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"The Strangers" 1/2 *

May 28, 2008

What can I say. I love a good scare. And I so wanted to be scared by a worthwhile film. I made a mistake. A huge mistake. This blog was established so that you wouldn't waste your precious time while on the planet. So be forewarned and please heed my advice on this one! The prologue says "Inspired by true events". More like inspired by about 10 previous movies that it steals from. Then it reveals the disturbing figure that there are 1.8 million violent crimes each year in the U.S. This movie makes it 1,800,001. Supposedly, a couple (Liv Tyler & Scott Speedman) heads for Scott's family summer home in 2005 after a friend's wedding. Waiting for them in the dark are 3 masked homicidal maniacs (2 of which are female!) who, over the course of 90 loooong minutes, for no apparent reason (one of them says it's because they were home), terrorize the couple to no end. The sound editor is the real star of this one as first time director Bryan Bertino obviously thinks this is the best way to make the audience jump. What is even more unconscionable is that this one note film not only doesn't scare, it's also boring. Nearly 2/3's is nothing but sounds and screams (by Tyler-not the audience) and every move by the principals is telescoped minutes before it happens. And talk about a disappointing conclusion. The director, I'm sure, is counting on the fact that no one saw "Carrie". An absolute total mess.

"The Visitor" ***

May 22, 2008

Director Tom McCarthy seems to specialize in focusing on lonely souls who are transformed by the people they meet along the way. He wrote and directed one of my favorites, 2003's "The Station Agent", and he does the same here with this quiet little gem that will have you pondering the direction this country has taken in dealing with illegal immigrants in this post 911 era. Character actor Richard Jenkins delivers a superbly subdued performance as a bored disinterested Connecticut economics professor who, when forced to attend a conference in Manhattan, discovers 2 immigrants who are occupying his long unused apartment. What transpires is his slow attitudinal transformation in his acceptance toward his uninvited tenants and his realization that his life can be quite different and meaningful if only he would follow his instincts. The film nicely meanders along as the developing relationships evolve, until one of the tenants is abruptly thrown in a holding prison while awaiting his possible deportation. The film takes a heartbreaking turn as you witness an aspect of the immigration issue most of us didn't consider once it is no longer faceless.

"At The Death House Door" ****

May 14, 2008

I've been a founding member of the wonderful AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring since 2004 and this evening is a perfect example of why I became a member! This one time showing of this wonderful documentary with a fabulous following discussion by the filmmakers and the subject of the film made it well worth the trip down Rt 29. The pedigree of this doc made it absolutely imperative that I attend. Directors Steve James (who made one of the greatest documentaries of all time in "Hoop Dreams"), and Pete Gilbert (cinematographer for docs "Stevie" & "Prefontaine") have created an amazing portrait of jailhouse priest and choir director, Carroll Pickett who, before he retired, accompanied 95 inmates on their way to their execution at the infamous "Walls" prison in Huntsville, Texas. A staunch anti-death penalty advocate, he initially took the job despite witnessing 2 of his parishioners slaughtered after a botched jail house kidnapping years before at the same prison. What is even more amazing was that in order to reconcile his beliefs with his job, as therapy, he secretly recorded his thoughts to a tape recorder that even his 2nd wife didn't know about until he revealed their existence to 2 Chicago Tribune reporters. (She remarked that her husband never cried-that the tapes were his tears.) What transpires is actually 2 journeys: the professional and the personal. The main focus of the film centers on one Carlos De Luna-a poor schlub who was executed in 1989. Compelling evidence is presented that Carlos was clearly innocent-a fact that Pickett believed even as he walked with him to the execution chamber. Pickett's personal journey and torment, though, are the main focus that, after the final reel, might have you either rethinking or strengthening your position on this controversial subject. Powerful! (The filmmakers said that it will not be distributed to theaters but will be shown on IFC sometime in the future. Be sure to look for it!!)

Maryland Film Festival-DAY 4 & Final Thoughts

Sunday May 4, 2005

Another beautiful day in dear old Bawlmer greeted film goers for the last day of the 10th annual. And it started with a bang with, what is becoming, the festival's annual performance by the world renowned Alloy Orchestra performing the background score for Josef von Sterberg's 1927 silent film "Underworld" (****). This one is purported to be the gangster film that started the genre. Writer Ben Hecht ("The Front Page" and "Scarface") won the first Academy Award for "Best Writing" for this work. I first heard The Alloy Orchestra at The Telluride Film Festival preforming for the original silent great "Nosferatu" in 2000 and have seen them about 7 times since-usually at the MFF. The 3 musicians sound like many more and produce original scores to many diverse silent films. They are spectacular and not to be missed if you have the opportunity to see them.

I followed this one with the fun documentary "Strictly Background" (***). Director Jason Connell follows 10 career background movie extras to show what it's like to try and get your 15 minutes of fame even if you are just a head shot in a crowd scene full of hundreds of extras. I was particularly drawn to this film as I have had experience as an extra in several movies and TV productions. Although I never looked at it as a career option, these 10 LA folks do and will go to great lengths to fulfill their dreams to be in the movies at any (or no) cost. In fact it's really not about the money at all for these characters. And that is part of what makes them, as well as this documentary, so fascinating. The filmmaker mentioned that it will be shown on TV sometime this year and available on DVD. A humorous look into the inner workings of this aspect of show business that remains, er, strictly background.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Reflecting back over the last 4 days I started making mental notes of the pluses and minuses of my hometown festival and thought I'd sum up how far the festival has come and where it needed improvement as its entered the 2nd decade of existence:
-The last couple of years, the opening night event has been held on the campus of The Maryland Institute of College of Art. Why not return it to The Senator full-time where it all began-which would serve to promote both the festival and the last movie palace in Baltimore. That would be the perfect marriage-and it would have been even more appropriate this year having Barry Levinson hosting both the first MFF as well as its tenth anniversary.
-It is time that the concept of "nothing but shorts" to open the festival needs to be finally put to rest. Although the compilation this year was the best yet, there is nothing special that they bring to the table. Many people I've talked to over the last 4 days agree with me that having a full length film would better serve the attendees than, what amounts to, a hour's worth of short films made by virtual unknowns. The novelty has definitely worn off and, if the organizers want to include them, then select a couple of the shorter, better works to show preceding the main event.
-Although The Charles' location for the majority of the screenings has always been a plus, I missed the Senator's special 70mm screenings that were held there during the early years.
-The parking situation improved drastically by providing free street parking around The Charles allowing patrons better accessibility to the event.
-I loved the free outdoor screenings and the tent village with its workshops and panel discussions with filmmakers and other notables.
-The majority of the screenings I attended started late-which didn't allow a lot of leeway if you had tickets to another event immediately following-which is a huge no-no for film festivals with tight schedules!
All in all, though, I'd give the festival a C+. Overall, it was an enjoyable weekend of diverse films as I look forward to year 11.

Maryland Film Festival-DAY 3

Saturday May 3, 2008

How ironic that my first 2 films today were documentaries that focused on people who pursued their dreams who thought nothing of the possible resulting consequences despite the incredible obstacles they faced as a result of the pursuit. First up was the amazing "Song Sung Blue" (*** 1/2) which won both the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival. Being an aspiring musician in several rock bands in my early 20's, I have always had a keen interest in films dealing with individuals who went to extreme lengths to make it in the fickle world of entertainment. Luckily, I woke up in time to realize that dreams don't always pay the bills. So, I abandoned these ideas when I joined the thousands and thousands of people (many of whom were way more talented) on the sidelines. I also understood that one needed a ton of luck to go along with talent-and even then you had to have extreme tunnel vision to be relentless in making it happen no matter the consequences. Greg Kohs's wonderful documentary deals with the Milwaukee husband and wife duo Mike and Claire Sardina (known as Lightning and Thunder) and uses a decades worth of footage to bring this fascinating story to the screen. The film focuses on Mike's (Lightning) obsession to make it "big" by performing mainly Neil Diamond material (along with those of Patsy Cline and ABBA). Not only did Mike resemble the pop icon, he also had the sound and inflections of Diamond down pat. They became local icons in Milwaukee and hit it big when they opened for Pearl Jam in front of 30,000 people. It was then that Mike thought that that was the break they needed. However, tragedy struck when Claire was loses her leg after she's hit by a car while innocently gardening in her front yard. Their career takes a downturn after this, as does their personal life, but it wasn't enough to discourage Mike and Claire's dream to succeed. Their no holds bard roller coaster ride is fully exposed by the incessant filming of the duo through all their tragedies and triumphs. If this were a fictionalized story, you probably wouldn't believe it. What made it more special was Claire's appearance at the festival (see DAY 1 above) which left special poignancy to the proceedings. Speaking with her after the screening, Claire informed me that she was invited to the AFI Silverdocs documentary film festival in mid-June held in Silver Spring Maryland where she will also perform. If you can make it there, it would be well worth the trip!

Next up was an even more starling doc, "Waiting For Hockney" (****) made by first time filmmaker JuliaCheckoway. A hit at Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Film Festival, the focus is on Maryland resident artist Billy Pappas. A graduate of the Maryland Institute Of College of Art (which was where the screening took place), his idea to succeed was to create a graphic drawing that utilized the theories of David Hockney of reproducing a work of art in such minute detail that it would rival a photograph. His obsession to create the work while also hoping to meet his idol which, hopefully would result in receiving a commission to continue his artistic career is painstakingly chronicled by the filmmaker. What makes this journey so dramatic is that his effort to create this one masterpiece (based on a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe) took him over 8 years while working over 8 hours a day! You'll have yourself wondering whether this dream was merely passing fantasy, a mad obsession by the artist, or was it a work of art to be treasured by the art world and the starting point of greatness. What Julie has done is exquisitely portray this journey through the use of archival footage and a wonderful use of music throughout to help build the suspense along the way. By not unveiling his portrait until 3/4's of the way through the film only serves to heighten your interest and the suspense. It's an incredibly impressive documentary for a first time filmmaker.

Next up was one of the hits at this year's Sundance, "American Teen" (*** 1/2). Winner of the Directing Award, the film chronicles the lived of 4 seniors at an Indian High School over the entire 2006 school year. Mixing superb animation (used to mirror the thoughts of each student) and music, you get an inside scoop on what it's like to be in be in their shoes. This isn't your or your parent's high school, believe me! By focusing on 4 teens who couldn't be more far apart in the high school caste system (a nerd, a basketball star, the "queen bee", and the artistic girl) your impressions of them slowly change, as do they, as they experience their own personal struggles during this provocative year of their life. What must have been an editing nightmare is beautifully brought to the screen by director Nanette Burstein, and your empathy for each teen grows the longer you're with them. The film has been picked up by Paramount Vantage and will be released nationwide in July.

The 10th Annual Maryland Film Festival-DAY 2

Friday May 2, 2008

As if to summon the start of summer, the first full slate of films at the MFF was greeted with a beautiful summer-like day with full sunshine and temperatures in the lower 80's.

The proceedings started off with a bang with the much buzzed-about powerful new documentary by Patrick Creadon ("Wordplay") entitled I.O.U.S.A. (*** 1/2). Patrick and executive publisher of Agora Finanacial, Addison Wiggin said that the version we saw to kick off the first full day was actually the Sundance version while the other 2 upcoming screenings were updated and slightly different versions. This version was about to be even further changed before the film is released. The film documented the state of this nation's national debt and was a gloom and doom essay on what our future generations will have to deal with due to the fiscal responsibilities of past and current administrations. Over the course of its 85 minutes, Creadon spewed enough facts to spin your head faster than Linda Blaire's in "The Exorcist". Although this was necessary to fully inform how we got to this miserable fiscal state, the filmmaker needs to tighten up this aspect of the film in order to keep the viewer from zoning out. Ultimately, it is one scary horror story-especially when you realize that it is reality!

Next up was a small indie film by Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner, ("Goliath" **1/2). The brothers (who produced a series of short films before this their first feature) also star in this dry comedy about a loser who faces one miserable experience after another, and, as if things couldn't get worse, the only positive in his life, his cat Goliath, goes missing. The filmmakers take us through a series of comedic set pieces some of which work, while others are long and tedious, that eventually results in the main character finally losing it. It's takes an interesting turn but, by then, I was looking at my watch wondering what time the next film would start.

The evening started with the festival's annual John Waters' introduced film. Each year John picks and MC's one of his favorites. This year, it was the great legendary French director Claude Chabrol's 1988 "Story Of Women" (***). After a few opening humorous comments, John mentioned that it originally had very limited distribution in the U.S.-probably because of the subject matter. Isabelle Hubbert gives a great riveting performance of a woman who performed illegal abortions when France was under the Nazi-corroborating Vichy government. Based on a true story, this film presents the moral issues of abortion rights and the death penalty that is centered around Huppert's character. Although the story moves along at a snail's pace and the drama doesn't really escalate until the final reel, Huppert's astonishing performance was well worth the time spent seeing a film that most would never get to see otherwise.

The day ended taking in brothers Jay and Mark Duplass' latest, "Baghead" (***). I absolutely loved their first film "The Puffy Chair" (which I reviewed in my 2005 Sundance Diary). Although not as strong, this one was another great relationship based film which the brothers seemed to really understand. Four friends (2 male and 2 females) go off to a desolate summer retreat to try and write a screenplay, starring themselves, in order to get them started on the road to fame and fortune. What happens along the way is both funny, touching, and surprising. The hand held camera with its incessant in and out focus might drive you crazy but it actually adds to the documentary feel of the proceedings. Actress Greta Gerwig (who is in no less than 4 films at the festival!) was on hand for the Q & A and the charming actress/screenwriter/director shows why she has a long career ahead of her! Stay with this one and you will be amply rewarded as the film takes unexpected twists and turns that most will not see coming. Greta mentioned that the film was picked up and will be distributed in the summer. Great news!

Strolling outside at the tent village across the street from The Charles was a musical performance by Clair Sardina singing Abba songs. Claire and her husband Mike are the subject of the documentary "Song Sung Blue" which I'm checking out first thing tomorrow. Later Friday night, the outdoor free screening of "Yellow Submarine", hosted by Baltimore's own muralist/painter/author Dr. Bob Hieronimus (who wrote 2002's "Inside The Yellow Submarine: The Making of the Beatles Animated Classic"), was showing to a nice crowd in temperatures that mirrored mid summer instead of early May.

Looking forward to Saturday and another full slate of films. Check back tomorrow to get the update.

The 10th Annual Maryland Film Festival-DAY 1

Thursday May 1, 2008

I can't believe it has been 10 years! I know it's a cliche but, hell, time is going way too fast when I realized that the my festival circuit started in January 1999 with my first excursion to Sundance (my first of 7 in the last 10 years), followed by the first Maryland Film Festival in Aprill 1999, the Telluride Film Festival in 2000, and each AFI Silverdocs documentary film festival beginning in 2003. Hopefully, I will eventually make it to Toronto, SXSW, and maybe even Cannes! Until then, I'm kicking back and getting ready to start one the best 4 days a movie lover, such as myself, can experience. It all started here in 1999 with hometown Oscar winner Barry Levinson kicking off the festival in grand style with a rough cut of his own documentary featuring the original Diner Guys that so colorfully populated his masterpiece of the same title. It was like watching home movies of guys we all grew to love as they were dramatized on the big screen. (No mention tonight was made of his good friend, diner guy Chip Silverman who tragically passed away earlier this year). How fitting was it that festival director, Jed Dietz brought back Barry to MC the sold out opening night festivities once again 10 years later! Barry started by humorously exploring what it was like watching movies in his youth in Baltimore and how it has changed over the years. Those in the audience old enough to relate were brought back to their youth as he rattled off the venues we all attended when it cost just 25 cents to watch movies all day long at these palaces-which, other than a few like our beloved Senator, have long since disappeared. After this, he got a little political as he jabbed Baltimore's legislature for not making it more financially feasible for outside filmmakers to set up shop in our town. That it made him "crazy". We all felt his pain as we realized that the number of projects over the recent past have dropped off dramatically. Then began the introduction of the filmmakers. As Jed pointed out to the audience, he believes that this festival is the only one whose opening night is devoted solely to shorts. This has been the tradition here for several years and, although past compilations have left a little bit to be desired, this year's group was outstanding and memorable. First off was the amazing 3-D short (and short is aptly named for this 90 second gem) entitled "Gnatual Wonders" made by Bennet Battaile that focused on gnats at the Gnat Training Research Lab. The "trained" gnats formed geometric shapes that, literally, came off the screen! This was followed by the Academy Award nominated "Salim Baba". This one brought to mind the great "Cinema Paradiso". Directors Tim Sternberg and Francisco Bello made this character study which focused on a man in Kolkata, India who is the town's cinema projectionist (using a 100 year old camera!). Using a film stock of over 50 items, he is the editor of film that has been discarded over the years. This touching portrait shows the power of the cinema in a place one would least expect it. Following these two were Michael Langan's amazing "Doxology", a 7 minute stop action animation that has to be seen to believed involving . . . well, I'm not sure what it involves, but it was one hell of a ride just the same (something involving tennis balls-I think)! The filmmaker said during the Q & A that it took a year to make this 7 minute gem. "My Olympic Summer" told the fictionalized tale of the filmmaker who happened on old films of his parents and built a story about their life that most people in the audience thought was fact. Great storytelling that effectively had the audience gasp when he revealed that it was not a documentary. Next up was Ben Mor's "Help Is Coming" a riveting doc made in the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans Ninth Ward. Jed revealed that he was only one of 3 filmmakers who were allowed to film there during this time. He made the most of it as he turns the devastation into a morality tale involving the highest officials in the land. Lastly was the hilarious short by Chicago indie filmmaker Heidi Van Lier who returned to the MFF with this brilliant piece, entitled "Politics Of Preschool" about a 5 year old girl who think she knows how to get the upper hand on the most popular dude in her preschool. Great script and delivery by the lead and a great way to end the proceedings. The party in the lobby of The Brown Center on the campus of the Maryland Institute College of Art was a great way to meet up with old friends as well as the filmmakers. We're off and running and looking to see a full day's and weekend's worth of screenings. Jed has brought a great collection of films, some of which made the festival circuit at Sundance, Tribeca, and SXSW, as well as some classic films (including the John Waters introduced film: Claude Chabrol's great 80's flick"Story of Women"). I'll be reporting each night over the next 3 nights so check back to get the day's wrap-up. OUT!

"Young @ Heart" ****

Sunday April 27, 2008

As a Baby Boomer growing up in the late 50's and 60's, I was always struck by the diversities of musical interests and tastes between me and my parents. I can still hear them screaming at me to "turn it down"! I always thought that was the ultimate dividing line between generations. It was always rock vs. Sinatra. The New Wave era vs. the Big Band era. The alternative sound vs. the . . . well, you get the picture. The disconnect between us was always this constant: the music defined who we were and we would always be as different as the music of our youth. This all came back to me in spades as I was sitting there at the latest offering at the Cinema Sunday Club at The Charles watching the absolutely amazing documentary "Young @ Heart". All of these differences just seemed to disappear as all of the generations have now come full circle in a way that I could never have imagined. First time filmmaker Stephen Walker has hit a grand slam out of the park with this utterly fascinating look at his elderly chorus who specialize in covering songs, not of their youth, but songs of my youth, as well as the youth of the 70's, 80's, & 90's! You might think that this is a laughable gimmick, but I challenge you to plunk down your hard earn cash in order to spend some of the most amazing 108 minutes in a movie theater ever. Walker takes us on an amazing ride as he documents 50ish director Bob Cilman as he readies his chorus for a big concert gig at the Academy Theater in Northampton. Along the way, he focuses on several key members as they are shown rehearsing songs by such diverse artists as Coldplay, The Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Sonic Youth, and The Ramones-just to name a few. One of the most poignant parts of the journey shows them performing at a local prison. You can read the prisoners' faces as to what they must be thinking as they watch the performers and the result is both touching and powerful. Mixed into all of this are some stylish, hilarious videos. However, it is not all fun and games as you will quickly realize that a lot of these folks are not embarking on a new long career-that their days in the chorus, as well as on the planet are, indeed, finite. It's been awhile since I have laughed and cried so much in once sitting. This life affirming film will have you completely rethink what our existence is all about and, believe me, you'll never look at the elderly the same way again. I know I never will.