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Frenzy Feature Reviews

Coming Attractions: Features

Film Fest Frenzy 2003

Take Five A lot can happen in five years in the world of movies. A-list actors can slip off the career summit ...

Coming Attractions: Features Afghan StoriesDirected by Taran DaviesMay 4, 3 p.m.In the late fall of 2001, while we were all drivi...

Coming Attractions: Shorts The Nuclear Strikes: Episode 1, "Lane to Waste"By Meeka Salise ProductionsMay 3, 4 p.m. (before Shag...

Posted 4/23/2003

Afghan Stories
Directed by Taran Davies
May 4, 3 p.m.

In the late fall of 2001, while we were all driving around with U.S. flags on our SUVs, Taran Davies was penetrating the borders of Afghanistan to witness the vengeance that was being carried out in our names. But his goal was less to chronicle the combat than to take a reading of the battleground's natives--to measure, as he puts it, "the effect of war on Afghans wherever they live." And by putting one human face after another in front of his lens, he succeeds in doing just that. A once-middle-class family of five shares a small, barren apartment in Tajikistan--better, they figure, than staying in their homeland under the Taliban. A wizened town elder in the northern mountains describes the brutal rule of the hard-line mullahs, while life barely goes on around him in half-empty markets and open-air schools where girls are forbidden. An Afghan U.N. worker tries to build roads and distribute food, as mortars crash in the distant hills. The chorus Davies keeps hearing from these and other Afghans is that the future of their country rests with its diaspora; national pride, they say, should summon Afghans the world over to come back and rebuild. But when Davies returns to the West and finds Afghan refugees with opinions of their own on the matter, he comes to a clear-eyed and unsentimental conclusion about the fate of the nation that's almost as bitter as the war itself. (Blake de Pastino)

Alma Mater
Directed by Hans Canosa
May 3, 4 p.m.

There's half a good movie in the period drama Alma Mater--the half involving a career-stalled, secretly gay Harvard professor who used to room with JFK, his quietly miserable wife, and his patiently devoted teaching assistant. With much less self-conscious irony than last year's similarly themed Far From Heaven, director Hans Canosa and his actors wring grace notes from his story, set in 1963 in the months before Kennedy's assassination. Will Lyman plays failed academic Arthur Knight as a man who's grown so used to his self-imposed prison that he can't fathom rescue, while Cady McClain turns the potentially thankless role of his wife into something poignant. Best of all is Alexander Chaplin (James from TV's Spin City), who, as the assistant, makes decency and gravity compelling and complex. Unfortunately, screenwriter G.L. Zevin's adult plot line shares space with a predictably adolescent one involving a Jewish scholarship student who pines for a WASP classmate. And most of the performers are too green and wooden to rise above their John Hughes-ian situation. (Heather Joslyn)

American Eunuchs (Who Needs Balls?)
Directed by Franco Sacchi and Gian Claudio Guiducci
May 3, 7 p.m.

Even in an age when transgendered persons have become TV-movie-of-the-week-fodder and body modification is served up next to funnel cakes on the average tourist drag, most people would probably be surprised to learn that voluntary castration is alive and well in our society. The new documentary American Eunuchs provides an unblinking view into a transgressive subculture of controversial medical practitioners, amateur "cutters," and the men who, for one reason or another, want to go through the rest of their lives sans testicles. Filmmakers Franco Sacchi and Gian Claudio Guiducci introduce the viewer to such unique characters ranging from an unnamed über-butch gay cutter, who spends most of his segment totally naked, brandishes barbaric-looking castration tools, and underwent the procedure himself to control a raging libido, to sweet, middle-American husband and car mechanic Michael/Madison, who doesn't want to be a full-on girl, but doesn't want to be a boy anymore either. Unfortunately, as hinted at by the yukky subtitle, Sacchi and Guiducci have a clumsy handle on their material. Their video footage is artless, and the editing is haphazard and logy; title cards announce the names of characters who, as far as I can tell, we never meet again, yet the filmmakers never bother to reveal Philadelphia-based fly-by-night castration specialist Dr. Felix Spector's first name. But American Eunuchs fascinates nonetheless, if only to hear castrato after castrato talk about their serene new lives without the hormones that are a man's birthright. That said, at least half the audience will spend half the movie wincing. (Lee Gardner)

Badasssss Cinema
Directed by Isaac Julien
May 4, 3:30 p.m. (at the Walter's Art Museum)

A documentary that revisits and reconsiders the "blaxploitation" films of the early 1970s.

The Black Pirate
Directed by Albert Parker
May 4, 11 a.m.

A 1926 Douglas Fairbanks-starring silent swashbuckler, accompanied by a live score performed by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Alloy Orchestra.

Book of Danny
Directed by Adam Yaffe
May 2, 10 p.m.

Fathers are put on this earth to disappoint their sons, or so we've learned at the movies. Danny (Daniel Randell), the Jewish stoner hero of Adam Yaffe's rueful autobiographical short feature, learns this the hard way when he's shipped off to live with his wayward dad (Larry Block), an inveterate--and untalented--hustler. What distinguishes Adam Yaffe's promising film is his compassion for his untidy characters and, above all, his happy decision to set his film in the suburbs (Towson and Bethesda, incidentally, around where the New York-based director grew up) instead of "the suburbs." The film is particularly well-cast (young Randell has hardly a false moment) and Yaffe is evidently as comfortable with actors as he is in the editing room. (Richard Gorelick)

Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin
Directed by Nancy D. Kates and Bennett Singer
May 3, 9 p.m.

Civil-rights advocate, nonviolent protester, conscientious objector, labor organizer, religious intellectual, African-American, homosexual--any one of those identity tags could get a man or woman in trouble in this country's roiling 20th-century culture wars. All applied to Bayard Rustin, whose impressive life is chronicled in co-directors Nancy D. Kates and Bennett Singer's Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin. Taking excerpts from Rustin's writings, interviews with those who knew him, and snippets from Rustin's FBI file, Brother Outsider follows Rustin from his early years in West Chester, Pa.--where his mother raised him as a Quaker and the multitalented, handsome youth excelled in athletics, academics, and music--through his first college years at Ohio's Wilberforce College (where he was asked to leave after organizing a successful protest against the school's horrendous cafeteria food), and on to New York in the late 1930s, where he put himself through City College with money earned singing in Josh White's Carolinians. Rustin's activist streak took hold in the Big Apple; during these years, he served time for refusing to register with Selective Service and for refusing to move to the back of the bus--the latter of which resulting a 22-day sentence on a North Carolina chain gang. Comfortably confident in being the smartest and most captivating man in any room, Rustin's ease with who and what he was may be why he and his works are not more well-known today. A "morals" arrest--read: "homosexual" by 1950s standards--in California was held over Rustin's head for the rest of his life, the main reason he pulled himself out of many actions for fear that his record would overshadow the bigger picture for which he fought. Like Italian intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini--whose identity as a homosexual, Marxist, and Catholic ensured that nobody accepted him--Rustin was too diverse for a 1960s and '70s climate that preferred its public figures more easily managed by identity politics' blinders. Brother Outsider presents a finely detailed picture of a man who, even after his death in 1987, inspired people simply by being himself. (Bret McCabe)

Capturing the Friedmans
Directed by Andrew Jarecki
May 3, 8:30 p.m.

A Sundance Film Festival success, this documentary follows a seemingly ordinary Long Island family hit with scandalous charges of child pornography and sexual abuse.

A Certain Kind of Death
Directed by Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh
May 3, noon

It is perhaps the one thing that every last living soul dreads--a lonely death, discovered naked and rotting in an untidy apartment days later by strangers, with no kin or friends to lay claim to the body. There is such unspeakable humiliation in such a fate that few ever think to ask, "What happens next?" Los Angeles filmmakers Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh did, and their inquiry led to the extraordinary documentary A Certain Kind of Death. Babcock and Hadaegh's cameras follow police into three apartments containing dead bodies (the film is most definitely not for the weak of stomach) and trail each decedent into the surprisingly vast bureaucracy that takes care of the unclaimed dead in L.A. County--from the investigators who sort through their belongings in search of information about relatives to the cubicle drones who process their paper trail to the crematory employees who make sure they eventually return to dust. While picking through human remains for stories has become nauseatingly common on television, from CBS' lurid CSI franchise to HBO's even more lurid Autopsy series, A Certain Kind of Death achieves an entirely different effect. There are no standard talking heads, there is no narration. Instead, Babcock and Hadaegh's cameras maintain an Errol Morris-like poise and artfulness that lends an air of respect and grace to the proceedings, even when staring down a decomposing nude body. Though no one involved ever met the three subjects while they were alive, surprisingly detailed and poignant portraits of their lives emerge in the filmmakers' lens. A Certain Kind of Death quietly overstays its welcome a bit toward the end, but all is forgiven thanks to a final surreal and wordless sequence that serves as the only epitaph some people are ever going to have. (LG)

Day for Naught
Directed by David McKenna
May 2, 11 p.m.

Just when you thought the indie movie about movie-making was dead, along comes this overstuffed directorial debut from screenwriter David "Body Shots" McKenna. John Vigo (Jason Schwartzman) is the son of a Hollywood producer (an uncredited Dean Stockwell) who wants to get in the business but not via daddy's name. He heads to Europe after film school armed with contacts provided by some faculty mentors--not knowing that dear old dad screwed them all over at some point. Once ensconced in Paris, John discovers that all his contacts work in the German and Italian adult industries or are slaving away to the Astèrix and Obèlix franchise. John turns to ghost script doctoring and moves back to Burbank, where he rooms with the lisping Candy (Martha Plimpton), a successful hand and foot model, and an aspiring cinematographer (rising cameo king Fred Savage) whose life's work--shitting you not--is taking a one-frame photo of his face every day, to create a film which will be screened at his funeral as a time-lapse version of his life. Troma Films has been making this kind of kitchen-sink satire for years just for kicks, but McKenna's toothless Day makes the mistake of trying to have something to say about living on the fringes of an industry that's scrounging at every level. (BM)

Ed's Cheap
Directed by Robert Stillwell
May 3, 1 p.m.

The title of this film presents no value judgment about Ed Domkowski that he didn't proclaim for himself. Domkowski is the long-time proprietor of Rochester, N.Y.'s Ed's Cheap Records, the kind of overcrowded, bad-lighting-and-ugly-carpet used vinyl emporium every hardcore record collector knows well. When Domkowski decided to close up shop for good, novice filmmaker/Ed's Cheap customer Robert Stillwell took camera in hand to document the store's last days. What results is sort of a non-fiction High Fidelity without all the attractive, charming people and good production values. While Stillwell does a decent job of capturing the crate-digging scene--you can practically smell the old-record-sleeve must--the laconic Domkowski and his customers make for less-than-riveting subjects, especially over the course of 56 minutes. Still, for hardcore record collector's, this is a must-see. (LG)

Funny Ha Ha
Directed by Andrew Bujalski
May 2, 7 p.m.

In 1995's Search and Destroy, one of the many mediocre independent films that his presence has enlivened, Christopher Walken utters a line that should be emblazoned on the computer monitors of every would-be novelist and screenwriter: "Just because it happened to you doesn't make it interesting." Filmmaker Andrew Bujalski would have done well to heed this immortal advice before crafting Funny Ha Ha, a feature-length film shot in Boston that bears all the hallmarks of obsessive self-regard and suffers because the story it tells about twentysomethings falling in and out of love is overly familiar and ultimately uninteresting. What Bujalski does bring to the project as a screenwriter is a real sense of the way that Generation Y talks and interacts--their uncertain rhythms and awkward silences, their almost poetic inarticulateness. As a director, he has also coaxed a fine performance out of his nonprofessional lead, Kate Dollenmayer. She nicely underplays her role of Marnie, the film's central character, who, without meaningful employment, dismissed as just a friend by the person she cares most about, and a target for the attractions of every loser in the greater Boston area, seems unable to make the transition into full adulthood despite her emotional maturity. Dollenmayer has genuine screen presence; unfortunately, she and the rest of the likable cast deserved a more original and incisive script. (Mahinder Kingra)

The Gift
Directed by Louise Hogarth
May 2, 10 p.m.

The most potentially controversial documentary in this year's festival, Louise Hogarth's The Gift examines an apparently long-running practice in the gay community that is only now getting attention in the mainstream press. Specifically, men who want to be HIV-positive (so-called "bug chasers") having unprotected sex ("barebacking") with already infected men ("gift givers") in hope of seroconverting. The subject exploded into a feverish rush of editorial ink after Rolling Stone ran an article about bug-chasers this past February; one of its respondents was Doug Hitzel, the shaking foundation of The Gift. An HIV-positive 21-year-old student who lives in San Francisco, Hitzel poignantly tells how he sought out the disease because he felt that, once infected, everything about living as a gay man would be easier; he'd be part of the "in" crowd. And now he feels like he's committing suicide very, very slowly. Hogarth shot The Gift over two and a half years in California gay communities, and it's amazing how frankly her respondents talk of the conversion parties that go on in the scene, how having HIV is a coveted status, and how bareback sex is the only kind they have anymore. In interviews with older men both infected and not, Hogarth investigates why this situation may have arisen and why it continues to go on. And though The Gift doesn't offer any solutions to the problem of rising new-infection rates in this country, its candid examination of HIV attitudes in the gay community may result in a new public dialogue about HIV/AIDS, one that has quieted down since it quit being politically sexy in the early 1990s. (BM)

God and the Inner City
Directed by Michael Pack
May 2, 6:30 p.m.

The Bush administration has made it easier for religious organizations to get government funding for their nonreligious activities, such as drug treatment and mentoring. Is this melding of church and state a positive step, or the first one down a slippery slope? Michael Pack's 56-minute documentary God and the Inner City doesn't pretend to address all sides of the debate. Instead, it offers four case studies that put human faces on these social-services efforts, and shows contrasting examples of how much or how little God gets name-dropped in the course of aiding the needy. At the Capitol Heights, Md., branch of Teen Challenge, a national Christian drug-treatment program, director Mike Zello ministers to his spiritually adrift charges, dispensing hugs and talk of how Jesus Christ can fill the "empty cup" that they had previously filled with booze and crack. On the mean streets of Dorchester, Mass., the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III preaches the gospel of employment and guides teenage roughnecks out of trouble by speaking their language. (Counseling one kid after a blowup with his parole officer, he tells the teen to respond to her complaints with, "Yes ma'am, no ma'am . . . like a soldier.") The film works best as a conversation-starter. God and the Inner City makes for an illuminating window into a house that contains many mansions. (HJ)

Horns and Halos
Directed by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky
May 2, 1:30 p.m.; May 4, 4 p.m.

A shoestring doc about an equally low-budget campaign to smear George W. Bush, Horns and Halos loses its way, but the fogbank of cloudy conduct and shifty characters that it drives into is so dense that it's almost enough to beg forgiveness. At issue is Fortunate Son, the 1999 biography of Dubya written by sci-fi-scribe-turned-journalist J.H. Hatfield, whose most notorious allegation was that Bush had once been busted for cocaine possession and then called on his father's influence to have his record expunged. Problem was, soon after the book's release, it was revealed that Hatfield himself had a criminal record--conspiracy to commit murder, no less--and his calumnies against the would-be president could not be substantiated; the publisher, St. Martin's Press, pulled the title after less than a week on the shelves. But rather than chasing down the big, and some would say, obvious questions--Was Hatfield right? If so, why couldn't he prove it? If not, how did St. Martin's fall for it?--this film chooses instead to pitch headlong into a lesser story: the effort to bring the book back into print by scratch-ankle Brooklyn, N.Y., publisher Soft Skull Press. Spearheading the nisus is Sander Hicks, a handsome, overeager twentysomething with a bad mohawk who turns the crank at Soft Skull by day and plays punk shows and sweeps floors by night. What starts out as a heroic campaign soon turns into a self-slaughter of the innocents: Hicks gets a crash course in libel law; Hatfield ramps back and forth between self-righteousness and self-pity; and, through it all, little attention is paid to whether the book is even worth all the flopsweat. As touching at times as it is confusing, Horns and Halos finally finds its saving grace in the last few minutes, when events take a heartbreaking turn, and only then does it become clear what the film should have been about all along. (BD)

Hot Skin in 3-D
Directed by "Norm de Plume"
May 2 and 3, 11 p.m.

A vintage 3-D porn film, featuring a cameo from John Holmes.

Directed by György Pálfi
May 4, 4:30 p.m.

You've got to love film festivals. Where else are you going to see a nearly wordless (but far from silent) Hungarian dark comedy on the big screen? György Pálfi's impressive and entertaining short feature carefully observes the mild-mannered residents of a rural Hungarian village, but also gives us a rich, sensory exploration of the animal, insect, and plant life in the area. Sound boring? It's not. While most of the film operates in a laconic deadpan comparable to the films of Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention), it occasionally explodes with hyperactive camera virtuosity worthy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, Amélie). Also, when a plot eventually presents itself, the particulars are a few shades darker and more conspiratorial than one might expect. The title, apparently Hungarian for "hiccup," refers to an elderly villager who sits and watches the world pass by in complete silence, but for a dysfunctional epiglottis. (Eric Allen Hatch)

Directed by Nick Willing
May 3, 6 p.m.

Local author Madison Smartt Bell's 1990 novel Doctor Sleep, the story of an insomniac hypnotist caught up in a mystery in London, comes to the big screen.

in the Name of the Father
Directed by Jim Sheridan
May 2, 10 a.m.

Governor Robert Erlich will host this screening of Jim Sheridan's Oscar-nominated 1993 fact-based film about a Northern Irish father and son (Pete Postlethwaite and Daniel Day-Lewis, respectively) wrongly imprisoned by the British government.

Directed by Gaspar Noe
May 3, 8:30 p.m.

Most film reviews don't begin with a warning that the work in question will probably offend almost everyone that encounters it. Of course, most films aren't by Gaspar Noe, the taboo-breaking French auteur whose first feature, I Stand Alone (also screening at this year's fest), breaks from its action at one point to offer audience members 30 seconds to vacate the theater. With Irreversible, a film boasting an intentionally disorienting narrative structure and two of the most violent reels of film in recent memory, audiences are belatedly taking Noe up on that grace period, with large numbers of walkouts at prestigious film festivals like Cannes and Toronto. Essentially an inverted revenge film with a brutally morbid twist, Irreversible captures lovers played by A-list French actors Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel during a grim, life-altering evening. For the most iron-stomached and open-minded viewers, Noe's film may richly justify its almost unprecedented brutality with passages that force us to seriously reconsider both the tenor of the personalities we've been following and the very way in which films transmit information. And even as it presents devastating violations as an unavoidable eventuality of life, it manages a strong consideration of the flawed impulses that inform human reactions to extreme situations. So as not to mince words, audiences have fled Irreversible for two very distinct reasons: the swooping, nausea-inducing camera movements of its early chapters, and a later, unrelenting rape scene that cannot help but make anyone who witnesses it extremely uncomfortable. (EAH)

I Stand Alone
Directed by Gaspar Noe
May 2, 8 p.m.

During the lag between its initial theatrical appearances (mostly at festivals) in 1998 and its North American home video release in 2001, Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone slowly became the sort of item spoken about in reverent terms by bootleg cassette addicts. Usually the aura of mystery and danger that surrounds such films dissipates when they become officially available (take the Japanese version of Ring, for instance), but even now Noe's feature retains an illicit glow. A lifetime of horrors has already befallen Noe's anti-hero, the Butcher (Philippe Nahon), in a slide-show prologue, yet as the action begins, he still stumbles forward. Tough-as-nails, 50 years old, and unemployed, the Butcher spouts nihilistic, homophobic, and racist rhetoric as he searches for work, food, and shelter in Paris, seemingly sustained only by his troubling feelings of lust for his institutionalized daughter. This film belongs alongside such recent, first-rate French provocations as Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day, Bruno Dumont's Humanite, and Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl in both its artistic extremity and its willingness to plumb the darkest of all human impulses. Hosted by perennial MFF celebrity host John Waters; outraged walkouts expected. (EAH)

Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew
Directed by Matthew Buzzell
May 2, 1 p.m.; May 4, 4:30 p.m.

The slightly depressing tragic-jazz-figure biopic is almost as cliché as the uplifting story of the talented artist/thinker overcoming physical or psychological obstacles to succeed. Just when you think director Matthew Buzzell's documentary Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew is going to wander down that well-worn path, Scott himself comes along to set everything right. It's not that Scott's story isn't heartbreaking. Seven months after the 12-year-old Scott was diagnosed with Kallman's syndrome, a hormonal deficiency that causes those afflicted not to go through puberty and not to be able to reproduce, his mother was killed, scattering Scott and his four siblings into state homes. Turning to music in hopes that he could make enough money to reunite his family, "Little" Jimmy Scott and his dreamy voice earned spots in jazz bands and fans in bandleaders such as Lionel Hampton, Charlie Parker, and Ray Charles. Due to his own business naiveté and the dishonest practices of record executives, success and widespread recognition eluded Scott until the early 1990s. But Scott is too boisterous a presence to be weighed down by the unfortunate turns of his own life, and there are few joys quite as nice as watching the 76-year-old Scott sing with the same angelic beauty and sleepwalking phrasing as he did in the 1950s. (BM)

The King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin
Directed by George Goehl
May 2, 12:30 p.m.; May 3, 6:30 p.m.

Jimmy Martin is what you call a character--a bit of a cutup, a bit of a nut. Onstage, the legendary bluegrass singer dresses in dark suits and cowboy boots dotted with rhinestones, topped off by his trademark Stetson, cocked at its trademark jaunty angle; offstage he favors gimme caps and jumpsuits. His home is filled with the taxidermied victims of his favorite nonmusical pastime, hunting, and he has already erected his own towering tombstone, like some kind of hillbilly Pharaoh. Unfortunately, Martin's abundant quirks and manic charm aren't quite enough to sustain George Goehl's 67-minute bio-doc on their own. Despite his long and successful career and his revered standing in the bluegrass world, Martin is obviously still hurt that he was never asked to join the Grand Ole Opry, and Goehl clearly sees the singer as some kind of tragic figure. But other than a few vague theories and anecdotes, Goehl never really makes his case convincingly; in fact, Goehl provides only the barest outline of the ups and downs of Martin's life and career, opting instead for yet more footage of Martin doting on his coon dogs. And even though The King of Bluegrass includes ample performance footage, Goehl never lets even one song play through without cutting away. For bluegrass fans, this is better than nothing, but Martin deserves better. (LG)

Melvin Goes to Dinner
Directed by Bob Odenkirk
May 2, 8 p.m.

With cameos from comedic actors David Cross and Jack Black and direction by Cross' Mr. Show partner, Bob Odenkirk, their fans may head into Melvin Goes to Dinner expecting a yukfest. While the comedic moments in this movie are golden, Melvin has more in common with My Dinner With Andre than Run Ronnie Run! Melvin (screenwriter Michael Blieden) is a medical-residency dropout killing time kinda sorta working for the city of Los Angeles who is snookered into dinner with his old friend Joey (Matt Price) when Melvin accidentally calls him. Joey is having dinner with his business-school pal Alex (Stephanie Courtney), who just so happens to bump into her old friend Sarah (Annabelle Gurwitch) en route. Over dinner and a steady supply of wine, these four estranged friends and their newfound acquaintances discuss religion, love, sex, and relationships very candidly. What starts off like a painful updating of the self-aggrandizing twentysomething movies of the mid-'90s turns into a captivating meditation on coping with choices made in youth. And its rough spots--some of the direction is uninspired, the plot itself relies too much on coincidence, and Joey's dialogue often plays out like Neil LaBute lite--are more than compensated by the cast, who breathe a relaxed naturalness into the script. Their dinner banter could've played out like self-pitying stereotypes--Alex's just-one-of-the-guys party girl, Joey's bitter married businessman, Melvin's adrift intellectual, Sarah's single gal who may be getting a little long in the tooth to keep playing the dating game--but the players personalize it. It comes across more like four thirtysomethings who allow their casual link to one another to free them to be as frank as they want, the exact opposite of the way they are in their everyday life--and with none of that Big Chill sanctimoniousness that makes you want to eat bullets. (BM)

Mountain Men and Holy Wars
Directed by Taran Davies
May 3, 11:30 a.m.

Anyone who cares at all about terrorism should invest 50 minutes with Taran Davies. In this crisp, public-television-worthy work, Davies and a band of fellow journalists take a perilous trip to Chechnya--a nation as crippled by a creaky mountain economy as it is by a centuries-old war of attrition with Russia--to dig down to the rootstock of Islamic terrorism. On the surface, Davies' aim is to retrace the steps of Imam Shamil, the 19th-century zealot who transformed Chechnya into the first Islamic state in the region, by way of terrorist techniques that at the time were revolutionary in more ways than one. But Davies also documents the horrors of present-day Chechnya, which are invidious enough on their own: Kidnappings for ransom are so common there that one guide tells Davies' team of four that it would take no fewer than 20 armed guards to ensure their safe passage. What's even more chilling is that there seems little hope for the future. As he unpacks the story of Imam Shamil, Davies also tracks the more recent developments in Chechen history--including the rise of another terrorist leader who shares the Shamil name--while pointing out that the standoff with Russia remains as steely as it was 150 years ago. The stalemate appeared to reach end game last October, when Chechen militants seized a Moscow theater and held its occupants hostage, resulting in the death of hundreds from both sides. But still, the impasse remains, as it does in so many other occupied territories, a sobering lesson for those who are now poring over the blueprints for the new Iraq. (BD)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
May 4, 1:30 p.m.

This 1946 tale of a Nazi collaborator's self-destructive daughter and the American spy who loves her (but won't trust her) is Alfred Hitchcock's most erotic movie--and yes, that includes the psychosexual fantasia of Vertigo. As the party girl and her caddish boyfriend, Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant taunt the censors with an extended make-out session that follows the letter but not the spirit of the Production Code (i.e., dozens of little kisses and fondlings, instead of one long-held clinch). The heat isn't just gratuitous movie-star swoon--it helps Hitch cook up his tale of jealousy and betrayal, as Bergman's Alicia Huberman is bullied by the Yanks into marrying a Nazi exiled in Argentina (Claude Rains) in order to help squash a uranium-smuggling ring. As Grant's T.R. Devlin seethes soulfully over Alicia's miserable life with her chilly, mama's-boy husband, Notorious becomes not just a steamy thriller but a potent bit of post-war propaganda: The Allies deserved to triumph, the movie implies, because they were sexier. Time columnist and Capital Gangsta Margaret Carlson, who we're certain must have chosen this film for its geopolitical ramifications, hosts. (HJ)

On the Waterfront
Directed by Elia Kazan
May 1, 7 p.m. (opening-night event)

Acclaimed Baltimore-born filmmaker Barry Levinson plays host for a screening of the 1954 Elia Kazan classic starring Marlon Brando.

One Small Step: The Story of the Space Chimps
Directed by D. James Cassidy and Kristin Davy
May 2, 6 p.m.

If you're thinking that a documentary about the primates who pioneered space travel must be a campy retro hoot, stop right now. One Small Step is deadly serious and at times downright depressing--an investigation into the surprisingly long-lived program that raised chimpanzees to ride U.S. rockets, resulting in several fatalities while NASA worked out the kinks. (Begun in 1959 as part of the Mercury program, the space-chimp program was discontinued by the Air Force only six years ago. Most of the animals were given to a biomedical research facility.) The filmmakers delve into the stories of the most famous space chimps, Ham and Enos, and interview NASA personnel, space historians, and primate-behavior experts, such as Jane Goodall. The assembled witnesses make a persuasive case for the chimps' abilities--although no one makes a strong case for the hardships that were inflicted upon them in the name of science. "I asked a couple of the astronauts about the chimps' training," says Goodall, "and they said they could never have gone through anything like that." (HJ)

Directed by Elizabeth Holder and Xan Parker
May 3, 6 p.m.

Directors Elizabeth Holder and Xan Parker set out to prove that women have finally made a home for themselves on Wall Street, and the filmmakers succeed, after a fashion. What they manage to demonstrate is that women can indeed be as self-absorbed and uninteresting as the men they compete with in the workplace. Over the course of an hour and a half, Risk/Reward pulls along the career paths of four Wall Street women: Louise, the sad, self-made trader; Carol, the self-obsessed stock analyst; Kimberley, the empty-suit currency dealer; and Umber, the young MBA grad who, with touchingly deep ambivalence, angles for a job at Morgan Stanley. Unfortunately, the film is far more interested in proving to us that these women have made it than in exploring the compromises they have had to make along the way, aside from a scene or two in which a couple of women voice regret for their husbands having to look after the kids. Most regrettable is that all the breathy cheerleading siphons oxygen away from the film's few but truly human dramas: Umber's fate in the job marketplace as a devout Muslim takes a subtle turn after Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, and the backstory of Louise's rise to power is enough to put Horatio Alger himself to shame. But soon enough, these story lines are shouted down by another chorus of go-girl affirmations, and we are put back in the presence of people who prove that if success means being vain and boring and having no real problems, then these women have hit pay dirt. (BD)

Robot Stories
Directed by Greg Pak
May 4, 2 p.m.

An ambitious compendium of four tales wherein ordinary human beings try to connect in the modern world--either through (or in spite of) robots.

Shag Carpet Sunset
Directed by Andrew McAllister
May 3, 4 p.m.

Andrew McAllister's quirky feature takes an earnest stab at making a romantic comedy for the indie-rock set, but often comes across as too coy. Tuck (Duke Novak) has a hard time finding direction in his life, spending his free time drinking, mucking around on the harmonica, and collaborating on a public-access TV puppet show. He'd like to clean up his act and settle down with a special gal, but most mornings he's more likely to find himself waking up with a hangover on her roof. McAllister often falls prey to stilted situations and overwritten dialogue of nearly Kevin Smith-ish proportions, overriding some amusing moments and an evocative, Yo La Tengo-esque instrumental score. (EAH)

Shelter Dogs
Directed by Cynthia Wade
May 2, 8 p.m.

More than 5 million dogs are brought to animal shelters every year in the United States. The majority of them will never be adopted. Increasingly, fewer and fewer shelters practice sensible animal control by euthanizing unadoptable animals, with the tragic result that many dogs are caged for the rest of their lives, becoming irreversibly depressed or dangerous. Shelter Dogs, a moving and inspiring documentary about a dog shelter in upstate New York, argues forcefully that euthanasia for violent, anti-social, and other problem dogs is a more humane alternative to lifetime imprisonment, despite the national trend in the opposite direction. Shelter Dogs follows shelter founder Sue Sternberg and her dedicated staff as they care for and interact with the dogs, talk to people dropping animals off and potential adopters, and make the devastating decision to put a dog down. While some animal lovers may recoil from the three scenes in which lethal doses are administered, the compassion that Sternberg and her staff have for the dogs--and the many success stories they have in placing dogs with good owners--is uplifting. Unflinchingly honest, Shelter Dogs demonstrates that the way we treat animals is perhaps the most accurate reflection of who we are as a society and as individuals. (MK)

Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen
May 3, 11 p.m.

Ravens defensive coach Michael Singletary hosts a screening of this 1965 Jimmy Stewart-starring Civil War tale.

State of Denial
Directed by Elaine Epstein
May 3, 2 p.m.

Director Elaine Epstein's excoriating documentary State of Denial may leave you both heartbroken and aghast. Denial examines how South Africa's HIV/AIDS prevention policy--actually, more like a lack of one--from 2000 to '02 affected health care practitioners, activists, government officials, and both black and white citizens living with HIV/AIDS. Shortly after assuming office in 1999, South African President Thabo Mbeki controversially started challenging the hypothesis that HIV leads to AIDS, claiming instead that full-blown AIDS is more the result of poverty afflicting black townships (with their poor medical care, sanitation issues and malnutrition) and campaigning against HIV prevention--dismissing condom use, making HIV medications unaffordable for black South Africans, and preventing drugs that were proven to lower mother-child infection rates from reaching the market. To Epstein's credit, she lays out reasons why Mbeki would fight so adamantly for his view, but when Denial points out that during its production more than 800,00 new infections were reported in South Africa, 140,000 of which were new-born babies, it's hard to see Mbeki's policies as anything but failures. And though Mbeki recused himself from the AIDS debate by 2002, the damage had been done. State of Denial paints a bleak picture of South Africa's AIDS crisis, and commendably Epstein neither climbs atop a soapbox nor flinches away from the harrowing moments. (BM)

Directed by Steve James
May 3, 2:30 p.m.

Steve James, one of the filmmakers behind the landmark 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, retraced his own steps to rural Illinois to catch up with a boy to whom he was once a "Big Brother." He discovers a troubled young man who has been failed on many levels by many people--including, James discovers, himself--and the cameras capture the tragic results.

Stone Reader
Directed by Mark Moskowitz
May 2, 10:30 a.m.; May 3, 8:30 p.m.

From the jaws of boredom, Mark Moskowitz snatches a saga that is as unexpectedly gripping as it is expertly executed. The premise of this two-hour opus doesn't have much curb appeal in itself--Moskowitz tries to track down the author of an obscure, out-of-print novel--but he manages to gussy it up by bringing a skilled hand, a tender eye, and his own winsome personality to the task. In 1972, Moskowitz bought a book that The New York Times had just hailed as the best of its generation, The Stones of Summer, by a young new novelist named Dow Mossman. A distracted teenager at the time, he didn't finish reading it, but when he picked it up again in the late '90s, not only did Moskowitz devour all 500 pages of it, he found it to be a work of such illuminating genius that he was determined to contact the author. The journey takes him from the skyscraper suites of Manhattan publishers to the dingy university offices of writers who once studied by Mossman's side. And along the way, the object of Moskowitz's pursuit ever so subtly shifts--from a single man gone missing to the bundle of questions that dogs his trail, like why so many great writers never recover from their first novel, and how, even in this post-literate age, books still manage to shape the people who read them. Throughout, Moskowitz inserts his tender impressions on these matters and, in one long, lustrous scene, he even discusses his own evolution as a reader, from a boy who loved war stories to a man who became shaped by the prose of Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller. Indeed, admission is worth this one scene alone, narrated entirely over footage of Moskowitz's son riding the carousels and coasters of a nighttime carnival, one of the most poetic sequences in recent documentary film. (BD)

Thicker Than Water
Directed by Ben Cacciatore
May 4, 1:30 p.m.

"If blood is thicker than water," director Ben Cacciatore narrates in the opening scenes of his documentary, "the only thing thicker than blood must be alcohol." In his debut film, young Cacciatore proves that he's wise--or maybe just lucky--enough to find a subject that's as distressingly compelling as it is entirely unique. In a hilly saddle of land between the New Mexico mountains and its desert floor, he discovers the Petersen family, a clan that boasts a dynastic legacy to which few others would want to lay claim: They are officially America's hardest drinkers. With a combination of archival film, family photos, and plenty of can't-turn-away footage from the present day, Thicker Than Water traces the Petersens' rise to fame in what can only be described as the professional drinking circuit, a semi-official network of state and regional contests in which tipplers compete to see who has the hollowest leg, or the hardest liver--a circuit founded by desiccated patriarch Arturo Petersen himself. And now, at 81, wracked by diabetes and cirrhosis, reigning champion Arturo is grooming his 33-year-old son Travis to take his place as America's top drunk. Meanwhile, bureaucracies ranging from county health departments to the U.S. Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms have been angling for years to shut down the competitions. We won't tell you how it ends, of course, but suffice it to say that Donald Rumsfeld was right: Freedom can indeed be untidy. (BD)

This Corrosion
Directed by Mitch McCabe
May 2, 9:30 p.m.

Somewhere in writer/director Mitch McCabe's This Corrosion is a perfectly mundane mystery movie trying to get out. Told in overlapping flashbacks and flash-forwards, Corrosion follows Farrah (Elisabeth Seljevold) driving from a visit with her dying grandmother to her 30th birthday party/annual Winter Solstice bacchanalia thrown by her friends. En route, Farrah--an emotionally troubled young woman three days out of the "hospital"--comes across an old woman in a wheelchair who may or may not be a heavy-handed metaphor. Unfortunately, Farrah and her friends couldn't be more boilerplate angst-ridden middle-class teens grown up--all dyed and dramatically important hair, piercings, punked-/gothed-up wardrobes, and sensitively bleak worldviews--and McCabe tries to inflate her flat characters with a seesawing narrative, flashy editing, dramatic camera angles, and Farrah's cheeky voice-over. The real bummer here is that This Corrosion does contain a few glimmering moments of genuine passion. And what could have been a fairly affecting, if whiplash, movie about a woman struggling to make sense of her young life ends up feeling like an overwrought collision of Girl, Interrupted and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. (BM)

This is Duckpin Country
Directed by Cliff Hackel, James Mokhiber, Murray Pinczuk, and Rick Young
May 3, 1:30 p.m.

In the fall of 2000, Federal Hill's Southway Bowling Center was sold to a developer bent on turning the decades-old duckpin bowling alley into loft apartments. The move rankled fans of Baltimore-born small-ball bowling and a "Spare the Southway" campaign was launched to preserve the old alley's equipment. This 42-minute documentary plunges into the heart of this bowling flap; it also opens a larger lens on the declining sport of duckpins and the culture surrounding it. Rife with vintage bowling footage, the film rolls warmly down nostalgia lane. Narrated by the figures involved--from erstwhile pinboys to a 78-year-old duckpin hall of famer--it presents a wistful (though clear-eyed) look at a vanishing slice of Baltimore. Duckpin Country is perhaps the best primer yet on what duckpining is all about--and where this dented homegrown sport might be heading in the 21st century. (Brennen Jensen)

Directed by Mike Hoolboom
May 2, noon

Mike Hoolboom imaginatively edited together feature-film clips, industrial and educational films, found footage, home movies, old porn films, family photos, and recently filmed video footage for this experimental cinematic portrait of underground filmmaker Tom Chomont. Through his subject, Hoolboom explores the limits of memory, the strength of family, the nature of sexual identity, and the power of the cinema--themes that Chomont addresses in his own films (Phases of the Moon, 1968; Re:incarnation, 1973; Sadistic Self-Portrait, 1994; et al.). From Chomont's childhood memories; his homoerotic relationship with his brother, who recently succumbed to AIDS; and his entry into the sadomasochist demimonde to his own confrontation with illness (Parkinson's disease) and his life in New York City, the film juxtaposes often jarring images to simulate the tricks that memory and thought can play. While often more bewildering than suggestive, the technique can be very effective: To document the first time Chomont saw his parents having sex, Hoolboom cleverly intercuts old blue movies with footage of elephants rampaging through the streets. If not as revelatory as perhaps intended, Tom does offer some startling and unconventional instances of montage. (MK)

Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election
Directed by Richard Ray Perez and Joan Sekler
May 4, 1:30 p.m.

The half-life of public sentiment being what it is these days, maybe it's not surprising that this documentary about the 2000 presidential election seems so dated. Sitting through it is like retracing your steps after a two-day bender--the memories are surreal, cringe-inducing, and only dimly familiar, but seem blissfully innocent compared to the sober reality you woke up to. Unfortunately, Unprecedented refuses to get past these bitter memories and instead mires itself in them, rehashing the whole caper one agonizing episode at a time, constantly slapping its forehead in disbelief. It drags us through the carnivalesque uncertainty of election night, the bizarre stageplay that was the recount, and the crushing denouement of the Supreme Court's ruling on Bush v. Gore. But during all this, nothing new is brought to light. Interviews are limited to the usual liberal suspects--the ACLU, the NAACP--and a lot of bile is raised over injustices that, offensive as they were, have already been widely reported, and less shrilly than this. Unprecedented does earn points for compiling all of the Democratic complaints and evidence into one comprehensive case for the prosecution. But if the directors had devoted their resources to the bigger, as yet untold story--that these hijinks go on in elections all around the country, and no one seems able to stop them--they would have made an infinitely more useful contribution to political film, instead of this hourlong riff on "we was robbed." (BD)

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Coming Attractions (5/5/2010)
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Reviews of Features at the Maryland Film Festival

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