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Frenzy Reviews

Coming Attractions

Our Comprehensive Guide to the Maryland Film Festival 2005

9 Songs
Animated Shorts: Egg
Animated Shorts: Ryan
Apocalypse
The Bicycle Thief
Black-Eyed Susan
Blake's Junction
Burn to Shine
Code 33
The Education of Shelby Knox
The Edukators
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Estes Avenue
The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo
Connections Shorts: I'd Rather Be Dead Than Live in This World
The Last Run
Lipstick and Dynamite
Male Fantasy
Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress
Mutual Appreciation
Outside Looking In shorts: Pity 24
Drama Shorts: Pony Under a Painted Sky
Raw Footage
Reel Paradise
Stolen
Sugar
Swimmers
Drama Shorts: Tahara
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Tollbooth
Generations Shorts: Wednesday Afternoon
Wellstone!
Zombies, Demons, and Robots shorts: Robot-ussin

Film Fest Frenzy 2005

Why Do We Go to the Movies? An Introduction...Plus a Chance to Win Tickets

What To See, Where and When Individual tickets for regular festival screenings and events cost $10 ($8 for...

Coming Attractions Our Comprehensive Guide to the Maryland Film Festival 2005

Quite Contrary Todd Solondz Isnít Sick, Heís Sad | By Eric Allen Hatch

Back From Baraka A Kenyan School For At-Risk Baltimore Boys Holds Promise For Some, A Mere Respite From the Streets For Others | By Nicole Leistikow

Mind Candy Lee Boot Discovers the Source of Happiness and the Meaning of Life | By Blake de Pastino

Posted 5/4/2005

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

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

9 Songs
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
May 5, 10:30 p.m.
British high-wire-walking filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (The Claim, In This World) works without a net again, only this time the show isn't that dazzling. The digital-video intimate 9 Songs follows London glaciologist Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and American student Lisa (Margo Stilley) as they bounce from rock concert to bed in nine alternating chapters of their relationship, all remembered by Matt as he journeys to Antarctica for work. It sounds simple and plays out even simpler--stultifying concert footage (the Von Bondies, Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand) that bleeds into Matt and Lisa going at it in bed, in the living room, tied up, and solo. You suspect the concert footage is supposed to offer a thematic counterpoint to the relationship's arc, but the concerts never achieve anything emotionally compelling, a limbo that starts to color the sex itself. 9 Song's sex is far from sexy--though hardly demure--even though it's refreshingly awkward, clumsy, and figured out as it happens. Here is sex where the naturally hairy bodies aren't porno toned and tanned, where kissing and touching is just as, and sometimes more, important than other things, and where smiles cross faces as often as orgasmic knots. Yet the distanced chill of the concerts eventually seeps into the bedroom, and despite Matt and Lisa's bodily enthusiasm, you almost feel their initial sensuous spark dim over the course of the movie. 9 Songs is an affair elegy in the form of attraction's dissection, and while an adventurous narrative experiment, it leaves you feeling oddly unfulfilled--perhaps because we've all been one in a pair that's gone from lust to nothing so quickly that you feel like you've wasted your time. (Bret McCabe)

After the Apocalypse
Directed by Yasuaki Nakajima
May 8, 2 p.m.
Writer/director Yasuaki Nakajima has constructed a moral parable of such slight elegance that, if anything, it's too refined for its own good. The time is the near future, and the survivors of a wholesale nuclear wipeout are just beginning to stir among the rubble. Trauma-shocked, radiation-burned, and rendered mysteriously mute, the remaining few come upon each other one by one, only to find that the mores that once held them together as a society dissolve, rather than strengthen, in each other's company. Nakajima leads the cast as a post-apocalyptic Everyman, resourceful but vulnerable, needful but strong. Zoirkh Lequidre is a lumbering brute whose only concern is protecting his wife (Jacqueline Bowman) from the attentions of the others, be it the friendly innocent (Moises Morales) who tries to entertain the alpha males by juggling, or the scavenger (Oscar Lowe) who orbits the group. Passionate conflicts--over food, water, or the woman who has become the passel's sexual football--surface on the level of either raised eyebrows or raised fists, with nothing in between, giving the narrative a tantalizing timbre, and allowing Nakajima's dialogue-less script to feel like more than a gimmick. The action is so subtle, however, and the lessons so obvious, that the 72-minute feature comes to feel overlong as early as the midway mark, at which point you might begin wondering if even redemption is worth the wait. (Blake de Pastino)

Animated shorts program
Various directors
May 6, 11:30 a.m.; May 8, 5 p.m.
The great thing about shorts is, if you're not feelin' a particular one, you can just ride it out until the next selected subject. So watching somnolent studies in 3D (Justin Hellickson's "Biopathy III," aka "experimental 3D animation challenging perceptions of anatomy and environment"), one-trick comedy ponies (Cesar Kuriyama's "Awkward": "three bored companions experience an awkward moment"), and a li'l more computo-bation (Freddy Maskeroni's "Decision," featuring CAT scans of the artist and a thing that looks like a metallic strawberry on a voyage to the bottom of the pixels) is a small price to pay to be able to sit in front of all 14 minutes of "Ryan," the longest and most worthwhile of this assortment of shortment. An engrossing animated bioportrait of Canadian animator Ryan Larkin that understandably won the 2004 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, it displays the empathetic direction toward which computer animation can be turned. No, really--superior technique, compelling story, and not to be missed.

Other standouts here include "Bid 'Em In" by Neal Sopata, a lively, sketchy slap-in-the-face reminder of the business of slavery, set to the "Slave Sale Song" by Oscar Brown Jr. (subject of the documentary, Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress, also showing at the festival); BenniiD's "TS120504," a slippy-trippy exercise in eye candy; "The Fan and the Flower" by veteran animator/MFF stalwart Bill Plympton, making us care about whether or not a ceiling fan and a flower will be able to share love; "Egg," Benh Zeitln's stop-motion Moby Dick-inspired tour de merde; and the Paul Klee-styled Native American creation myths of Stephen Brandt's "Surface (Terra Primus)." (Joe MacLeod)

The Aristocrats
Directed by Paul Provenza
May 6, 10:30 p.m., MICA's Brown Center
One hundred of the funniest and most famous comedians in the world tell their versions of "the funniest joke in the world."

Black-Eyed Susan
Directed by James Riffel
May 8, 1:30 p.m.
Sorry, nothing to do with Preakness. When three twentysomething guys (John Gardner, Van Wyck, and Peter Monetti) realize the old guy in the apartment next door is dead, they wager his expensive suits and gold chains mean easy pickings left behind. While robbing the place they find (and discard) a mysterious book. Next thing you know a creepy Slavic cult consisting of a foreign guy (Paolo Pagliacolo), a saxophone dude (Daniel Alvaro), and a blonde with big tits (Solje Bergman) moves in. When they're not staging Anton Levey-esque bacchanals, they drop by and make not-so-vague threats that the guys had better cough up that book. Meanwhile, there's a mute girl (Emilie Jo Tisdale) who sells (plastic) flowers and lip-syncs to blues ballads. In between the heist hijinks the guys wax ad infinitum about pop ephemera, meet kooky characters (A stoner dude! A bounty hunter! A gay white supremacist!), and run around with guns. (Violet Carberry)

Blackmail
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
May 8, 10:30 a.m.
One of the legendary director's now-little-known silent films, Blackmail unravels a knotty tale of a shopgirl, her Scotland Yard detective boyfriend, a self-defense murder, and a hush-money scheme. Boston-based Alloy Orchestra returns to the Maryland Film Festival to provide a live soundtrack.

Black Maria shorts program
Various directors
May 7, 5 p.m.
This acclaimed touring shorts package books another return engagement at MFF.

Burn to Shine/Pancake Mountain
Various directors
Washington/Pancake: May 6, 11:30 p.m.; Chicago/Pancake: May 7, 11:30 p.m.
Burn to Shine is Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty's series of city musical snapshots told over the course of one day in houses scheduled to be destroyed. Only two have been completed thus far--Canty's Washington home base and Chicago--but they promise a disarmingly poetic look at a specific moment in time. The Washington debut documents Jan. 14, 2004, when eight D.C. artists--including Weird War, Bob Mould, and the Evens--performed in an abandoned Maryland house prior to it being burned down as part of a fire department training exercise. Director Christoph Green and crew capture everything--from set up to the eventual burning--with an unobstrusive camera that watches but doesn't comment, lending the project a touch of the ephemeral that the performances don't achieve on their own. The Chicago installment picks up steam, with producer/engineer Bob Weston inviting the bands and the performances reaching a more phenomenal pitch, thanks to the likes of Wilco, Shellac, Tight Phantomz, and a knee-knockingly haunting appearance by the great Freakwater. Also on this program are select episodes of Pancake Mountain, a Washington music and comedy kids TV show where indie-friendly bands perform for the hipster youth of today and tomorrow. Mountain never condescends to Teletubby teat pandering or hokey nonsense--the Evens' "Vowel Movement" approaches something like the Platonic ideal of what kids' music should be--instead practicing the classic genius that 1970s kids' fare such as The Electric Company preached: If adults look like they're having fun doing educational things, the kids will follow. (BM)

The Bicycle Thief
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
May 7, 2 p.m.; hosted by American Splendor's Harvey Pekar
Vittorio De Sica's 1948 The Bicycle Thief didn't invent what became known as Italian neorealism (Luchino Visconti's 1943 Ossessione bears that distinction), nor is it the socially minded post-war style's grandest statement (an ongoing tug of war between Roberto Rossellini's 1945 Rome, Open City and De Sica's 1952 Umberto D). But it is hands down one of the most durably and humanly simple stories ever set to celluloid. The unemployed Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) wants to get and keep a job. That's basically the whole story--but, oh, how timelessly it is told. Ricci emerges out of a faceless crowd at the movie's start and raises his hand to get a job putting up movie posters, a position that requires a bike. He pawns the family sheets to get a bicycle and, as the title reveals, eventually that bike is stolen. What's left is Ricci and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) navigating the poverty-stricken maze that is Rome looking for the stolen necessity, and whether or not they find it is practically immaterial to what Ricci gets to share with his son. If time has burnished the emotional wallop of this gem, its lasting influence lives in the ongoing proliferation of elegant cinematic simplicity (e.g., the Iranian films of Majid Majidi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf). And not even being renown by an inaccurate English translation of its Italian title (Ladri di biciclette is plural) can tarnish that. (BM)

Code 33
Directed by David Beilinson, Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley, and Zachary M. Werner
May 7, 7:30 p.m.
The truth about true-crime tales and police procedurals is that real cops-and-robbers stuff rarely follows the neat narrative arcs you see on-screen. As the documentary Code 33 makes plain, the victims' pain is real, the investigators' work is hard, frustrating, and often fruitless, and whether or not justice is served often depends on something that looks suspiciously like luck. Speaking of luck: The filmmakers set out to work on a project about Miami Police sketch artist Samantha Steinberg. When Steinberg's work became one of the primary tools in the investigation of a serial rape case in the Little Havana neighborhood in the summer of 2003, the crew was there, rolling, and ready to tag along with detectives Fernando Bosch and Elio Tamayo as they patrolled the streets looking for anyone resembling Steinberg's sketches, aka a major fraction of the male Latino population of South Florida. The cameras follow Bosch, Tamayo, and Steinberg home but don't lionize them overmuch; when the detectives dun potential suspects into giving DNA samples on the street, the browbeating nature of their tactics is as plain as their well-meaning desperation. The filmmakers' access and shoot-everything approach makes for a comprehensive you-are-there account of the massive machinery of major police investigations, and of the human qualities and frailties that spark and fuel them. (Lee Gardner)

Comedy shorts program
Various directors
May 6, 4 p.m.; May 7, 9:30 p.m.
This comedy-short slate offers up a mostly dark array of absurd situations. From cuckoldry and gunplay to savage gang beatings, the works are less funny-ha-ha than funny-criminally insane. For instance, Shamit and Sheleen Choksey's "Cold Feet" takes us into a wedding-rehearsal conference between the groom and his best man, who has been fucking the bride-to-be. The groom gives his former friend a choice between killing himself and announcing, during the wedding, that "Beth is a lying, cheating whore!" Comedy gold.

"Commentary: On" retells the story of a young man's love life through a DVD select-screen, which kind of works because he once dated a girl who later became a movie star. The scenario could be very funny, but in this case it's more pathetic. Rob Lindsey and Rudolph Mammitzsch telegraph their explosive punch line. "Estes Avenue" is Paul Cotter's three-minute paean to private mundanity. It is artfully filmed, and features a funny-ish scene in which a barefoot man steps on a hairball, but no punch line at all.

Nate Stark's "Henry and Veronica" tells a good old story in a funny way. Henry, in Mr. Rogers sweater, tie, beard, and top hat, is continually introduced by his sister to prospective mates. "Too normal," he says, rejecting the first. You know he'll find an abnormal one in the end. One with roller skates who talks like a robot. And then it happens. Craig Macneill's "Late Bloomer" portrays an ordinary sex-ed class as strained through the eyes of some kind of Victorian monster novelist. Manically narrated by a Boy (Sam Borenzweig), a "late bloomer," the film depicts an animated vagina nearly as frightening as any in Pink Floyd's The Wall, while the Boy intones in his best hysterical Vincent Price tones, "Fallopian tubes undulating across the wall like tentacles reaching out to me!" There are disco balls and an orgy, too, all inside a seventh-grade classroom. "A" for ambition.

"Whoa," by Maurice A. Dwyer, features a six-minute foot chase followed by a 30-second gang beating. The "funny" part comes at the end. Same with "Pizza Shop," in which a young man, enraged at his girlfriend's imagined infidelity, calls her a "lying piece of shit" and a "fucking cunt" before threatening to kill her as soon as she leaves the title eatery. He looms outside the window as a pair of bystanders sit down to comfort the shattered girl. That she recognizes these Samaritans is the funny part, and I won't give the joke away. (Edward Ericson Jr.)

Comic Twist shorts program
Various directors
May 6, 10:30 p.m.; May 8, 1 p.m.
Interestingly, the most engaging movies in this program are the ones that employ the most contrived film format--the musical--to tell their stories. Ari Sandel's "West Bank Story," for example, is a satire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played out as a love story (complete with finger-snapping, Jets vs. Sharks allusions to West Side Story) in which Fatima (Noureen DeWulf), Hummus Hut's employee of the month, falls for young Israeli soldier David (Ben Newmark), whose family runs the competing Kosher King. The two businesses enter into a feud, love blossoms, and dancing menorahs and suicide-bomber jokes take center stage. Likewise, "Tap Heat," directed by Dean Hargrove, relies on musical numbers to tell its story about a city ruled by tap dancing and the unlikely alliance between a renegade tapper wanted for "illegal" dancing and a member of the city's Tap Squad. There is no dialogue in this 14-minute film--Hargrove lets the tapping tell the entire story.

The rest of the program is not exactly high art, but it's good for a few belly laughs--or groans, depending on your sensibilities. We don't want to wreck the program by giving it all away, but here are a few spoilers to tempt your comic tastes: space-age stormtroopers navigate a highway rest area (Ben Gregor's "Blake's Junction 7"), Boy Scouts talk about peeing and murderers (Deb Hagan's "Pee Shy"), and a yeti-type creature rapes a research scientist (Tom Putnam's "Broadcast 23"). Big, twisted fun. (Erin Sullivan)

Connections shorts
Various directors
May 7, 1:30 p.m.
Sure, emotional intimacy has its charms, its uses even. But greater intimacy doesn't always mean finding true connection or, on the other hand, a big dramatic breakup. This collection of four shorts delves into that ambiguous zone where relationships start murky, and end up more confused, or perhaps a little less dire. Take the two elderly Israeli brothers who dream of visiting New York in Sigal Mordechai's "America." They've been planning a trip for two years, passing cheap-flight ads clipped from newspapers between their apartments via a bag rigged to a clothesline, visiting Starbucks to prepare for ordering coffee in America, and bothering the local travel agent endlessly but never buying a ticket. Just as the trip finally seems inevitable, younger brother Ezra (Israel Poliakov), a bachelor at 55, meets a woman. Older brother David (Josef Carmon), a widower, turns jealous, and years of co-dependency unravel. Mordechai adroitly touches on the nature of aging relationships and loneliness, portraying the breakdown with empathy.

A similar trope plays out in Elizabeth Holder and Holter Graham's "The Diversion." A young couple (co-director Graham and Kelly Van Zele) who don't get along very well--or have at least adjusted to their differences by becoming comfortable sniping at each other--tool around the Maryland countryside, drinking at roadhouse taverns. On a whim they play out a sexual fantasy that ironically pulls them closer by revealing their ugly and selfish sides. Prepare to wince.

If you always thought a week-long sex session would be all fun and games, Andrew Semans' "I'd Rather Be Dead Than Live in This World" throws some saltpeter on that ambition. Girl meets boy on internet, boy and girl fuck day and night, girl cuts ties to waking world, boy and girl cannot live without each other. Beware the Orgasmatron: Sex is no longer affirmation of life but escape from it.

Sex continues to pose problems in Jay Duplass' verite-style "Intervention." An uncomfortably close camera follows a living-room encounter group as they prod, poke, and attempt to draw out one friend's true sexual nature. The inquisitors mean well, or so they say, until our exasperated subject (Mark Duplass), backed into a corner, spits, "I'm feeling the love, trust me, I'm feeling the gesture right now, but everyone needs to back the fuck up, all right?" Wincing some more, we concur.

These four successful yet draining narrative shorts are followed by a couple short experimental flicks. J. Wesley Bassard's "Rice Counter Ice Sleeper" creates a striking allegory out of an anecdote about a couple who "locked away their romance" before they got married. Its pretensions are leavened by its four-minute running time. Finally, "Something Dying, Something Dead" assembles snippets of hackneyed romance-movie dialogue and abstracted scenery into visual candy that'll help prepare you for the conversation you might have if you watched these shorts with someone you love or want to get closer to. (Tim Hill)

Documentary shorts program
Various directors
May 6, 7 p.m., May 8, 4:30 p.m.
Documentary is as documentary does, at least in this burlap sack full of reality-film farrago. Activism is the order of the day in "Infected," Paul Santomenna's compelling record of the tolls taken by poor medical treatment, or none at all, at the Baltimore City Detention Center, though it falls short on credibility by not contacting the jail's medical services contractor to get their side of the story. Autobiography is the motif of "Top of the Circle," Shaz Bennett's quaint but undemanding reflection of her mother's final hours. Karin Hayes tries to entertain, meanwhile, but fails in her thankfully brief "What Is ART?" featuring interviews with four men named Arthur. The same can be said for "One Nice Thing," in which local filmmakers Julia Kim Smith, Francesca Danieli, and David Beaudouin buttonhole attendees at both 2004 national political conventions to ask them to say a kind word about the opposing party.

All of the shortcomings in this 70-minute program are recompensed, though, with Roger Weisberg's "Rosevelt's America," an all-too-short portrayal of Liberian refugee Rosevelt Henderson and his dignified struggle to pull his life and family back into order after fleeing political harassment and torture. Years of documentation produce profound revelations about hope and redemption, both personal and political, and the payoff is hefty enough that it demands far more time to play out than a mere 26 minutes. Someone please give this director money and a time slot on PBS. (BdeP)

Drama shorts program
Various directors
May 6, 9 p.m.; May 7, 12:30 p.m.
This mixed bag of shorts is worth checking out, if only for James Bartolomeo's locally filmed "Tuffy Low-Low." Brian (Mark Elzey) is a sweet-tempered, somewhat passive sous-chef and aspiring DJ who must deal with the recent loss of his father and looming death of his grandmother. He has no money, but a state social worker offers help and a friend offers solace. The situation, naturally, slips out of control, and he is forced to an act of desperation. Most of Bartolomeo's characters feel genuine, allowing us to believe the central conceit that bad things really do happen to good people. Overall, "Tuffy" is a satisfying and well-crafted short drama, almost fully realized at 38 minutes.

Bill Hallinan's symbol-laden "Pony Under a Painted Sky" follows New York junkie Frank (Kris Eivers), who's beat down by his dealer only to discover upon preparing to shoot up that his score is actually a tiny plastic horse. Naturally, as any good junkie would, he tries to smoke the creature, lick it, shave it, and/or eat it, in hopes of discovering its hidden wealth. Rather than going desperate with physical craving, he assembles a barnyard diorama with the little pony its central feature. Things go from fantastical to violent when his dealer shows up looking for his tiny friend. Will our protagonist ever get to ride the horse?

A German couple on a sailboat fail to draw us in, even when misfortune strikes, in Marc Meyer's "Sunday in August (Sonntag im August)." Two aloof and rather annoying bougie kids relax on a lake. He's a conceited prick who likes to show off his knowledge of ropes and knots; she's a narcissistic bore who's offended by his hygeine. They masturbate. Things go very wrong. Impressionistic underwater shots are interspersed to remind us this is a fairy tale.

Female circumcision is illegal in the U.S. and Canada, yet many Muslim mothers, like Amina (Caroleen Khaul) in Sara Rashad's "Tahara," take their daughters to illegal back-alley dayas, where clitoral circumcision is ritualistically peformed. Amina's mother is pressuring her to get her tween daughter circumsized, and Amina consents. Rashad's powerful emotional narrative about Egyptian women in Los Angeles draws light on an ancient practice, but her story suffers from an overwhelming musical score. Still, it's an enlightening piece about the dilemmas over tradition many women still face in the United States.

"Where Is There Room?" by Sonali Gulati, Byron Karabatsos, and Antonio Paez is a highly stylized, precious piece about a daughter meditating on the relationship with her mother. In contrast with the passionate and tense pieces before it, Where could leave you cold or return your blood pressure to normal, depending on your emotional makeup. (TH)

The Dying Gaul
Directed by Craig Lucas
May 7, 2 p.m.
Craig Lucas, the playwright and screenwriter behind Longtime Companion and Prelude to a Kiss, makes his directorial debut with this romantically fraught tale of Hollywood, featuring a cast of indie-film faves including Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, and Campbell Scott.

The Education of Shelby Knox
Directed by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt
May 8, 4:30 p.m.
Nothing makes Middle America more jittery than talking about sex, but in this documentary about her struggle to have the town of Lubbock, Texas, engage in that very discussion, Shelby Knox shows that she can handle conservative panic with uncanny aplomb. The Education of Shelby Knox tracks the three-year campaign young Knox undertook, by way of the city's teen council, to bring sex education to public schools in a town where red-state politics simply don't get any redder. Putatively, the film intends to chronicle the toll taken on an American teen when she's first introduced to the political process--in scene after scene we see her defending herself, in front of the school board, to her parents, even on right-wing talk radio--but as Knox's endeavor grows into a citywide controversy, her story becomes more about how some people change, even if the rules don't. From her homophobe pastor to the wimpy, pimply president of her teen council, everyone in Knox's life appears to stand still while she undergoes a subtle revolution, transforming from a precocious, sometimes pushy girl into a remarkably self-possessed young woman. The scene in which she debates the adult conservative activist who has been thwarting her every move--think Lubbock's Karl Rove--and ends up handing him his liver is not to be missed. I look forward to seeing Knox on Capitol Hill. (BdeP)

The Edukators
Directed by Hans Weingartner
May 6, 7:30 p.m.
This interesting piece of political fiction from Germany features a trio of disaffected young political dissidents who, frustrated by their dead-end jobs and the apathy of their peers, decide to take matters into their own hands. They become the Edukators, breaking into wealthy villas while the residents are away and wreaking havoc with these affluent people's possessions, leaving militant anti-capitalist slogans in their wake. When one of their break-ins goes awry, the Edukators find their ideals and their friendship tested. Director Hans Weingartner raises a lot of interesting issues, including but not limited to globalization and Third World debt as managed by the World Bank, the increasingly ineffectual nature of political marches and protests, and the disappointing dissipation of '60s idealism into '80s capitalism; given the weight and scope of these topics, the film's end point inevitably feels somewhat underdeveloped. But even though its politics eventually falter, the film functions well as entertainment, especially in its energetic first half. (Eric Allen Hatch)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Directed by Alex Gibney
May 8, 3 p.m.
A documentary exploring the rise and fall of the now-notorious energy company.

Fearful Symmetry
Directed by Charles Kiselyak
May 6, 2 p.m.
A documentary about the filming |of the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, featuring interviews with the actors and filmmakers.

Generations shorts program
Various directors
May 6, 2 p.m.; May 8, 5 p.m.
Two assisted suicides and at least one act of incest animate this program, which features four short studies of love between generations. Oscar Daniels' "Among Thieves" works a great deal of earnest, if not very nuanced, drama into a tale about a hoodlum who invades the home of a terminally ill senior. Similar notes are struck in Sean Mewshaw's "Last Night," in which a game Frances McDormand prepares for her final hours on Earth, with the help of her husband and a tender young "witness." Things take a turn for the maudlin in Alfonso F. Mayo's "Wednesday Afternoon," about a Chicano youth's weekly visit from his drug-dealing father, which comes off like an after-school special overlaid with American Family-style ethnic-identity histrionics. Finally, Erika Tasini makes her directing debut with "Winter Sea," in which a pretty teen finds herself angled into a perverse love-rhombus involving her older lover, her love-starved brother, and her dizzy mother. If there are similarities among these vignettes, they are unflattering ones; each film hinges on a clunky Maguffin plot device, suggesting that perhaps intergenerational relationships are not that interesting, in and of themselves, after all. (BdeP)

Gorilla at Large
Directed by Harmon Jones
May 7, 11 a.m.; hosted by Sun film critic Chris Kaltenbach
The plot sounds like a Scooby-Doo reject, but this 1954 B-movie sports an A-list cast: Cameron Mitchell, Anne Bancroft, Lee J. Cobb, Raymond Burr, and Lee Marvin. Did we mention that it's in 3-D?

In a Nutshell: A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian
Directed by Don Bernier
May 7, 5:30 p.m.
Don Bernier's documentary about the eccentric Elizabeth Tashjian takes a while getting where it's going. Tashjian is an artist and former socialite who opened the Nut Museum in the first floor of her home in Old Lyme, Conn., becoming a beloved figure, nonetheless often mocked by the media, viewed with a mixture of amusement and disgust by the town. Bernier's film goes beyond the schtick associated with Tashjian to show her as a complex woman who was in some ways aware that she had become a sort of sideshow attraction, and in other ways was very out of touch with reality. But the real drama comes when Tashjian is found unconscious in her home. She has no family, and the state, assuming she would never recover, takes possession of her estate. When she recovers, she is declared mentally incapable and put in a home, while the state sells her house and belongings. (Fortunately, most of her nut collection and her truly extraordinary artwork was saved by Connecticut College.) This is by far the most compelling part of the film, and Bernier takes too long getting there. If he had alluded to this development early on, In a Nutshell would benefit from a greater sense of urgency. (Anna Ditkoff)

The Last Run
Directed by Jonathan Segal
May 7, 10 p.m.
The Wonder Years' Fred Savage--looking a lot like Greg Brady all grown up with chest hair and everything--plays Steven, a suit whose three-year run of luck dating a hot model (Andrea Bogart) runs out when she breaks his heart. Taking advice from his unhappily engaged buddy (Steven Pasquale), Steven decides to fuck the pain away. Turns out Steven is a sex addict, this movie is rated R, and watching Kevin Arnold fuck strippers and prostitutes hard is really no fun. Throwing in the father-figure bartender (Vyto Ruginis) and the "good" girl (Erinn Bartlett) does not help. Poor Winnie is going to be shocked, and not in that good way. (Wendy Ward)

The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo
Directed by Amy Stechler
May 7, 11:30 a.m., MICA Brown Center
Mexico's most famous and infamous female artist gets the PBS biography treatment in Amy Stechler's The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo. And though it has nothing new to offer fans, longtime devotees, and those wise enough to have kept an ear tuned to contemporary Mexican art, it provides a clear and thorough portrait of a fascinatingly singular personality and one of the 20th century's more devastatingly complex real-life love stories. Life and Times covers Kahlo's epic, gripping life, from her childhood in Mexico City to her bout with polio to the bus accident that left a 17-year-old Kahlo impaled on a metal rod with broken spine, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, and 11 fractures in her right leg. She started painted during her lengthy recuperation, but she would never be well again and the chronic pain led her to self-medicate--much as the constant philandering of her lifelong love, the giant of Mexican painting Diego Rivera, led her to self-medicate with affairs of her own with both sexes. Stechler navigates Kahlo's work through her own personal story and the topsy-turvy ride that is Mexican social history, but it's most engaging elements are how she brings Kahlo to life through others--former students, an ex-lover, compatriots, fans, and scholars, including the sublime Mexican critical treasure Carlos Monsivais--who are more rewarding than any art-historical consideration or an unplucked Salma Hayek. (BM)

Lipstick and Dynamite
Directed by Ruth Leitman
May 6, 1:30 p.m.; May 7, 5:30 p.m.
A desire to leave home, make a living on their own, see the world, and gain the muscle and moxie to escape bad men and their advances drove ambitious, strong-willed girls to join traveling troupes of women wrestlers in the 1950s. This delightful documentary, narrated by the old-timers themselves and accompanied by a twangy "women done wrong" soundtrack, illustrates the rough and tumble world of dynamite ladies in lipstick who took names and numbers in the ring, fought off loneliness and poverty on the road, and looked glamorous the whole time--from the Fabulous Moolah, who at 80 is managing the careers of lady wrasslers and still throwing down, to 84-year-old Gladys "Killem" Gillem, satisfied with a life that included sleeping on the ground with a bottle of whiskey and a man who loved her. Talk about your hot mamas. (WW)

Livicated
Directed by Erik E. Crown
May 8, noon
Actor and DJ Roger Steffens has loved reggae music since he first heard it more than 30 years ago. Inspired by this love, he has over the years amassed the world's largest collection of reggae music and memorabilia. This documentary takes a look at Steffens' life and his relationship with reggae culture on the eve of his collection's transfer to Jamaica, where it becomes the National Museum of Jamaican Music. Livicated treads an uneasy line between focusing on Steffens and attempting to give an overview of Rastafarian culture, and in so doing leaves both threads feeling half-woven. However, the snatches we get of backstory for Steffens, who, over the course of a decade, went from Goldwater Republican to LSD-tripping associate of Vietnamese peace activist the Coconut Monk to the world's greatest non-Jamaican Jamaican music enthusiast, do sketch out the foundation for a fascinating documentary subject. Reggae and world-music fans won't need to be sold on a film containing rare footage of such giants as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Fela Kuti--nor will record geeks, who might want to attend a screening just to sneak a peak at Steffens' towering walls of tens of thousands of pieces of (mostly reggae) vinyl. (EAH)

Mad Hot Ballroom
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo
May 6, 4:30 p.m.
A documentary tracking the exploits of a group of diverse New York middle-schoolers foxtrotting their way into a citywide ballroom dancing competition.

Male Fantasy
Directed by Blaine Thurier
May 6, noon; May 7, 4:30 p.m.
Bespectacled nebbish Andrew (Robert Dayton) starts his day with a cup of coffee on the veranda and the mantra "I am a god. I create this reality." Unfortunately, nobody told the women he tries to pick up for the rest of the day about his omniscience. What turns them off? Is it because he's old and bald and dorky-looking? Do they sense he's estranged from his wife (Cindy Wolfe) and kid (Levon Culbertson)? Is it his palpable, creepy desperation? His buddy Jay (Shane Nelken) has a shopping bag full of videos of women giving him blow jobs. What's his secret? Director Blaine Thurier's verite-style window on a few weeks in a man's midlife crisis jabs jokes with sneak-attack wit and sketches a dry, dark Alexander Payne-esque portrait of people's self-injurious attempts at intimacy. After receiving a dose of confidence from his fellatially blessed friend, Andrew changes his approach toward women, but his conquests are exactly the kind of women he deserves, which is what he was afraid of. As deliciously ironic as its unfulfilled title, Male Fantasy is a dark and clever comedy full of time-release schadenfreude. (VC)

Mary Poppins
Directed by Robert Stevenson
May 8, 1:30 p.m.; hosted by Dorothy Hammill
Everybody's favorite kiddie-musical Cockney fairy tale, presented here in "sing-along" format.

Me and You and Everyone We Know
Directed by Miranda July
May 6, 2 p.m.
A highly touted debut feature dealing with contemporary romance and sexual awakening in the internet age; starring the writer/director and John Hawkes (Deadwood's Sol Star)

Men Without Jobs
Directed by Mad Matthewz
May 6, 8:30 p.m.
Brooklyn, N.Y., roommates Ish (Ishmael Butler, formerly of Digable Planets) and Oz (Bonz Malone) grew up disdainful of the 9-to-5 lifestyle, but as they near 30 years of age they begin to realize they need to either make their dreams of success as a live-instrumentation hip-hop act a reality or flesh out a more pragmatic Plan B. However, Oz's obsessions with cooking and gambling threaten to pull him in a different direction from Ish, himself distracted by newfound love interest and fellow graffiti artist Veronica (Anita Kopacz). This earnest African-American indie tries its hand at a careful balance of romance, drama, and comedy with mixed results; its soundtrack often outshines what's happening on screen--especially when it reaches back to Native Tongues-era hip-hop or when Ish raids his father's prodigious '70s R&B vinyl collection. (EAH)

Murderball
Directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
May 7, 10:30 p.m.
Rugby's a rough, tough sport, especially when all the players are rolling at each other full-speed in wheelchairs, as in this documentary.

Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress
Directed by donnie l. betts
May 8, 4:30 p.m., MICA's Brown Center
The accomplishments of Oscar Brown Jr. defy compartmentalization, as his efforts as a singer, songwriter, and playwright have generally come charged with political venom, and his political activism rests on the foundation of his cultural works. However, Brown has remained criminally underappreciated, even within the African-American community he has worked so hard to inspire and uplift. Director donnie l. betts' documentary hopes to correct this oversight by painting an impressive picture of a phenomenal personality powered by insatiable desires for self-expression and social justice. Perhaps Brown's best-known legacy remains his cool-jazz vocal records of the early '60s, but betts' film concentrates equally on Brown's material from the '70s and beyond, music that often has more in common with the Last Poets than it does Billie Holiday. Furthermore, even Brown fans may not know the extent of his political activism, which included several candidacies for public office, nor of his ongoing efforts as a socially conscious playwright. Music Is My Life may run a tad long, but it says a lot about both its subject and his times. (EAH)

Mutual Appreciation
Directed by Andrew Bujalski
May 6, 10 p.m.; May 8, 10:30 a.m.
This black-and-white slice of hipster life recalls the '90s DIY aesthetic of Half-Cocked, but Mutual Appreciation's quietly memorable writing, acting, and direction ultimately makes it of interest to audiences unaware of, or uninterested in, the film's indie-pop milieu. Teaching assistant Lawrence (director Andrew Bujalski) has a loving, comfortable relationship with alternative-press journalist Ellie (Rachel Clift) and a loving, comfortable friendship with old pal Alan (Justin Rice), who has just moved to the big city after the breakup of his band. But what threatens to veer toward conventional love-triangle territory abruptly takes an unexpected tonal turn. Some viewers may find Bujalski's approach to narrative a little loose, yet there's a refreshing confidence underlying his decision to forgo conventional character development for a cavalcade of low-key hanging out: rambling conversations, awkward dates, underattended shows, and sloppy after-hours parties. It may not feel like much while it's unfolding, but it's all rendered with enough realism and personality to linger in your mind well after the fact as a film of some substance. (Eric Allen Hatch)

Outside Looking In shorts program
Various directors
May 6, 4:30 p.m.; May 7, 11 a.m.
If you want to watch a series of films about men who are incapable of connecting with other people, this is the shorts program for you. In Gregory Orr's "Alone," a supremely anti-social man who evicts people for a living finds the joy taken out of his job when he has to evict a woman he fell in love with after meeting once. In "Smarty Pants," a man who is smart but has no social skills falls for a girl who is in love with Balzac. French director Janet Marcus mistakenly assumes that we will be rooting for these two crazy kids to get together in this awkward, semislapstick short.

Aaron Ruell (aka older brother Kip from Napoleon Dynamite) directs the unfortunately cutesy "Everything's Gone Green." Set in a stylized '40s-ish past, the short centers on William (Hamish Linklater), a man who barely speaks and has not left his office in 14 years. All that changes when the ridiculously chatty and adorable Rosemary (Alexandra Holden) takes a liking to William and tries to bring him out of his shell. Linklater uses his body and facial expressions to reveal William's feelings, but the whole thing is a bit over the top. We get another disconnected semimute in Alex Chung's "Swim Test," in which an overweight teen refuses to take his shirt off for a swim test. The other two shorts in the series take a different tack with the theme. In the faux-documentary "Pity 24," friends and family deal with the untimely death of a smalltown punk rocker named Stash. Australian director Amanda Kerley lets the story unfold slowly, adding information bit by bit about Stash and those he left behind--including his little brother, semi-girlfriend, and former band mates--allowing us to learn more about the characters than they know about themselves in an enjoyable if often unintelligble film. But the best of the bunch is "Last Full Measure," directed by Alexandra Kerry (Sen. John Kerry's daughter). Set during the Vietnam era, the film looks at a young girl's efforts to help her father read after returning home from the war. There is a remarkable chemistry between father and daughter (Xander Berkeley and Somah Haaland), and Haaland shows an intensity far beyond the usual how-cute-am-I? child actor. While the surprise ending is hardly a shocker, "Last" is so beautiful and heartfelt, without being overly sentimental, that you will enjoy getting there all the same. (AD)

Past, Present, Future shorts program
Various directors
May 6, 1:30 p.m.; May 7, 8 p.m.
The shorts here adhere to the somewhat vague theme well enough, with the exception of "Four Star Day," which really belongs in the Outside Looking In program. The results, however, are mostly hit or miss--not from short to short, but within each film. "Keeper of the Past" is an intense and engaging thriller staring CSI: Miami's Adam Rodriguez as Stanley, who makes his living doctoring photographs to incriminate prominent officials. In his off-time, he is creepily obsessed with his ex-girlfriend Deb. But business and, um, pleasure come together when he uses photos of Deb to help the mayor destroy his opponent. Director Alonso Filomeno Mayo uses flashbacks between the present and Stanley's past with Deb to create a sense that Stanley has difficulty differentiating between the two. Unfortunately, much of the tension is dissipated by Katherine Hawkes' performance as Stanley's liason to the mayor; while the rest of the cast is in a thriller, Hawkes is so campy, she seems to think she's in an episode of VIP.

In "Poof," two dead men discuss the meaning of life as they stand in a limbo of sorts. The conceit is a bit pretentious and stylized, but strong performances, a tight script, and clever direction by Leah Cronican and Kevin Walla make the film engrossing. And the depiction of limbo as a seemingly endless white space is powerful. Two shorts focus on psychics. In Renata Adamidov's "Premonition," a young psychic girl and her brother live with their abusive father, who forces them to panhandle to pay for his gambling habit. While the surprise twist isn't surprising, you do care for the characters. In "Staring at the Sun," a man visits a psychic to find out if he will be fired in upcoming layoffs. When he frames his question as, "What is the worst thing that will happen to me next week?" the psychic refuses to answer. He then goes into a paranoid tailspin with dire results. Director Toby Wilkins saves the predictable ending with an additional twist. Only Chris Keating and Grady Owens' "Four Star Day," the story of Glen (Christopher Kline), who is unable to connect with anyone, including his roommate with whom he is in love, feels out of place here. Still, the directors do a nice job highlighting the fracturedness of Glen's world by using shots that focus on details rather than the big picture. (AD)

Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea
Directed by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer
May 6, 4:30 p.m.
You know you're dealing with an unusual film when the nonironic hero is the late shempy pop star/congressman Sonny Bono. But then, the Salton Sea is nothing if not unusual. The accidental result of a failed irrigation experiment in California's arid Imperial Valley at the dawn of the 20th century, the 30-mile-long lake has experienced both boom (it flourished as a fishing resort, watersports mecca, and retirement community) and bust (bouts of destructive flooding, the collapse of tourism and the real estate market, and various ecological unpleasantries, including massive fish kills and outbreaks of avian botulism). Today its shores are rimmed with corroded ruins and scabby, sun-blasted small towns, deserted but for a dwindling population of community lifers, hardy retirees, and poor families assigned public housing there. Even the local real estate agent flatly states that "bleak" is the word that best describes the place. Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea provides a fast-moving history of the lake's quasi-Biblical ups and downs, but the filmmakers clearly find the area's more eccentric die-hards just as fascinating, leading to a series of Vernon, Florida-like encounters with a leathery old nudist, a chain-smoking cancer survivor, and a town loon who just happens to be an ex-Hungarian freedom fighter. The filmmakers also spend ample time on the political and ecological attempts to resurrect the lake and its surroundings, a patently well-meaning effort that somewhat bogs down the final third. The first two-thirds, however, present some of the stranger things you'll see on a screen this year. (LG)

Porn Theatre
Directed by Jacques Nolot
May 7, 8 p.m.; hosted by John Waters
True love in a porn theater? Surely it can't be even that simple, given that this 2002 French film is John Waters' annual MFF pick.

Raw Footage
Directed by Drew Filus
May 6, 6:30 p.m.
Imagine all the worst, most embarrassing, most frustrating moments you've experienced with your family. Now multiply that by 10 and imagine it all happening in one weekend. That's Drew Filus' Raw Footage. When his aunt and her husband decide to renew their vows, Devon (Rob Cuthill) is charged with creating a film of the ceremony and the weekend of familial togetherness around it. In doing so, he has to deal with his parents' hate-hate relationship, his dumb-ass brother, his ever-complaining grandmother, and his family's estrangement from his dying grandfather. Then there's the fact that his relationship with his girlfriend is disintegrating before his eyes, largely because he can't commit--not a surprising problem considering that when Devon asks his father why he and his mom stay together, Dad replies: "Spite. If I leave, she wins." Filus does a beautiful job with the conceit that we are seeing everything through the lens of the family video camera; after a while you can tell who's filming just from the way the camera moves. And while the situation is artificially heightened and there is some serious deus ex grandpa going on, the dialogue and acting are generally so natural and real that it's almost hard to watch. Raw Footage is a thoroughly entertaining film that will make you realize that your family really isn't that bad. (AD)

Reel Paradise
Directed by Steve James
May 8, 1:30 p.m., MICA's Brown Center
John Pierson, the lanky iconoclast at the center of the Sundance boom, is tired of his life as minor celebrity in the indie film circuit. He wants to get back to his true calling as an exhibitor. After finding out about the most remote theater in the world, located on the island of Taveuni in Fiji, he decides to take his family (and a documentary crew, natch) on a one-year adventure abroad so he can return to what makes him happiest--a dark theater, a new print, and a happy audience. "I'm just like that guy in The Mosquito Coast," he proclaims, with not-entirely-ironic delight. And, just like that guy, his tropical paradise turns ugly quick. Timetables are ignored, projectionists call in drunk (or not at all), Pierson gets dengue fever, and the family's house gets broken into twice. The abrasive Pierson is not the easiest personality to get along with (to say nothing of his bratty daughter), and his Type A ways and not-always-gentle sarcasm do not go over well with the locals. Still, it's all worth it when the lights go down and the audience shrieks with unfettered, infectious delight at the Three Stooges' gags and Buster Keaton's daredevilry, reminding us of what got us going to the movies in the first place. (VC)

Stolen
Directed by Rebecca Dreyfus
May 8, 11 a.m., MICA's Brown Center
Harold Smith is a dapper septuagenarian in omnipresent dark suit and hat, his distinguished outer covering of a lifelong battle with skin cancer that has left him wearing a prosthetic nose. He is also an art detective, sniffing out priceless works when they're nicked. And over the course of Rebecca Dreyfus' Stolen, he tracks what is one of the modern era's most baffling heists: the 1990 robbery of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner museum that netted five Degas, three Rembrandts, one Manet, one Flinck, and Johannes Vermeer's "The Concert," now considered the most valuable piece of stolen art. Stolen meanders through its running time, sincerely trying to intertwine three stories. One is that of Gardner herself (voiced by Blythe Danner in letters between the late 19th-century collector/philanthropist and her European procurer, Bernard Berenson, voiced by Campbell Scott), and how this strong personality built the first American art museum founded and designed by a woman. The second is that of the heist, a quiet robbery that lifted some $300 million in paintings that haven't been seen since. And the third, and by far most engaging, is the fascinatingly intuitive Smith's dogged pursuit to uncover where these works may be now, a trail that wanders through Boston's Irish underworld and across the pond to the IRA. Stolen falls just short of convincingly bringing Gardner to breathing life, but it offers a fascinating peak into the calmly dramatic world of international art detection thanks to the wily, jubilant Smith. (BM)

Street Fight
Directed by Marshall Curry
May 7, 3 p.m.
It's a pretty predictable political story: Young, fresh-faced upstart challenges seasoned machine politician and loses. But the thing that makes this documentary worth a watch is the shockingly blatant black-on-black racism that marks this particular race. Cory Booker, a suburban-born 32-year-old African-American Yale grad, challenges Newark, N.J., Mayor Sharpe James, a gritty, sixtysomething four-term incumbent born and raised in the city's poorest neighborhoods. When James accuses the light-skinned Booker of being a white Jew pretending to be black (at one point, a Sharpe supporter screams at Booker from a truck, "You're suspect, boy, you ain't black!"), things get ugly, mob mentality takes over, and big guns Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Cornell West are called in to stump for the candidates. The director of the film seems to have fallen a bit in love with his subject, which is where many political-drama docs seem to go south, but Curry keeps it moving with revealing snippets showing the frenzy that drives each of the candidates' campaigns, the matter-of-fact wrangling of political handlers, and the smug righteousness of machine politics. (ES)

Sugar
Directed by Patrick Jolley and Reynold Reynolds
May 6, 7:30 p.m.; May 7, 7 p.m.
A woman experiences claustrophobic, hallucinogenic tortures in a small one-room apartment, besieged by corpses, insects, recalcitrant appliances, and, above all, her own mind. Sugar alternates between color and black-and-white footage, and although nary a word of intelligible dialogue is spoken, it never fails to engage. Tinges of such movies as Repulsion, Morvern Callar, and Clean, Shaven shine through in Sugar's palette without feeling derivative; its abstract refractions of previous psychological thrillers, blended with ample style and panache all its own, produce genuinely arty, genuinely creepy results. (The sparse but chilling soundtrack and sound design deserve special mention.) Not for everyone, but an all-around memorable effort. (EAH)

Swimmers
Directed by Doug Sadler
May 8, 7:30 p.m.
Almost 20 years after Violets Are Blue, intimate family drama returns to Maryland's Eastern Shore, courtesy writer/director Doug Sadler's new film.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Directed by Robert Mulligan
May 6, 10 a.m.; hosted by Sen. Barbara Mikulski
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is one of the most successful literary adaptations imaginable, one that would have been impossible to realize without its ace source material. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, To Kill is about a principled lawyer (Gregory Peck, never better) who defends both a black man against trumped-up rape charges and his children against the evils of prejudice in the Depression-era South. The film's other credentials represent an unusual, fortuitous collusion of talent: Horton Foote's adapted screenplay is a winner, Elmer Bernstein's score is moving, Peck's stirring interpretation of Atticus Finch won him an Oscar, Robert Duvall's film debut (in a wordless but poignant performance as neighborhood bogeyman-at-large Boo Radley) is memorable, and Mary Badham and Philip Alford shine as the Finch children in natural, unaffected performances. Some would charge that the film's relevance is reliant on its coincidence with the initial stirrings of the civil rights movement, but through its artful examination of the virtues of empathy, tolerance, and integrity, To Kill a Mockingbird achieves timelessness. And Robert Mulligan's direction is pretty great, too--the beautifully choreographed, ultrastylized opening credits, featuring a tight focus on random objects in a keepsake box rifled through by childish hands, is like watching the birth of contemporary filmmaking. (Adele Marley)

The Tollbooth
Directed by Debra Kirschner
May 6, 1 p.m.; May 7, 8 p.m. Howard Community College; May 8, 11 a.m.
Brooklynite Sarabeth Cohen (Marla Sokoloff) is a recent art-school grad perplexed with that age-old problem: finding a way to afford to live in Manhattan while still being able to paint. Her situation is complicated by her goy boyfriend, Simon (Rob McElhenney), who decamps to Pennsylvania after graduation, and her overbearing Jewish parents, Ruthie (Tovah Feldshuh) and Isaac (Ronald Guttman), who fret over their med-school daughter Becky (Liz Stauber) and the married Raquel (Idina Menzel) as much as they do the young, headstrong Sarabeth. What's a college-primed feminist young Jewish artist trying to fight the oppressions of religion and patriarchal society to do? If you can get past the soap-box setup and the awkwardly mannered bouts at debunking Jewish stereotypes, The Tollbooth's familiar coming-of-age road has rare moments of cute and funny. Simon and Sarabeth run into the expected postcollegiate relationship tensions, mother and daughter clash over what makes a woman a woman, and golden girl and good student Becky comes out of the closet at dinner. Despites The Tollbooth's often clumsy dealings with its central battle between the modern and the traditional, rare is the movie that chooses to address reconciling religious observation with the modern life, and in a few instances--such as when Becky cutely meets a potential attraction at the synagogue--The Tollbooth rises toward its ambitions and almost gets there. (BM)

Twist of Faith
Directed by Kirby Dick
May 7, 10 a.m., MICA's Brown Center
Tony Comes is the apex of everything a Midwesterner should be. A handsome, rugged man imbued with salt-of-the-earth decency, he is protective of (and tender toward) his wife and two adorable kids. He's worked hard as a firefighter to provide for them--in fact, they've just bought a house. And less than a week after they move in, Comes realizes that Dennis Gray, the Catholic priest who molested him as a teenager, lives five houses down the street. Kirby Dick's documentary of the ensuing unraveling of Comes' life reveals how a legacy of hurt experienced by a boy can corrode the soul of the man. In this case, Comes is stirred enough by unhealed trauma to file suit against the Toledo, Ohio, diocese that knew about Gray's predatory nature and did nothing to protect him and at least six other boys from a similar fate. Supplemented with footage the Comes family shot of themselves, and counterpointed by Gray's taped deposition, Dick's film watches as the aftershock of decades of corruption, greed, lies, and exploitation come crashing down on an honest man. Acknowledging the truth of his personal damage is painful enough, but Comes' subsequent flaying in the courts by the avaricious church is humiliating to witness. "Dennis Gray fucked me," he snarls through gritted teeth, "and now the church is fucking me again." A raw and heartfelt portrait of a man in deep crisis, as well as testament to his courage. (VC)

We Are Arabbers
Directed by Scott Kecken and Joy Lusco-Kecken
May 6, 3:30 p.m.; May 7, 4 p.m.
This local doc takes a sympathetic, often moving look at the mobile urban street vendors known locally as arabbers who hawk produce from horse-drawn carts. Co-directed by Creative Alliance Movie Makers co-founder Scott Kecken and The Wire scribe Joy Lusco-Kecken (Q&A, Sept. 8, 2004), We Are Arabbers talks to arabbers past and present, making a convincing case for these vendors as a rich living testament to Baltimore cultural history. The Keckens draw on a variety of historical documents, including vintage maps, photos, and quotations, but its real strength comes in the oral histories given by dozens of arabbers, all of whom seem to have colorful nicknames like China, Teeth, Man Boy, and Fatback. The completion of this documentary coincides with changing times and legal codes that have caused the numbers of arabbers to dwindle significantly, adding timeliness to this already-excellent piece of nonfiction filmmaking's list of virtues. (EAH)

Wellstone!
Directed by Lu Lippold, Dan Luke, and Laurie Stern
May 6, 6 p.m.
To tweak a Woody Allen joke, it may be a propaganda piece, but at least it's a propaganda piece for the left. The thesis of this progressive-funded documentary--the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone sure was a swell guy, and his work should be continued--is a simple one and, for many, easy to agree with. However, the feel-good production values and unabashedly subjective spin of Wellstone! result in a campaign-commercial aesthetic that will turn off many viewers, even some predisposed to agree with Wellstone's impassioned political stances (for workers, the environment, and universal health care; against welfare "reform" and both wars in Iraq). Anyone hoping for a rigorous look at the man and his politics needs to look elsewhere. That said, for those wanting to learn the biographical basics about the senator, there's plenty of introductory material here, and footage of Wellstone's spirited early campaigns remains galvanizing. And for one remarkable moment--in discussing Wellstone's opposition to gay marriage--the film actually disagrees with its hero! (EAH)

Zombies, Demons, and Robots shorts program
Various directors
May 6, 9 p.m.; May 7, noon
The five shorts in this program take a tongue-in-cheek approach to horror- and monster-movie conventions, each riddled with more slapstick than gore. And some use the genre merely as a leaping off point for manic laughs. Nicholas McCarthy's "Cry for Help" is a run-on sentence of gags: a half-Jewish young man is told by his father that now that his mother is dead that he should be circumcised, but before he can really consider, his pot dealer accidentally shoots him in the head, hacks up his body, and makes jerky. And then, wouldn't you know it, the rapture comes and all hell really starts to break loose. Shot in Night of the Living Dead murky black and white, Mike Gutridge's "Loretta" pairs a young grave robber (Tom Lenk, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's nebbish Andrew Wells) with a grimy dead guy named Dusty (Graham Shiels) who awakens, along with the rest of the dead, between the hours of midnight and 1 a.m. They two form an unlikely con team, scaring people to pick their pockets, but when they decide to pull a little home invasion on a kind blind woman (Tracie Savage) who lives with her father, who's bilking who?

Sean McCarthy's "Raging Cyclist" is one of the more freewheeling of this program, but also the most scattershot. A naive goof of a cyclist gets his ass handed to him after a beat-down by some earthly demons--aka teenage girls--and then decides to confront a hooded, horned, hunting knife-wielding cyclist in an outdoorsy park himself. The sight-gag jokes win at first--McCarthy is as big a fan of the exaggerated camera sweep and action noises as Robert Rodriguez--but by the time "Raging Cyclist" becomes Roadracers crossed with Predator, it's half-hour starts to feel inordinate. Everett R. Aponte's "Samuel Demango" handles the longer format better. This blithe, Spanish-language short follows the troubled life of a sick young man who lives with his overbearing mother, and her only prescription to allay his illness is a steady diet of mangoes. One of the fruits, Death, begins talking to him Son of Sam-style when he tries to slit his writs, only to find he bleeds mango juice and can't be killed. "Samuel Demango" moves with the lucid ease of a foreign mystery, and eases into its absurdity with a calm sincerity that makes its dark humor all the more appealing.

By far the standout of this group is the shortest. Havre de Grave filmmaker Nikc Miller's "Robot-ussin" is a three-and-a-half-minute jolt of mirthful energy in which a young black illustrator in a Black Elvis-era Kool Keith T-shirt draws a robot, swills a big jug of Tussin, and then goes outside and laser-tags this robot until it falls into a pile of scrap, all set to tracks from People Like Us. Nothing more and nothing less, "Robot-Tussin" doesn't try to make one iota of sense and succeeds magnificently, proving that sometimes aiming low is high enough to entertain. (BM)

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Film Fest Frenzy (5/5/2010)
City Paper's annual guide to the Maryland Film Festival

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Reviews of Features at the Maryland Film Festival

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