Coming Attractions: Features
A Consumer Guide to MFF 2001
Screenings are at the Charles Theatre unless otherwise noted. No byline at the end of a blurb indicates that the film was not reviewed.
The American Astronaut
Directed by Cory McAbee
May 4, 7:30 p.m.; May 5, midnight; May 6, 1 p.m.; hosted by the director, producer Bobby Lurie, and cast member Joshua Taylor
We've heard this sci-fi/comedy/musical/Western is really good, but the filmmakers said they didn't want us to write a review at all unless we wrote a rave, which annoyed us so much we decided not to watch their big dumb tape.
Directed by Anurag Mehta
May 5, 9 p.m.; May 6, 3:30 p.m.; hosted by the director
An Indian-American whose parents think he's studying pre-med at college secretly pursues his dream of becoming a musician in this coming-of-age comedy, which won the Audience Choice Award at this year's Slamdance Film Festival.
Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl Film
Directed by David Petrellius
May 4, 7:30 p.m., hosted by the director
A video look at the Ravens' championship season, with no purchase of a Sports Illustrated subscription required.
Directed by Jérôme Boivin
May 4, 8 p.m., hosted by John Waters
A 1988 semi-horror film about the collusion of the French and the Nazis in World War II, the implacable nature of true evil, and human sexual habits, as told from the point of view of a possibly homicidal bull terrier? For Jérôme Boivin's incredible Baxter, the answer is a cheerfully misanthropic "Oui!" Lensed with zero stylistic fuss, Boivin's film follows the titular pooch--who also narrates--as he goes from owner to owner in a French suburb trying to find a human who is not tainted by "love or fear." He finds his perfect match in a psychopathic boy who spends his spare time mooning over the Third Reich, creating a sort of Home Depot Hitler bunker where he woos a young girl who he imagines to be his own private Eva Braun. Baxter is not pleased with the latter development, and things get worse (and bloodier). Baxter could have been lousy in so many ways, the mind boggles: one-joke horror comedy, obnoxious message film, even quasi-bestial featurette. (Baxter has some unsavory interspecies urges.) That it succeeds in both carrying an incredible amount of subtextual weight and as (admittedly strange) entertainment is pretty damned impressive. (Ian Grey)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
May 5, 1 p.m., hosted by architect Richard Gluckman
Mr. Orwell, meet Mr. Python: Terry Gilliam's dystopic 1985 tragicomedy fuses whimsy, satire, and horror (the real kind, not the movie kind) into a singular package wrapped in the most stunning cinematic visuals since 2001. Brazil is a testament to Gilliam's ability to imagine a world and put it on-screen intact: The fascist retrofuture here is at once familiar and alien, as if culture and technology stopped in the '40s--a nightmare of endless hallways, reams of paper, and ducts that pulsate with comic menace behind walls, where nothing works and order is enforced with casual terror. The film's look is as key a character as Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce, in a lovely performance), the lowly clerk whose discovery that the girl of his dreams is real leads him into the heart of bureaucratic darkness. With terrific supporting performances by Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm, Robert De Niro (as a guerrilla heating engineer), and, particularly, Michael Palin as an affable torturer, Brazil is grim and grotesque and hilarious, until an ending of such sudden, sad finality that it almost leaves you breathless. A rich, masterful, one-of-a-kind film. (Andy Markowitz)
Directed by Kirby Dick
May 4, 11:30 a.m., hosted by cast member Cinnamon Hunter
Documentarian Kirby Dick gave video cameras to 10 students at Los Angeles' ethnically diverse John Marshall High School; the kids filmed their lives for a week and then passed the cameras on to 10 more students. And so on.
Directed by Ron Shelton
May 4, 2 p.m.; hosted by Sun film critic Michael Sragow and the film's editor, Paul Seydor
Ex-Oriole Albert Belle had a well-deserved rep for truculence, but he was a positive milquetoast compared to the subject of Ron Shelton's 1994 film bio, Tyrus Raymond "Ty" Cobb, arguably the greatest hitter in baseball history (with a career average of .366) and, inarguably, a psychopath. Although frankly too old to play Cobb in his sharpened-spikes prime in the 1910s and '20s, Tommy Lee Jones was the perfect choice to capture the ballplayer's insanely competitive fire and malignant intelligence--a malignancy possibly rooted in the fact that Ty's momma blew away his dad with a shotgun. Shelton frames his story in flashback, with an elderly Cobb collaborating with sportswriter Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) on a biography. Stump comes to the project open-minded but soon learns that Cobb is as bad as his rep: a bully, unrepentant racist, and thug, despite being one of the few old-time ballplayers to not descend into poverty. While not exactly uplifting viewing, this is one of the few film biographies to show a sports figure as he really was. And in case you think Shelton is overstating Cobb's villainy for a more sensitive era, you should know that the ballplayer once jumped into the stands to beat up a heckler and then, once he'd knocked him down, started kicking him . . . a heckler in a wheelchair, who had no hands. (Jack Purdy)
Coffin Joe: The Strange World of José Mojica Marins
Directed by André Barcinski and Ivan Finotti
May 6, 12:30 p.m.; hosted by the film's editor, André Finotti
Just when it seems that nothing's shocking anymore, André Barcinski and Ivan Finotti's documentary on the life and work of Brazilian filmmaker José Mojica Marins proves otherwise. Born on a Friday the 13th and literally raised in a São Paulo movie theater (which his father managed), Marins was a self-taught independent auteur with several short films under his belt by his early teens. In the 1960s, he created a national sensation in Brazil when he played a malevolent, blasphemous gravedigger named Zé do Caixão ("Coffin Joe" in English) in a series of his own low-budget horror films. As strange and strikingly original as his '60s films are, even now--his work earns comparisons to Italian horror maestro Dario Argento and Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel--the movies can't compare to Marins' own behind-the-camera adventures, which encompass über-indie guerilla filmmaking, a mysterious curse on his productions, a clash with Brazil's repressive military junta, and, eventually, interspecies porn. Ed Wood was Joe Six-Pack by comparison. Packed with outrageous clips from Marins' films and sometimes jaw-dropping, sometimes poignant interviews with the man and his collaborators, Coffin Joe is an absolute must-see for anyone interested in film's--or life's--weirder and wiggier sides. Just don't say we didn't warn you. (Lee Gardner)
For more about this film, see The Ballad of Coffin Joe.
Directed by Steve Yeager
May 4, 11:30 a.m., hosted by the director
Local auteur Steve Yeager (Divine Trash) directs this stinging, claustrophobic adaptation (based on a version staged by Yeager at Goucher College last year) of Jack Gelber's play about a group of junkies holed up in a West Baltimore shooting gallery. The irritable, long-winded assortment of drug casualties await the arrival of their "connection," a runner of mythic proportions named Cowboy (Larry Woody). The junkies' latest score is funded by a trio of student filmmakers who have decided to make a documentary on the squalor and perils of the drug scene, but the students' presence invites the ridicule of the junkies, who perceive (correctly) that they're being exploited. By the time the apparently spellbinding dealer puts in an appearance, all the participants in this little scenario have gone out of their way to pluck everyone else's last nerve; unfortunately, all the characters are overbearing and unlikable. The Connection's unbearably static staging, uneven cast of amateurs, and dreary world view doesn't help much either. (Adele Marley)
Directed by Debra Eisenstadt
May 4, 5 p.m.; at the Heritage CinemaHouse May 5, 2 p.m.; both screenings hosted by the director and the film's composer, Jenifer Jackson
Actress Debra Eisenstadt's formative experiences in show business inform this low-budget flick that she wrote, produced, and directed about a twentysomething aspiring thespian and hopeless goofball who abandons her conventional, boring existence in a tiny Vermont burg to make it big on the New York stage. Naive, self-centered Valerie (Sybil Kempson) arrives in the Big Apple ripe for the grifting; sure enough, she's conned into joining a fellow actor's fictitious theatrical troupe and spends months rehearsing his god-awful, never-materializing play while looking for a straight job as a way to subsidize her acting career. This light comedy features finely etched, naturalistic performances. However, Daydream Believer is ultimately vague, unsatisfying, and lacking in focus, as if its maker spent too much time fussing over the details in lieu of sorting out the big picture. (Adele Marley)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
May 6, 1 p.m., hosted by National Public Radio's Scott Simon
The Cold War may have been paranoidal and expensive, but oh what fun the movies had with it! There's the James Bond series, Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, and director Stanley Kubrick's 1964 black-comedy masterwork, in which a renegade general sets the apocalypse in motion. Strangelove is more of an actors' showcase than most of Kubrick's oeuvre (usually he's an auteur with a capital "A"), with memorable, archetype-making performances by George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens and a dazzling multirole turn by Peter Sellers. Sellers plays a reserved British captain, a maniacal German-born scientist, and a befuddled U.S. president, whose phone conversation with his Russian counterpart is one of the funniest scenes ever put on film. (Heather Joslyn)
Four Dogs Playing Poker
Directed by Paul Rachman
May 5, 7 p.m., hosted by the director
Any movie featuring erstwhile Agent 007 George Lazenby, erstwhile transvestite Transylvanian Tim Curry, and members of the Sex Pistols and Duran Duran ought to be more fun, but Four Dogs Playing Poker is too busy being clever and cool to worry about fun. Thomas Durham and William Quist's script is one of those labyrinthine puzzle boxes that probably sounded great in a meeting: Desperate to come up with a million dollars after a botched heist puts them in the hole to a vicious art dealer, a quartet of novice thieves (Balthazar Getty, Olivia Williams, Daniel London, and Stacy Edwards) insure themselves and randomly select one member of the group to kill another. Dogs gets some traction on the raw tension of the setup, but once the trap is sprung it offers no real surprises, just an omnibus of tired indie-noir riffs and suspense clichés (including not one but two it's-just-the-cat shock cuts). The leads are game, especially the beguiling Williams (Rushmore), but they're little more than attractive cogs in the plot machinery; the most intriguing figures--Curry's heist mastermind, Forest Whitaker's art thug--disappear early on. At the denouement, Dogs tries to pass itself off as one of those A Simple Plan-like parables about how far desperate people will go, but, as Pistols guitarist Steve Jones (who plays a Tarantino-esque hit man) might say, "Bollocks." (Andy Markowitz)
The Girls' Room
Directed by Irene Turner
May 5, 7:30 p.m., hosted by the director
The Girls' Room is a low-budget feature with occasionally snappy dialogue and a really good performance from TV veteran Soleil Moon Frye (that's right, Punky Brewster). Frye plays Casey, an acid-tongued klepto from the wrong side of the tracks who drives her princess of a college roommate, Grace (Cat Taber), up a wall. Grace has devoted most of her time in school to obtaining a "Mrs." degree--she's engaged to the bland Charlie (Wil Wheaton). She's also made a pact with her dad to graduate first, before getting married, in exchange for fancy, all-expenses-paid wedding upon receipt of the diploma. Casey sleeps around and disses the smarmy Southern belle and the institution of marriage but secretly wishes she had that kind of security. She pockets her roommate's stuff to make herself feel better but gets into hot water when she steals Grace's midterm notes (failing the exam could seriously jeopardize those wedding plans). The Girls' Room is one of those all-talk-no-action films and, not surprisingly, kind of drags. If you got your fill of coed catfighting in college, you might want to pass. (Adele Marley)
The Gore-Gore Girls
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis
May 4, 10 p.m., hosted by the director
A mad killer boils the face off of a young woman, pulps the booty of another with meat tenderizer, and stabs yet another nubile victim while she's mid-bubblegum-blow (blood fills her last bubble). He also cuts off a stripper's nipples (one of which squirts chocolate milk). And yet, what's daunting about 1972's The Gore-Gore Girls isn't its subtle, possibly misogynistic subtext (or that Henny Youngman appears as a strip-club owner). It's that, by reverting to such a nonstop parade of cartoonishly over-the-top gore, seminal exploitationist Herschell Gordon Lewis (in his last film to date) seems to be struggling to one-up the Hollywood filmmakers who had, by then, appropriated his show-it-all aesthetic. The Gore-Gore Girls is Lewis' most technically competent film, which ameliorates the ramshackle, by-default surrealistic charm of earlier efforts, resulting in a sometimes hideously funny but often just plain oogy parade of kitsch butchery. (Ian Grey)
Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska
May 5, 1:30 p.m., hosted by the director
Janek (Piotr Jankowski) is a glum, socially inept wannabe writer, pushing 30 and still living in his mom's tenement apartment in a Polish city. His mother, Maria (Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieóslak), nags him to get a job and a girlfriend and stop moping around the flat. When Maria learns she has lung cancer, she keeps the news from Janek so he won't worry. He finds out anyway and, thinking Maria doesn't know about her illness, forbids her doctor to tell her so she won't worry. Meanwhile, Janek meets a sweet single mom, Marta (Malgorzata Chajewska-Krzysztofik, who has the gawky charm of an Amanda Plummer without Plummer's self-conscious kookiness). Maria is cheered that her boy might have found the woman who can look after him when she's gone, and the young couple struggle to keep up appearances as their relationship hits a rocky patch. This grim but ultimately hopeful drama by Polish writer/director Malgorzata Szumowska at times recalls 1955's Oscar-winning wallflower-meets-wallflower romance Marty, but Happy Man is rigorously unsentimental. If anything, we're left wanting to learn more about these people and why they've learned to feign happiness as a way of making others happy. (Heather Joslyn)
Directed by William Jennings
May 4, 9:30 p.m., hosted by the director and producer Darryl Pryor
A mildly retarded young man (Gabriel Casseus) from Harlem dreams of going to Italy to become an opera singer. Setting out to realize his dream, he hooks up with a classical piano player (Christian Camargo) and a street hustler (Damon Wayans).
Directed by Monteith McCollum
May 5, 7 p.m., hosted by the director
You'll either love or hate this original, leisurely paced, at times achingly tender black-and-white documentary about Milford Beeghly, a 100-year-old Iowa farmer who pioneered the use of hybrid seed corn in the 1930s, won a statewide hog-calling title in the late '20s, took a bride in his late 90s, and discovered what just might be the secret of life in the fields he loves. Beeghly (the grandfather of director Monteith McCollum, though that fact isn't revealed in the film) is an interesting character whose obsession with creating and selling hybrid seed made him a stranger to his loved ones. McCollum slows his film's rhythm down to match his rural setting, taking time to watch wind ruffle the tall grass and piglets suckle their mother's teats. He's also tremendously resourceful in telling Beeghly's story, using stop-motion and time-lapse footage (McCollum makes the sprouting of a corn seed in heartland soil nearly as voyeuristically thrilling as watching porn) along with the expected interview segments and archival shots. The director's dreamlike storytelling spawns a profile of a man whose sometimes maddeningly laconic demeanor hides a bone-deep understanding of the cycle of life. (Heather Joslyn)
Into the West
Directed by Mike Newell
May 6, 11 a.m., hosted by Mayor Martin O'Malley
In 1992, two years before his commercial breakthrough Four Weddings and a Funeral, director Mike Newell made this gritty yet mystical film set in the world of the "traveling folk," Ireland's equivalent of the Gypsies. For years, Irish government policy was to get travelers off the road and into the delights of public housing, which is where a bitter, widowed traveler (Gabriel Byrne) and his two young sons are living as the film opens. Into their stunted Dublin lives comes a big white horse, which the two kids, true to their roots, try to stash in their squalid apartment. It turns out that the horse is more than flesh and blood, as it leads Byrne and his brood on a mad dash into the west of Ireland, where unearthly goings-on are easily accepted as a part of everyday life. With a script by Jim Sheridan (who, in the same year, directed and co-wrote In the Name of the Father), West never stumbles into false sentimentality, remaining a family movie about family that will keep even the most cynical viewer engaged. Watch for the unusual casting of Ellen Barkin, then-wife of Byrne, as a traveler who won't forsake the open road. (Jack Purdy)
Investigation of a Flame
Directed by Lynne Sachs
At the Senator Theatre, May 3, 7 p.m.; at the Charles Theatre May 5, 2 p.m.; first screening attended by the director and some members of the Catonsville Nine, second screening hosted by the director
Catonsville resident Lynne Sachs tackles a little local history in her brief documentary about the Catonsville Nine, a group of anti-war activists who burned draft records (with homemade napalm) seized from a suburban selective-service office in May 1968. The passel of Catholic pacifists was headed by brothers and notorious radicals Philip Berrigan, a former Josephite priest, and the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, poet, lecturer, and writer whose one-act play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (made into a film in 1972) documented the group's prosecution in federal court. Sachs interviewed six of the seven surviving protestors, as well as various witnesses and prosecuting attorney Steve Sachs (no relation to the director). Investigation of a Flame is lovely to look at, but the visuals--shots of hydrangea bushes, streetscapes, and newsreel footage--don't always complement the narration. The film also leaves some important questions unanswered: Why did the Nine think burning draft records would make a difference? How did they all wind up in Catonsville? Do they fit into any tradition of political activism within the Catholic Church? Where are they now? This is a beautifully shot, impressionistic film, but because of its obscured purpose and point of view, it's not very informative. (Adele Marley)
I Remember Me
Directed by Kim A. Snyder
May 4, noon, hosted by the director
Ever wonder why folks always suspect that any malady that can't be specifically pinpointed and diagnosed exists only in the imagination of the sufferer? Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) patient Kim A. Snyder sure does. She rails against this kind of skepticism in I Remember Me, which chronicles the history of CFS. The filmmaker, a Johns Hopkins University graduate, grew frustrated with the medical establishment's apathy after coming down with the symptoms of CFS--overpowering lethargy, swollen glands, and aches and pains that inhibit ordinary activity and movement. She figured a definitive documentation of the disease, including its treatment and the experiences of long-term patients (such as filmmaker Blake Edwards and women's soccer star Michelle Akers), was warranted. What Snyder gets right is how frustrating chronic illnesses are: the difficulty of adjusting to pain, waiting for a diagnosis, and facing an uncertain future plagued by a vague, insufficiently researched condition. (The film's title laments a patients' previous incarnation as a vital, healthy person.) Overall, though, I Remember Me is a little muddled and bland, and could use more scientific shoptalk; Snyder identifies with the viewpoint of a confused patient so strongly that the medical aspects of CFS are all but ignored. But it's good that, in the absence of a cure, the filmmaker gives a voice to the suffering of many. (Adele Marley)
Directed by DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter
May 4, 2 p.m.; May 5, 4:30 p.m.; hosted by the directors
The first recipient of the Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship, Lift tells the story of a retail clerk who steals and resells name-brand fashion items.
Directed by Elke Rosthal
May 5, 11:30 a.m.; at the Heritage CinemaHouse May 6, 3 p.m.; hosted by the director
Seventeen-year-old Lily Randolph (Aleksa Palladino) is the daughter of a politician who's obsessed with creating the image of a "perfect" family for the voters. Lily doesn't believe in image-polishing, so when Dad dumps her on the side of a highway in the heat of a family squabble, she hitches a ride with Tom Lawless (John Pyper-Ferguson), a washed-up Canadian country-western singer who hires her to be his assistant. Lily hankers to go out West and paint in the desert like Georgia O'Keefe, but Tom is bound for his home province of New Brunswick. But many of Lonesome's plot twists are predictable, what keeps the film from becoming tiresome is that it is difficult to pinpoint each character's motivations, which seem to constantly shift and multiply. Is Lily, for example, merely trading one cultural stereotype for another as she searches for an identity? The film's cinematography is quietly graceful, and the fades to black between each scene give you the feeling of being on the road, not sure where you're going or even who you are. German director Elke Rosthal avoids mimicking other coming-of-age road movies by allowing her characters and their relationships to change subtly throughout the course of the film. (Jaimie Baron)
Lunch With Charles
Directed by Michael Parker
May 4, 7 p.m.; May 5, 4 p.m.; hosted by the director and producer Shan Tam
After three years of empty promises, April (Theresa Lee), a public-relations executive in Vancouver, gives her husband, Tong (Sean Lau), an ultimatum: Emigrate from their native Hong Kong before his long-arranged landing papers expire in a week or the marriage is over. Tong, who sells houses for a living but really wants to be a full-time musician, assumes he'll be miserable in Canada but flies over anyway. Meanwhile, the prim April struggles to please her company's latest account, an Irish brewing company. A few plot gyrations later, the couple winds up in the British Columbia countryside, at a ramshackle B&B owned by Matthew (Nicholas Lea) and his bohemian squeeze, Natasha (Bif Naked). The innkeepers have their own relationship woes, which conveniently complement those of their guests. Somehow, all the participants in this romantic roundelay keep missing the connections you know will eventually conjoin, but writer/director Michael Parker, wielding a light touch and a generous spirit reminiscent of Scottish director Bill Forsyth, manages to make the proceedings sweetly charming even when the conclusion seems inevitable. Even if Charles feels utterly Hollywood-remake-ready, you don't really mind. (Heather Joslyn)
Directed by Tom Russell
May 4, 9:30 p.m., hosted by the director and producer Steve Gabbitas
Writer/director Tom Russell's Mental has all the trappings of a no-budget indie--it's shot mostly on one set, it's in black and white, and the actors virtually never change their costumes--but exuberant comic performances make you forget the film's limitations. Psychologist J.J. Stackhouse (Jay Powell) is sent by his boss, Dr. Gordon (Eric Eichenberger), to retrieve a quintet of mental patients who have escaped from their care facility and set up camp on a beach. Under the leadership of Phillip (Bill Nelson), the lovably spazzy neurotics decide to whip themselves into fighting trim to defend America's shores from drug smugglers. They're not exactly hard-core DEA agents--their training regimen mostly involves crawling on the sand in their pajamas, throwing rocks, and tackling each other. ("Remember, Kyle prefers permission before any touching occurs," Phillip reminds the troops about one squeamish "soldier.") Nelson's Phillip is a hilarious creation; he exudes the supreme confidence of a motivational speaker, with his clichéd management-guru-speak filtered through his madness like sunlight through a prism. Jim Bauer, Clayton McCaw, Kurt Robinson, and Randy Toews fill out a memorably funny, Monty Python-ish ensemble that makes you forgive the film's unnecessarily long, nearly two-hour running time. (Heather Joslyn)
Mr. Smithereen Goes to Washington
Directed by Joshua Tunick
May 5, 7:30 p.m.; at the Heritage CinemaHouse May 6, 10 a.m.; hosted by the director
"Mr. Smithereen" is Pat DiNizio, leader of the '80s power-pop band the Smithereens, and he never actually goes to Washington (or anywhere beyond his New Jersey stomping grounds, except to play music). And while this documentary about his bid last year for a U.S. Senate seat falls short of the Capra-esque righteousness its title implies, it does show how tough it is for an outsider, even one armed with a measure of celebrity, to get traction in big-money mainstream politics. Director Joshua Tunick falls down on the job as a reporter; he never asks DiNizio why he chose the Senate for his first political run, or to delineate his positions beyond his support for the Second Amendment. He also never asks the candidate why he allied himself with the Reform Party, a decision DiNizio comes to regret when Pat Buchanan hijacks the party for his presidential bid. But Tunick ably captures the loneliness of the long-distance runner, perhaps because this runner seems lonelier than most. ("I just want to get off the road," the musician plaintively tells a fellow Reformer, sounding like this is the main reason he's running.) Whether recruiting supporters at a pro-wrestling match or serenading a local-TV newsbabe who can't remember who he is, DiNizio's tenacity is inspiring, even if his ideals remain murky. Features cameo appearances by Buchanan, buck-wild Reform Party conventioneers, and the voice of Ted Nugent. (Heather Joslyn)
Directed by Bill Plympton
May 6, 3:30 p.m., hosted by the director
In this age of sleek, seamless computer-assisted 3-D animation, it comes as a bit of a shock to watch Bill Plympton's hand-scrawled drawings loom and canter across a big screen. The veteran cartoonist, illustrator, and Academy Award-nominated animated filmmaker still sketches and colors each cel himself, and the proof is right there in each pencil shading and trembly line of his latest full-length work, Mutant Aliens. In addition to showcasing Plympton's imaginative drawing style, the film serves as a reminder that the very mutability of a hand-drawn line on a two-dimensional surface can be an advantage to an animator, allowing him or her to get away with more outlandish images. Plympton's vision of a planet populated by human parts (a village of noses, eyeballs riding foot-tanks into battle) or the parade of erection substitutes that pop up in a character's underwear (a locomotive, a volcano) just wouldn't work in computer-generated form. While Mutant Aliens is an animation fan's delight, its cockamamie, too-adult-for-kids/too-juvenile-for-adults story of a lost astronaut, his comely daughter, a nefarious bureaucrat, and a gaggle of ravenous space beasts could have used a bit more of the pencil-intensive labor and care Plympton brought to his drawings. (Lee Gardner)
Directed by Eugene Jarecki
May 5, 9:30 p.m., hosted by the director
Could there be a female Raging Bull? Perhaps not, but in The Opponent, Patty Sullivan (Baywatch's Erika Eleniak ) rages like a tigress. She starts out as a pretty blond with low self-esteem, a black eye, and an abusive boyfriend named Jack (Harry O'Reilly), to whom she keeps returning. Patty's anger at Jack and his ability to overpower her lead her to a small boxing club in South Troy, N.Y, run by ex-boxer Tommy (James Colby, looking a lot like Robert De Niro), who helps keep poor kids off the streets by teaching them to box. Patty insists that he teach her too, and, of course, he turns her into a pro boxer. The plot is formulaic--a former star takes an amateur and creates a champion--but the psychological nuances in Patty's relationships with Jack and Tommy and her ambivalence about what she wants keep the clichés in check. Despite the film's message of empowerment, however, Patty never quite stands on her own without a man, and we learn nothing about who she was before she started to box. Nevertheless, Eleniak gives a strong performance, and the drab, eerie background of the dilapidated city combined with the toughness of the kids in the club and the women Patty fights remind the viewer that a boxing match is also a fight for self-defense and self-respect. (Jaimie Baron)
Directed by Jessica Villines
May 5, 9:30 p.m., hosted by the director and Cynthia Plaster Caster
Wang alert! First-time director Jessica Villines followed Chicago native and 53-year-old groupie-with-a-mission Cynthia Plaster Caster around with a camera for more than two years, sorted through more than 200 hours of footage, and came up with this spirited, unwieldy vérité look at rock 'n' roll and the fine line between art and kitsch. This legendary scenester created a name for herself (literally--you think "Plaster Caster" was on her birth certificate?) back in the '60s by immortalizing the peters of rock's up-and-comers with her alginate casts. Cynthia meets up with a few of her former subjects, scouts out a few new prospects, and gets ready for a first-time gallery retrospective in New York. Plaster Caster is hellbent on being anti-expository, an antidote to all those unwaveringly formulaic rock-star bios we see on cable TV. However, once in a while you wish the film was more tightly edited, or that Villines would insert a few more talking heads to tell us what's going on. Whatever. The central figure's appealing quirkiness, candor, and verve will charm the pants off you regardless. (Adele Marley)
Portrait of Jason
Directed by Shirley Clarke
May 6, 4 p.m., host to be announced
A newly restored print of the late experimental filmmaker's classic 1967 documentary about a street hustler gets its world premiere.
Rediscovering George Washington
Directed by Michael Pack
May 5, 1 p.m., hosted by the director
A documentary portrait of our first president that emphasizes the character traits that made him successful.
Rhythm 'n' Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music
Directed by Robert Mugge
May 5, 10 p.m., hosted by the director
Rhythm 'n' Bayous was supposed to be another movie entirely. Music-centric documentary filmmaker Robert Mugge (Cool Runnings: The Reggae Movie, Gospel According to Al Green, and fellow MFF 2001 entry Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise) admits right up front that he was supposed to film a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame-sponsored bus tour of Louisiana but instead found himself drawn to the back roads and bayous of the land's rich and complex musical/cultural gumbo. The movie he made instead breaks down the state's indigenous sounds, region by region, beginning with the gospel and country of the north and winding up with the Cajun music, zydeco, and hybridized "swamp pop" of the southwest. Along the way, Rhythm 'n' Bayous exposes some little-known corners of American musical history, including the arcane black-gospel practice of "Easter rocking" and a glimpse at the legacy of Shreveport's Louisiana Hayride country-music radio show, once the primary rival to The Grand Ole Opry. As a documentary, Rhythm 'n' Bayous is a testament to how much diverse music one outsized patch of ground can soak up, though an unvarying hour and a half of Mugge's bare-bones performance scenes cut with soporific talking-heads spots makes reading a road map seem somewhat thrilling by comparison. (Lee Gardner)
Directed by Doug Sadler
May 5, 10 p.m.; at the Heritage CinemaHouse May 6, 12:30 p.m.; hosted by the director
Riders is a quietly stirring road movie reminiscent of Wim Wenders' 1974 film Alice in the Cities. Both feature a vagabond hipster saddled with caring for a little girl after the youngster's self-centered mom ditches her, but the resemblance ends there. Whereas Alice is bittersweet, hopeful, and sticks to the road, Riders evolves into a brooding, dark comment on the disintegrating American family. The debut feature of Easton-bred director/writer Doug Sadler follows the aforementioned nomad, Alex (poised newcomer Bodine Alexander), a solemn tank-top-clad teen trying to shield her precocious sister, Sarah (Sarah Stusek), from the advances of their mom's creepy live-in boyfriend (Don Harvey). When Alex catches him in the act (or what looks like it, anyway) and doesn't get the response she was hoping for from her skeptical mom (Jane Beard), she hits the road in search of her biological father, kid sister in tow. Sadler does a nice job of ratcheting up the film's intensity with its unsettling ending, an explosive capper you'd probably never see on, say, television--the only other place where this kind of all-too-real domestic upheaval is considered fodder for entertainment. (Adele Marley)
Directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim
May 6, 1:30 p.m., hosted by the directors
Once upon a time, two twentysomethings had a brainstorm: Why not create a way for citizens to handle bureaucratic chores--applying for fishing licenses, paying parking tickets--online? In this fast-paced documentary about the much-hyped, ill-fated company that resulted, govWorks.com, Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus (the latter Oscar-nominated for 1993's The War Room) strip away the Internet's young-millionaires-in-a-hurry myth to reveal the vulnerable human beings behind such start-ups. We meet govWorks' linchpins, childhood chums Tom Herman and Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, men of opposite personalities who struggle to hold both the company and their relationship together as their creation grows too big for them to control. Though Startup.com is a human tale rather than a business story, viewers may shudder to discover just how seat-of-the-pants many multimillion-dollar Web outfits are--and understand more fully why the tech-laden NASDAQ's current dive into the toilet was inevitable. Startup.com is a timely film that deserves a place in a time capsule. (Heather Joslyn)
For more on this movie, see Doc.com.
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise
Directed by Robert Mugge
At the Heritage CinemaHouse May 4, 8 p.m.; at the Charles Theatre May 5, 5 p.m.; hosted by the director
Resplendent in his outer-space thrift-store regalia, Sun Ra speaks: "Some people call me Mr. Ra. Some people call me Mr. Ree. Some people call me Mr. Mystery." Ra is no less a mystery after Robert Mugge's hourlong portrait of the late jazz great unspools. The filmmaker eschews any background info or comment about Ra, tacitly presenting him as the not-of-this-world spiritual being that he claimed to be. But A Joyful Noise, presented in a newly revamped version of the original 1980 film, does illuminate its enigmatic subject in a most enlightening way. Mugge captured absolutely astonishing performance footage of Ra's colorful big band in full ecstatic flight on a rooftop and at Baltimore's Famous Ballroom, veering from frantic free-jazz salvos to a swing through Thelonius Monk's "'Round Midnight" to the band's trademark vocal numbers and beyond. Mugge's camera also peers inside Ra's Philly rowhouse and meets some of the players who subverted their very lives to their leader's musical vision. Most unusually, the film offers perhaps the most complete survey of Ra's cosmic philosophies about life, the universe, and music through a series of one-sided discussions, all conducted by Ra with convincing sincerity, undercut by a slight amusement at the petty mortals trapped here on Earth who try to figure him out. (Lee Gardner)
This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse
Directed by José Mojica Marins
At Bengie's Drive-In, May 5, 9 p.m.
This 1967 film by Brazilian horror auteur José Mojica Marins is the second in his series featuring his signature character Coffin Joe, the villainous undertaker.
For more on Marins and his movies, see The Ballad of Coffin Joe.
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis
At Bengie's Drive-In, May 5, 9 p.m.
Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1964 opus explores the still-simmering Southern resentment over the War of Northern Aggression with finely etched drama and a thoughtful exploration of the historical importance of . . . oh, for Christ's sake, we're kidding. This is Herschell Gordon Lewis. The citizens of the Dixie burg Pleasant Valley lure six Yankee tourists to town for a Civil War centennial, and, as Maniacs' poster promises, the streets are "bathed in pulsing human blood!"
Two Unknown Photographers
Directed by Kon Pet Moon
May 4, 3 p.m.; May 5, 4 p.m.; hosted by the director
In 1985, while cleaning out the soon-to-close San Francisco photo shop where he worked, Kon Pet Moon found two bundles of processed but never-picked-up prints. Albert Easterwood had taken dozens of photos of women in magazine ads, all carefully annotated, several innocently sexual. Margaret Raymond had shot stacks of snaps that seemed to trace some kind of personal journey--icons in museums, marquees advertising porn, Vietnam-era protests, sere desertscapes, and, finally, two ominous, enigmatic pictures of a woman with a bag over her head. The photos--their oddity, the life narratives they hinted at--got inside Moon's head; he set out to find and make a film about the amateur shutterbugs. The result, which took him a decade to complete (a period that included a sojourn teaching at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County), is unique and mesmerizing, as much about the filmmaker's creative and artistic journey as it about his subjects--more so, actually. Mixing straight documentary and experimental techniques, Two Unknown Photographers is long (about two and a half hours) and sometimes slow, but it develops its own hypnotic, irresistible rhythm as it explores the mystery of artistic obsession, the nature of cinematic storytelling, and the assumptions we bring to a photograph or a movie about what happened outside the frame. (Andy Markowitz)
Unfinished Symphony: Democracy and Dissent
Directed by Bestor Cram and Mike Majoros
May 4, 1 p.m.; May 5, 11:30 a.m.; hosted by co-director Bestor Cram
On Memorial Day weekend in 1971, a group of Vietnam veterans began an anti-war march from Concord, Mass., to Bunker Hill--retracing Paul Revere's famous ride. The vets wanted to camp on the historic Lexington green, site of the Revolutionary War's first battle. The town's leaders forbade it, and the result was the largest mass arrest in Massachusetts history, with more than 400 protesters and villagers charged. The filmmakers used lots of archival footage, along with some startling interviews taken from the Lexington Oral History Project and new conversations (notably with A People's History of the United States author Howard Zinn), to tell their tale. The result is almost a little too stolid and scholarly, given the passions the subject matter can still arouse, but this is a story that needs telling. Unfinished Symphony is both a reminder of the ugliness of the Vietnam War (especially as it ground to a weary halt in the early '70s) and of the surprising nests of doves to be found among America's allegedly silent majority. (Heather Joslyn)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
May 6, 6:30 p.m.; hosted by Ravens coach Brian Billick; tickets are $25 and include admission to the closing-night party.
Arguably the bleakest film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar, Clint Eastwood's 1992 masterpiece is a Western that demythologizes both the Old West and the very American idea that justice can be achieved through committing murder. Director Eastwood plays William Munny, a widower who's raising two kids on his struggling farm and trying to resist the temptations of his gunslinger past. For a desperately needed $500, he agrees to help his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a novice badass who calls himself "The Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett) kill a pair of cowboys who mutilated a young prostitute. Along the way, he tangles with the brutal lawman Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, Oscared as Best Supporting Actor). Unforgiven is an epilogue to Eastwood's career as an icon of Western gun culture, and something of an apologia for it; when Munny returns to his violent ways, the director conveys the gathering gloom with mud, dark, and pounding rain. The unsentimental direction is matched by David Webb Peoples' tough-minded script, studded with such pithy meditations on mortality as "We've all got it coming, kid." (Heather Joslyn)
A Union in Wait
Directed by Ryan Butler
May 4, 7:30 p.m., hosted by the director
A straightforward and traditional documentary about a couple that is neither straight nor traditional, A Union in Wait documents the struggles of Wendy Scott and Susan Parker, who decided in 1997 to have a same-sex-union ceremony at their usual house of worship, Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C. Because the church is located on the campus of Wake Forest University, the university's president and its board of trustees had the authority to prevent the union from taking place on campus, and did so. However, students protested this decision and brought it to the media's attention, and in 1999 the couple was able to have the long-awaited ceremony. In addition to interviewing Scott and Parker, producer/director Ryan Butler has put together a number of interviews with Wake Forest students, ministers, gay activists. and gay-marriage opponents, along with footage of the ceremony and the Millennium March, last year's massive gay-rights rally in Washington. The documentary presents nothing new; it mostly preaches to the choir and could have been edited significantly without losing its message. Nevertheless, it is gratifying to watch the bigots condemn themselves as they call gay marriage "unproductive" and "counterfeit" alongside shots of happy gay and lesbian couples embracing. It's also disheartening to see what some narrow-minded homophobes are willing to do to protect their own frail sense of legitimacy. (Jaimie Baron)
Who Is Bernard Tapie?
Directed by Marina Zenovich
May 4, 5:30 p.m.; May 5, 10 a.m.; hosted by the director
Although Bernard Tapie's name is generally unfamiliar in the United States, it is instantly recognized in France, where Tapie is known as both a left-wing activist and as a notorious swindler. Los Angeles filmmaker Marina Zenovich became interested in Tapie after she saw him in French director Claude Lelouch's 1996 film Men, Women, A User's Manual. Tapie, Zenovich found out, is not only an actor; he's also been a recording artist, a millionaire businessperson, the owner of the Marseilles soccer team, and a politician. Zenovich's film chronicles her own obsession with Tapie, who declined her numerous entreaties for an interview. She did, however, interview dozens of French people, trying to understand the history of their nation's elusive fallen star. To this she added existing media coverage of Tapie and video footage of her own search for him. Zenovich is clearly after something along the lines of Michael Moore's Roger and Me, but there is too much footage of her stalking Tapie and brooding over him; she comes off as a pushy American groupie. Still, the film delivers many tantalizing clues about its subject. In his interview, Lelouch gets it right when he tells Zenovich, "At the end of your film, we won't know who Bernard Tapie is, but we will want to know." (Jaimie Baron)
The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage
Directed by Paul Seydor
May 4, 5:30 p.m., hosted by the director
At 34 minutes, this isn't really a feature, though the fest is listing it (and charging for it) as such. Paul Seydor's Oscar-nominated 1996 documentary about the making of Sam Peckinpah's landmark 1969 Western includes never-before-seen footage of The Wild Bunch's production.
The World's Greatest Sinner
Directed by Timothy Carey
May 4, midnight; hosted by musician Will Oldham and the director's son, Romeo Carey
Timothy Carey was the Christopher Walken of his day, a hulking, heavy-lidded character actor who could be counted upon to add a soupçon of weird to any movie or TV show. (He's best known today for bizarre appearances in The Wild One and East of Eden and a supporting role in Stanley Kubrick's 1957 masterpiece Paths of Glory.) His sole effort as auteur, 1962's The World's Greatest Sinner, is a work of crackpot genius: crudely made, incomprehensibly strange, and thematically decades ahead of its time. Carey wrote, directed, produced, distributed, and stars as an insurance salesperson who has a revelation that there is no god but man and that every man is a god. He spreads his gospel first as a rock star (there is no sight in cinema to compare to Carey's version of an Elvisoid shimmy), then as a presidential candidate (in a suit with god embroidered on the sleeves). Along the way he causes riots and suicides, sleeps with an adolescent girl and an elderly granny, and stabs a communion wafer with a needle. Sinner has moments of Ed Woodian amateurishness, but in the three years it took him to make it Carey figured out how to stage a scene; by the film's end he's even throwing in expressionistic lighting and odd camera angles. The score is by a very young Frank Zappa. A movie that honestly must be seen to be believed. (Andy Markowitz)
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