing of The Squid and the Whale) in creating a world where people still care passionately about literature. More problematic, Davis doesn’t register enough personality to make sense as a leading man. Still, if you’ve ever wanted to see Rutger Hauer peel out in a sports car along Charles Street in Charles Village, this is the movie for you. (EAH)

My Country, My Country

Directed by Laura Poitras
May 13, 12:30 p.m.

This thoughtful documentary about the run-up to the 2005 Iraq elections opens with the haunting music of Iraqi vocalist Khadum Al Sahir. Full of longing and pathos, the original score is a marvelous accompaniment to a movie that succeeds in portraying a delicate mixture of hope, tragedy, and irony as a staple of daily life in post-war Iraq. Director Laura Poitras shot it herself over eight months, working alone. Her main subject is Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni mensch and a busy man who, when not listening to lungs or passing out a few dinars to needy patients at the free medical clinic he runs, listens to residents’ concerns, takes care of his large family, and, oh, runs for a seat on the Baghdad Provincial Council as a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party. My Country juxtaposes his narrative against the story of a band of Australian independent contractors racing to get voters registered and ballots ready, a strikingly military endeavor given the country’s lack of security. But what makes this documentary powerful are the poignant moments of domesticity that take place amid war—for instance, when the women of Dr. Riyadh’s family hunt a fly while waiting out a bomb attack. Or when his daughter tries to get out of making a salad by waving a finger newly purple from voting and declaring, “I can’t, the resistance is looking for me.” (Nicole Leistikow)

Narrative Shorts: Connections

May 13, noon

Karim Fanous’ “Alla Fein (Where To)” is the odd film out of this themed collection of narrative shorts. Instead of making a romantic connection, in “Alla Fein” two Egyptians—one a longtime New York cabdriver, the other a newcomer to America—just become friendly and talk philosophy (and soccer) while riding from the airport to the city. Some stilted dialogue—although maybe it became wooden on its way to subtitles—keeps their conversation from being completely believable, but the film mostly flows smoothly. On the other hand, Matt Mickelson’s “Full Circle”—in which several supposedly random strangers meet and disconnect during the course of a morning, just like Crash!—is a rough ride over contrived characters, forced situations, and a just plain bad script. It does, however, make for a nice guide to downtown Frederick coffeehouses and shops.

“The Adventures of Earthboy and Stargirl,” by Philip Hodges, and Matt Gordon’s “The Honeyfields” are both flawed but enjoyable shorts that involve love at an ice-cream shop. In “Earthboy,” naive boy scooper/artist falls in love with sexy girl customer/amateur thief, while missing out on the biggest meteor shower in years. In “The Honeyfields” some gorgeous photography of two brothers pretend-battling in California wheat fields is wasted on a clichéd coming-of-age-halted plot (the older brother falls for a more mature cutie who works at the local ice-cream shop; tragedy waits around the corner).

This program’s most successful shorts are “Meeting in Cars,” by Kori Bundi, and Fellipe Gamarano Barbosa’s “La Muerte Es Pequeña.” In “Muerte” two Brazilian apartment hunters in one of NYC’s outer boroughs bump into each other in more than one way. Both actors’ performances, while raw, are outstanding. And in “Cars” a bunch of residents of Los Angeles’ diverse MacArthur Park neighborhood effortlessly amble along one day for our amusement. Love the guy who talks to his dog. (CS)

Narrative Shorts: Duality*

May 12, 11:30 a.m.; May 14, 2:30 p.m.

This is another one of those programs in which the shorts barely adhere to the theme. Still, the shorts themselves, particularly the first three, create a strong and intriguing impression. The most obvious duality appears in writer/director Jody Dwyer’s “Barely Visible.” The Australian movie depicts a woman throwing a surprise party for her husband, only to have him come home unawares with his mistress while she and all the guests hide in the dark. The woman mocks the wife as she stands in the darkness covering her mouth, and the guests try to figure a way out; Dwyer builds real tension and pain in a tight short.

“The Death of Salvador Dali,” written and directed by Delaney Lee Bishop, has too many layers to be considered simply dual as the painter seeks a session with Sigmund Frued that leads to dreams within exercises within fantasies that are as surreal as the painter’s work. Salvador Benavides is flamboyantly stylized as Dali—though not much more so than the man himself—helping make this a strange but fun ride.

Writer/director Spencer Parson’s “Once and Future Asshole” follows nice guy Carl (Christopher Doubek) as he constantly tries to do the right thing despite always seeming to get punished for it. Doubek makes Carl a rich and sympathetic character, and his relationship with his girlfriend and her daughter are interesting and complex.

From here, the program takes a turn for the worse. Australia short “The Saviour,” written and directed by Peter Templeman, follows a young man who tries to convert a woman but ends up sleeping with her instead. The short has interesting moments but is ultimately lackluster. More problematic is writer/director Kori Bundi’s “Worms.” The black and white faux-documentary about a worm farmer ends up being even more boring than it sounds. (AD)

Narrative Shorts: Metaphysics

May 12, 9:30 p.m.

Not sure what’s metaphysical about the vast majority of these shorts, but a handful rise to the challenge, such as Matthew Fishel’s “A Short Film Regarding Possibility,” wherein Mike Styer wanders in his shorts across a rocky beach and pontificates on the cosmic joke, or “Credo” (directed by Keith Snyder), in which a bespectacled messenger of God performs a musical theater aria on the nature of divinity. The rest vary wildly in skill, pace, clarity, and magnetism, but if you disregard the curatorial criteria, there are still moments to admire. Matt Palmer’s “Daylight Hole” brings the trickling, gurgling aural landscape of a secreted swimming hole into ear-tickling focus. “Substrata” (directed by Carol Hess) proves you can merge Martha Graham dance and Ernie Kovacs camera tricks with impressive results. And Phil Davis’ “Model KSS9004” feeds a hot-buttered video image back to itself. Descartes it ain’t, but pass the jelly. (VG)

Narrative Shorts: Hired Help

May 12, 4 p.m.

There is nothing like realizing there are worse jobs in the world than yours to really cheer things up. Each of these shorts features someone hired to deal with life’s little unpleasantries, all circle around the unsavory business of death, and all have endings that sock you in the stomach. If the entertainment is of a sort of “glad that’s not me” type, these shorts are too well-made not to enjoy the tickle of horror and relief that comes from watching them.

In “The Devil,” a middle-aged son decides he’s had it up to here attending the deaths of three fathers and hires a professional to watch over his mother’s last days. The village crone of death agrees to lower her regular rates after the two divide the mother’s jewelry and clothing—the drawn-out haggling takes place mere feet away from the fragile patient, who has ideas of her own about when she will die. The 39-minute short is beautifully shot by Polish director Tomasz Szafranski, who uses the drab gray of a desolate countryside and dour village to contrast with vivid moments of color, like the green of the bedridden mother’s blanket and the pink of pig’s carcasses at a meat-packing plant.

“Slumlord,” by Justin Monroe and Daniel Sullivan, follows the fast-paced flight of a gambler who has to get out of town because he can’t pay up. His cute girlfriend is along for the ride. When the two stop at a ratty apartment building and the boyfriend sees a poster offering a position as building superintendent with a $1,000 bonus if he survives the first day, you know that taking the job might not be the best idea. Sure enough, the landlord turns out to be a no-nonsense, tell-me-the-truth-or-I’ll-smash-your-joints-with-a-hammer type.

When Joe Mantegna rolls up to a fancy neighborhood in a vintage car and lights a cigarette while Tony Bennett sings “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” you know you’re in for something good. Turns out he’s been hired by pouty wife Jennie Garth to do away with her annoying older husband. She prances around the house in that 90210 way she has, brainstorming with the pro about how to realize her dreams. “Til death,” by director Phoef Sutton, is a short, clever commentary on marriage and assassination. (NL)

Narrative Shorts: Rinse Cycle

May 12, noon; May 13, 11:30 a.m.

This loosely held-together program focuses on kids and social awkwardness, with shorts that are heavy-handed and often as uncomfortable to watch as they are for their main characters to experience. Writer and director Lara Zizic’s “Isabel Fish” drops you into the middle of a confusing narrative about a jerky older brother and his sweet younger sister. It is clear from the beginning that their issues go beyond the usual sibling stuff, but the audience is only given bits and pieces to put the story together. Zizic gives the short a dreamy aesthetic, but the end feels a bit too movie-of-the-week.

Another precocious little girl takes center stage in “Janie.” Written and directed by Christine Shin, the short tells the story of a family that is forced to adjust when the husband’s former mistress drops off their son and leaves. Shin tells the story from half-sister Janie’s point of view, with a dreamy, bleached-out feel that’s a pleasure to look at; Blaine Saunders is engaging as the titular little girl.

A man’s crappy life causes him to snap in the Spanish short “Misfortunes,” written and directed by Antonio Gomez-Olea. Unfortunately, his breakdown feels less real than the frustration that leads to it. In “Swimming” (written and directed by Diane Lisa Johnson), a classic Cyrano story plays out as shy Emily a takes a love letter out of her bitchy co-worker’s trash and begins writing the guy. While the actress who portrays Emily is cute, the character’s too pathetic and socially inept to make any happy ending believable. And in “Wentworth,” written and directed by Stephen Suettinger, a guy must choose between his imaginary girlfriend and a real girl who looks exactly like her, but with dirty hair. The Young and the Restless’ Sharon Case is good as the real girl, but her pretend girl is over the top, and Robert Peters’ Wentworth is such a dud it’s hard to wish him on Case’s likable yet shampoo-less version of reality. (AD)

Narrative Shorts: Tales of the Fantastic

May 12, 2:30 p.m.; May 13, 2 p.m.

This program is filled with beautiful but disturbing shorts in which things are not quite as they should be. In “Assumption,” written and directed by Christopher Keller, Desperate Housewives’ James Denton plays a man in psych ward who may be crazy or may be from another planet. Despite the hottish leading man, the acting is weak and the plot is unoriginal. “Before Dawn,” a Hungarian film written and directed by Balint Kenyeres, is visually powerful, shot entirely in a dark blue predawn wheat field as a truck drives up and picks up a group of people hiding in the dense crops. While its subject matter isn’t particularly fantastical, Kenyeres manages to make this practically silent film mesmerizing.

In writer/director Jonathan Brough’s short “No Ordinary Sun,” a man based in Antarctica doesn’t know how to handle his wife’s request for a divorce, or the weird things going on in the station. It’s another quiet film, light on dialogue, but Brough creates an interesting story. Australian short “Monster” (written and directed by Jennifer Kent) is a more traditional horror film in which a child’s fear of a monster in his closet proves well-founded. The black and white film doesn’t offer anything new, though it boasts a chilling moment or two.

Spanish short “Scorn” is the most fantastic and one of the most aesthetically arresting films in the program. Directed by Raul Cerezo, the film has a painterly quality, using chiaroscuro and juxtaposing saturated colors against bleached-out backgrounds. A woman gives birth to triplets who turn out to have something horrible yet unseen and unspecified wrong with them. She sends the boys to live with her sister slightly down the hill and has a daughter. But it turns at that this was not quite the foolproof solution she hoped for. “Scorn” is a beautifully filmed and unsettling short. (AD)

Novem

Directed by Brad Kimmel
May 13, 5:30 p.m.

An agonizing-but-slick bit of student-film bullshit, Novem is a fake documentary about a fake documentary about a fake documentary. The basic conceit is a bunch of college students find a box at a yard sale containing reels of 16mm footage shot by a band in the early ’70s who were recording an album before they all got snuffed out by a horrible accident. What follows is 90 minutes of mediocre (and anachronistic) hippie rock, hippie platitudes, and forced drama. We’re continually bashed over the head that this “discovery” is revelatory, that the loss of this fake band’s music is a crime against the arts, and yet the fake footage of the fake band just looks like a bunch of goofs in the woods singing Woodstock bromides and acting like, well, stoned college students. Which goes a long way to explaining this odd film’s existence. (JH)

October Sky

Directed by Joe Johnston
May 12, 6 p.m.; hosted by the Baltimore Ravens’ Matt Stover

Not much feted on its 1999 release, October Sky has slowly built a cult following among viewers who have responded to its simple, well-wrought storytelling and unflashy gosh-darn sincerity. And it doesn’t get much more gosh-darn than this true story: As Sputnik shoots across the sky in October 1957, young Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal, channeling wide-eyed teen jumpiness) is stuck in the grim mining town of Coalwood, W.Va., trying to figure out some way to avoid a life of working in the mines run by his authoritarian father (the always welcome Chris Cooper). Inspired by the Russian satellite and urged on by a sympathetic teacher (Laura Dern), Homer cajoles some buddies into a plan to build rockets and win college scholarships—and tickets out of Coalwood—via a national science fair. The usual parade of setbacks, montages, ’50s rock ’n’ roll soundtrack cues, and predictable triumphs ensues, but journeyman director Joe Johnston touches all the bases with such a light, un-nostalgic touch that you can hardly help but get swept up in the movie’s wholesome embrace. (LG)

Opa!

Directed by Uyadan Prasad
May 13, 9:30 p.m.

A Greek-set romantic comedy starring Matthew Modine and Rachel Griffiths.

Opening Night Shorts*

May 11, 7:30 p.m., Senator Theatre

It’s a shame these shorts are only playing once on opening night: Not only do they represent a selection of the sort of delightful finds attending a film festival offers (as opposed to taking what’s on offer at the standard cineplex), but the shorts themselves are, for the most part, worth telling your friends about. For example, if Madeleine Olnek’s “Hold Up,” were an SNL skit, it would be buzzed about at water coolers and on blogs across the country the next Monday. The premise is boggingly simple and cliché: A man and a woman attempt to hold up a convenience store; things don’t go as planned. Even explaining the things that make it funny don’t work as explanations: The fact that the woman puts on makeup in their car’s rearview mirror before they go in only works in the deft hands of Olnek and standout actress Nancy Giles. If only more movie comedies were this wry and skilled.

Likewise, B. Radical’s “The Package” takes familiar tropes and twists them into unexpected shapes. Bounce (James Lesure) and his punchy ex-boxer brother Sugar (Darrel Heath) get an offer they find hard to refuse: bury a mysterious box in the desert and collect $75,000. They call their bougie friend Vince (Richard T. Jones) and set out, only to relearn the hard way what they say about things that are too good to be true. While the shift in tone near the end isn’t entirely successful, much of the short’s pleasures derive not from the plot or the sharp execution, but from the totally convincing love/get-on-my-damn-nerves relationship between the three friends, complete with pungent patter to die for.

Two of the best shorts in the program break free of convention altogether. Baltimore filmmaker Eric Dyer follows up his past experiments with non-narrative animation with the ravishing “Copenhagen Cycles,” a six-minute slice of eye candy/mind-warp constructed from zoetropes (a early precursor of movie film technology) and the 21st-century possibilities of digital video. Meanwhile, Steve Furman combines a brood of ducklings, a birdhouse rigged with spy cameras, and some Wagner to create “The Ride of the Mergansers,” an idiosyncratic, innovative nature documentary. Betcha five bucks the audience claps at the end.

Though they pale in comparison, Steve Gentile’s “Never Live Above a Psychic” and Matthew Swanson’s “Hiro” still outstrip most of what’s playing currently on other local screens. “Psychic” is a witty, charming hand-drawn animation full of striking sequences (try to forget the evil spirits chewing on the psychic’s couch), while “Hiro” takes the traditional shaggy-dog story and turns it into a shaggy-bug story, with a Japanese-actioner twist. (LG)

“Poet Son”

Directed by Sandra Jacobi
May 13, 3 p.m. (screens with Yours, Al)

Christopher Dion Massenburg is like many spoken-word artists who haunt coffeehouses and church basements in urban America: brought up by his mother, holding his own on tough streets, his father utterly absent, more devoted to the bottle than to his family. But unlike most of those other poets lamenting their drunken daddies, Massenburg confronts his, and his father reacts. It’s almost enough to make you believe that a poem does change something. (EE)

“Ponkutsu Park”

Directed by Josh Slates
May 12, 1 p.m.; May 13, 9:30 p.m. (screens with The Guatemalan Handshake)

Local filmmaker Josh Slates purées kung fu flicks, quirky indie comedies, various hipster enthusiasms, and a few other unidentified ingredients for this tangy, breathless (six minutes) short. As a smirky female cop (the unimonikered Hari) delivers the most arch stream-of-consciousness monologue this side of the Coen Brothers, various teens, freaks, and kung fu types drink malt liquor, speak Cantonese and Mandarin, and battle each other through some graffiti-splattered ruins (aka Fort Armistead Park). It feels more like a trailer than a finished piece, but what there is of it is well-made and entertaining. (LG)

Red White Black and Blue

Directed by Tom Putnam
May 14, 1:30 p.m.; at the Rotunda Cinematheque

And here’s yet another thing you never learned in school. On June 7, 1942, Japan invaded and occupied Alaska’s way-out-there Aleutian island Attu (the first occupation of U.S. territory since the War of 1812). On May 11, 1943, the U.S. took 19 days to win the tiny island back in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II; nearly 4,000 Americans and 3,000 Japanese lost their lives. Tom Putnam’s documentary is of the meditative variety (you can tell from the mostly cello score), so putting together these facts and others requires close attention. The problem is that the story’s chief narrator, Attu veteran Bill Jones, while thoughtful, is not meditative. Instead, he’s a raw nerve, crying nearly every time he’s on camera, and carrying a big grudge over the United States allowing Japan to place a monument to fallen soldiers on Attu in the ’80s. It’s clear why Putnam chose to focus on Jones and his more lighthearted friend Andy Petrus—they’re characters—but the director’s and his subjects’ styles clash to the detriment of the film. Give Putnam credit, however, for some interesting techniques, such as superimposing 60-year-old photos of war-torn Attu over its current barren landscape. (CS)

The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang

Directed by Tim Skousen
May 12, 10:30 a.m.

If you find the idea of a shirtless, à la Cops, family sitting down for a dinner of hot dogs and Cheetos hee-larious, then this is the movie for you. If not, don’t worry, you can make it through. From some of the makers of Napoleon Dynamite, The Sasquatch Dumpling Gang follows a group of nerdy friends who discover some Bigfoot poop and tracks. They report their finding to the cops and press, Sasquatch expert Dr. Artimus Snodgrass (good sport Carl Weathers doing his best David Attenborough) gets called in, and love and nerds alike triumph in the end. Sasquatch is, for the most part, well-acted and well-filmed; its Pulp Fiction-by-way-of -Rashomon plot line is easy enough to follow; and there are more than a few laffs (you’ll never hear Renaissance Faire music again and not think, Stupid nerd noise). Star Gavin Gore is no Jon Heder, and in almost every way imaginable that’s a good thing. However, he attempts some Dynamite-isms—“Gosh!”—to horrifying results, taking the air out of an otherwise smooth script. (CS)

The Scent of Green Papaya

Directed by Tran Anh Hung
May 14, 2:30 p.m.; hosted by Branford Marsalis

In 1951, 10-year-old servant girl Mui (Lu Man San) arrives at her employer’s rambling Saigon estate. Her new family (listless father, long-suffering mother, and three variably spoiled sons) quickly puts her to work, but between duties her quick eyes miss nothing—not the way milky sap drips from a freshly cut papaya branch, nor how pink meat swirls in an oiled wok, nor how toads emerge dappled with leaves from vegetation-choked puddles. As she weathers crises small (the youngest boy’s pranks) and large (the father’s disappearance), Mui never loses her quiet grace or her enthrallment with the modest delights of everyday. A Cinderella story set in a fairy tale remembrance of Vietnam’s colonial heyday, director Ahn Hung Tran’s attentive and sensual Papaya recalls the fascinated patience of childhood, delighting in every sound and hue and detail to create a tactile, olfactory experience. (VG)

So Much So Fast*

Directed by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan
May 13, 6 p.m.

Documentarians Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan had a personal, painful, and pivotal encounter with the neurodegenerative disease ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) when Jordan’s mother succumbed to the disease. Through this experience, they came to know the Heywood family, which was also forever transformed by ALS: When Stephen Heywood was diagnosed with the condition, his brother Jamie, without a strong science background, dropped everything and devoted his life to founding, funding, and directing a research lab running ALS-centered studies. Meanwhile, Stephen began to explore ways in which technology could help him not only communicate and remain mobile, but also maintain his passions for building renovation, video games, and sex. Ascher and Jordan follow this story over the course of several years, capturing real-life ups and downs without pulling any punches. Some patches of the documentary genre’s obligatory Muzak-y incidental music aside, they also skillfully evade their subject matter’s potential for striking maudlin or manipulative notes. The result is a smart and probing documentary. (EAH)

Sp!t

Directed by Rotimi Rainwater
May 13, 8:30 p.m.

Paul Devlin’s thrilling 1998 SlamNation treated the then still low-profile poetry slams as ESPN-worthy sporting event, lending a thrilling dramatic edge to the national competition. Director Rotimi Rainwater’s Sp!t feels more like the up-close-and-personal human-interest profiles run in between Olympic events. Stylishly shot, with handheld personal interludes of its featured personalities intercut with rousing slams footage, Sp!t follow four poets on a run toward and to the 2005 National Poetry Slam competition in Albuquerque, N.M. Mollie Angelheart is a relative newbie just trying to make the fearsome Hollywood team or the competitive Los Angeles team. She really wants to make the Hollywood team, though—not only is it the defending national champ, but it’s coached by L.A. slam legend Shihan Van Clief. In New York, Dominican Washington Heights native Ove Salcedo got into writing poetry as a way to work through his grief over his brother’s suicide off the 225th Street bridge. He’s trying to earn a spot on the legendary Nuyorican team with his intimately personal and playfully Spanglish poems. Further uptown, the Bronx-based Al B Back disses all contenders in rhyme battles in front of a Big Pun mural. Bouncing back and forth between NYC and L.A. before heading to Albuquerque, Sp!t catches its performers mostly offstage, trying to get into their lives, but it never mines how those lives influence their art. They all confess some version of “This is what I was meant to do,” but the filmmaker never probes what it is about spoken-word performance that seduces them. As such, Sp!t ends up feeling like a disappointingly listless portrait of the people who spark vibrant verbal fireworks onstage. (BM)

Stomp! Shout! Scream!

Directed by Jay Wade Edwards
May 14, 4 p.m.

Decent production values and technical competence are not usually at the top of the priority list when considering a retro rock ’n’ roll monster movie, and yet that’s pretty much all Stomp! Shout! Scream! has to offer. Writer/director Jay Wade Edwards’ story of a Bigfoot-style “skunk ape” washing up in a sleepy beach town and ripping assorted locals to shreds is obviously modeled on the ’50s/’60s B-flicks of old, yet he neglects the clueless camp, the goofy fun, and most especially the lurid crappiness that makes those flicks at all memorable in the first place. It’s like Edwards wanted to make a “quality” bad movie, and the result is tee-dee-ous. (LG)

Tell Me Do You Miss Me

Directed by Matthew Buzzell
May 12, 6 p.m.

This documentary of the final year in the life of the band Luna is, like most band documentaries, for fans only. Luna formed in the early ’90s following the rather nasty breakup of singer Dean Wareham’s great ’80s band Galaxie 500, and Luna continued Galaxie’s tradition of lush, droning rock music that took off from the eternal template of the Modern Lovers and Lou Reed. Tell Me Do You Miss Me is the usual mix of live performance, individual interviews, airport footage, driving-around footage, arguing footage, giving-phone-interviews-to-magazines-in-your-bathrobe footage. The band’s general age range—early to mid-40s—is probably what hastened the breakup, and as such you also get scenes of complaining about being middle-aged and in a rock band. But there are small pleasures as well, like Wareham’s baked bean-thick Boston accent and the general on-screen luminance of bassist Britta Phillips. (JH)

These Girls

Directed by John Hazlett
May 13, 1 p.m.

This Canadian summer teen romp is predicated on the comic notion of three high-school girls blackmailing a thirtysomething married man and father into sleeping with all of them. And if you find the prospect of a working-class David Boreanaz forsaking his late-shift nurse wife and baby daughter to deflower baseball-loving Seventh-day Adventist Lisa (Holly Lewis), fool around with the otherwise supposedly level-headed Keira (Caroline Dhavernas) because she’s bored, and impregnate the hopelessly in love with him Glory (Amanda Walsh) ripe for teen-comedy laffs, then These Girls is the inexplicably lighthearted flick for you. Foremost among Girls’ missteps is its offhand tone, which treats all the scheming transgressions with the casual hair flip of an after-school special. The entire story is told as Keira’s internal flashback on her first day at university, as if the summer signaled some life-altering change in her life, but the only lesson Girls suggests is that she has developed a taste in older men. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with such a theme, you’ll find more style, believability, entertainment, and morality in Russ Meyers’ world than in anything here. (BM)

Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris*

Directed by Raymond De Felitta
May 14, 11 a.m.

When Raymond De Felitta first got interested in an obscure jazz vocalist named Jackie Paris, at least one jazz reference book listed him as dead. But as De Felitta discovered, Paris was still alive, still singing, and willing to tell his story. And quite a story it is: Paris’ effortless, intimate sound was a sensation with his fellow musicians, including some of the biggest names of jazz’s mid-20th-century heyday, but each career coup seemed to turn out wrong: He toured with Charlie Parker for six months, but never recorded with the bop god; he cut the first vocal version of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” but the record was all but lost; he signed a number of record deals only to fail to move units. Indie-film vet De Felitta’s loving, well-paced doc makes a convincing case for Paris as an unjustly undersung talent, but he also uses the singer’s story to revisit the wax and wane of jazz standards and the culture that nurtured them, and (perhaps most fascinating) to peek inside the cadre of old-timers and obsessives who still treasure the lore and collect the records. De Felitta’s 11th-hour revelations about Paris’ personal life are not so much shocking as proof that truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. (LG)

Twelve and Holding

Directed by Miguel Cuesta
May 14, 2 p.m.

A preadolescent ensemble this solid deserves better. Three suburban soon-to-be teens deal with life the best they can following the horrible, accidental murder of one of their friends: Rudy doesn’t just get killed by the hand of peers, but is burned alive in a tree house by two neighborhood bullies. Nice band girl Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum) explores the odd attraction she feels toward a construction worker right under the oblivious nose of her psychologist single mom (Annabella Sciorra). Chubby Leonard (Jesse Camacho) starts an apple-and-exercise diet at odds with his overeating family. And Rudy’s twin brother, Jacob (Conor Donovan in both roles), seeps even more into the background of his grief-stricken parents radar screens and misdirects his own mix of rage and guilt. He starts visiting his brother’s killers in juvee just to torture them at first, and establishes an oddly empathetic bond with one. Director Miguel Cuesta, responsible for the even less subtle L.I.E., handles Twelve and Holding with a lighter touch, but it can’t save Anthony Cipriano’s script from its tabloid sensationalism. The young cast here shines despite the material, offering some human ballast to a movie that slowly boils toward a ludicrously reactionary close. (BM)

Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela

Directed by Thomas Allen Harris
May 12, 1 p.m.; at the Rotunda Cinematheque May 14, 4 p.m.

A fascinating story ably told, Thomas Allen Harris’ Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela nonetheless suffers from its astonishingly serene tone. The director is the stepson of Benjamin Pule “Lee” Leinaeng, one of the members of the African National Congress Youth League who became one of the titular 12 South African exiles in 1960 following the Sharpesville massacre. When Leinaeng passed away in 2000 and Harris traveled to Bloemfontein, S.A., for his funeral, he discovers an untapped reservoir of history in his stepfather’s personal belongings that maps out not only his exiled life but that of South African political diaspora as well. Heavily reliant on photos and voice-over narration and dramatic re-creations, Disciples nonetheless sketches a lively and detailed portrait of a man Harris never really called “father” but has come to regard posthumously as a hero. The movie loosely charts Leinaeng’s life from South Africa to Europe and eventually America, where he earned a degrees from Temple University and New York University while working in the anti-apartheid and Black Nationalists movements. Harris isn’t out to canonize Leinaeng or his generation, but he admires their achievements and shortcomings as freedom fighters and men in equal measure, not flinching from uncomfortable truths or romantically lionizing the lives. Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but give much, much credit to Harris for allowing imperfections—his movie’s and his subjects’—to complement each other to create an engaging and memorable whole. (BM)

Yours, Al

Directed by Bill Spahic
May 13, 3 p.m.

Canadian poet Al Purdy’s life and writings, spanning from Depression-era Trenton, Ontario, through Bukowski-era San Francisco, makes for an intense, pointillist portrait. From hawking poems on a street corner to stacking brown bags of dried cattle blood in a warehouse, to disappointing his mother and knowing that his wife loved him because she said, with knife in hand, “I wouldn’t want to go to jail for killing a thing like you,” Purdy’s precise words dominate. Watching a movie about a poet, narrated by his poems, is hard. The pictures hide the words behind flickering sun glare. Better to close your eyes and listen, and let the movie play in your own head.(EE)

Water

Directed by Deepa Mehta
May 12, 8:30 p.m.

A Canadian film set in the India of 70 years ago, Water deals with an 8-year-old girl sent to live in a “widow house” after the man she’s been arranged to marry dies.

We Go Way Back

Directed by Lynn Shelton
May 13, 1:30 p.m.; May 14, 5 p.m.

Things are not going well for 23-year-old Seattleite Kate (Amber Hubert). She’s stuck in a dead-end job, she’s sleeping her way through every wrong-for-her guy in town, and the folks at the theater company she belongs to treat her like an intern. Just when things look their bleakest, the director (Robert Hamilton Wright) gives Kate the lead in the company’s production of Hedda Gabler—but he wants her to perform it in the original Norwegian. Things get weirder when 13-year-old Kate (Maggie Brown) shows up to help put her elder self back on the right track. We Go Way Back deservedly won the Best Cinematography award at this year’s Slamdance film festival. Unfortunately, much of the feature is set in the darkened confines of the theater; cinematographer Ben Kasulke’s camera thrives more in the countryside and the closeup-laden opening scene in Kate’s kitchen. And while Hubert’s performance and charisma is so lean that sometimes the thin, pale-skinned, light-red-headed actress almost slips off the screen, thankfully Kate’s story is compelling and the learning-Norwegian and bad-boyfriends plot lines are full of well-earned laughs. (CS)

Wide Awake

Directed by Alan Berliner
May 12, 9 p.m.

Documentarian Alan Berliner uses the camera as a scalpel to the soul, cutting through people’s insulating facades. He turns his lens almost entirely on himself for Wide Awake, attempting to reveal what—if anything—is at the core of the insomnia that he feels is both his creative mojo and hurdle to stability. Reveal his subject he does. Wide Awake shows Berliner as a needy, whiny, pushy, cranky, hypersensitive, attention-starved man who thrives on pestering confrontation—in short, a Grade A narcissistic egomaniac, one who appears to relish going to a number of sleep specialists to talk about how little he sleeps and how crazy it makes him. He practically wiggles in his seat when informing his mother that her nighttime fights with his father when Berliner was a child might have contributed to his associating night with bad things and, hence, his poor sleep habits. And he enjoys conducting his “experiments” while being both director and subject—such as when the usually caffeine-free Berliner drinks a cup of coffee on camera, tweaks out, and goes around his meticulously organized apartment pointing out his archive system for found photographs, photo albums, home movies, newspaper photos, sounds, found footage, etc. Not hating on the OCD here—Berliner’s micromanaging obsessions make Wide Awake a jaw-dropping editing feat—but if this constant self-regard produced anything remotely resembling a revelation or, hell, a point, it might add up to something more interesting than this staunchly conservative self-portrait. (BM)

The Wire: Season Four

May 12, 10:30 a.m.; hosted by David Simon

The creator of the best show on television hosts a discussion of his Baltimore-based brainchild with clips, including a teaser for the forthcoming season.

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