Terminator Salvation (**1/2) (115 minutes)

Monday May 18, 2009

It's nearly summer so that means yet another Hollywood sequel is out to join in the cinematic blockbuster landscape. This time around, it's the 4th offering in the franchise series started so successfully by James Cameron in 1984 and followed nicely by his sequel ("Terminator Judgment Day") in 1991. Then in 2003, Jonathan Mostow ("Hancock") took over and had less success with the 3rd installment", "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines". Now, Joseph McGinty (better know as McG-he of the "Charlie's Angels" franchise) has taken over and the results are mixed at best.

The resident cyborg this time around is Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) who is a convicted murderer in the recent past who is asked to sign over his body by a mysterious Helena Bonham Carter just before execution. McG then picks up the story in post-apocalyptic 2018 where the machines have taken hold of the planet. A grown up John Conner (Christian Bale) is now leading the resistance again Skynet after prior terminators failed to return to the past and kill him off as a child.

Wright meets up with Conner's teenage father (Anton Yelchin), whom John must locate to send back in time to impregnate John's mother, Sarah. Got that?! Now here's the kicker: cyborg Wright has more emotions & charisma than Bale's John Conner! So much for man vs. machine!!

Actually, plot is not the strong point in this noisy mess. There is a slight hint of humor that falls flat (it involves the franchise phrase "I'll be back" first uttered by Arnold-you-know-who. Who, by the way, makes a digital appearance midway through the proceedings). However, even though there is more action packed into its nearly 2 hours of running time than any film in recent memory (the impressive special effects will remind you of a video game gone amok), in the end, I forgot most of what I'd seen by the time I reached my car.

11th Maryland Film Festival-Day 4 & Final Thoughts

Sunday May 10, 2009

Another MFF annual event is the 7th straight appearance of the great Alloy Orchestra-this time around performing the score for, what many consider, one of the greatest films of all time: Dziga Vertov's 1929 classic "Man With a Movie Camera" (****). Part of a radical Soviet group of filmmakers called "kinoks", Dziga and his brother Mikhail Kaufman despised fiction film making and pioneered a style that is at the crux of the modern documentary genre. Here he turns his camera on to capture daily Soviet life in 1929-often hiding huge bulky cameras from his subjects. So contrary was it to Stalinist thinking that it was, understandably, banned from showings in the Soviet Union. Alloy first performed and recorded the score in 1995 but due to a the lack of a suitable print, ceased performing it for over 10 years. That is until they recently received a print from a Russian archive. So, after a 10 year hiatus, they began performing their remarkable score a month ago in Russia. Jed has brought back the internationally renowned trio for their first North American performance with the newly acquired print. If you've never seen them in person, you have another chance to hear their remarkable interpretation of this film when they return to National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. this coming August. The event is free to the public and it is well worth a trip down the Beltway to see, not only a landmark film but also the amazing creativity of The Alloy Orchestra whom Roger Ebert calls "the best in the world at accompanying silent film".

Next on the agenda is yet another top notch documentary, Michael Fountain's portrait of a beloved coal miner and his family in Dante, Virginia. Fountain's "Bonecrusher" (*** 1/2) mixes the dark and terrifying world deep in the Appalachian mines with the beautiful landscape that covers them. The contrast is startling but what really hits home is that, for generations, these folks risk their lives with the daily threat of cave-ins and job related disease yet involve themselves in close knit communities that keep their spirit moving forward despite the dangers. The film focuses primarily on Luther "Bonecrusher" Chaffin and his son Lucas who is trying to follow in his well-respected dad's & granddad's footsteps. Luther retired from the mines to treat his illness probably obtained from working 25 years under the earth's surface. Fountain gained access (sometimes, as he said in the Q & A, without the proper authorization) to the mines and you can immediately sense the danger these brave folks endure each and every day. Using breathtaking outdoor cinematography as a stark contrast to the dismal mines, Fountain imparts a different feel of community that is missing in more highly populated urban areas. The actual mining is only one small aspect of the film. Mainly, it puts you inside a miner's mentality as Lucas tries to decide whether or not to follow his grand-father and father doing a job most of us wouldn't ever choose to do.

Next was a non-fiction work by one of Hollywood's preeminent directors: Baltimore's own Barry Levinson who calls his "Poliwood" (***1/2) a "film essay". Barry opened the first Maryland Film Festival in 1999 with his documentary "Original Diner Guys" and returns with this fascinating document on the interrelationship between Hollywood, the media, and politics. It's been a long held perception that liberal artists have had a major influence over the political process in general, and the Democratic party, in particular. By gaining special access to both of last year's presidential conventions, Levinson is out to dispel or prove these perceptions by giving us a comprehensive look at the relationship between Hollywood celebrities that have deeply involved themselves in the political process. The end result is an absorbing, non-biased peak into our political process that few people have rarely experienced or understood. Afterwards, the audience was treated to an absorbing panel discussion and Q&A between Levinson, actor Matthew Modine (who was there to screen his own short film "I Think I Thought" and to participate in the Maryland Film Office Panel Series at the festival), journalist and author David Brock (found of Media Matters for America), and Baltimore Sun columnist, Dan Rodricks. The discussion could easily have lasted into the night as great insight into these complex issues were raised not only by the film but also by the diverse views of the panel which had many of us rethinking and questioning our long held beliefs.

To conclude the festival, was a film that has gotten some deservedly great early buzz and reviews: Kathryn Bigelow's ("Near Dark";"Point Break") intense, action-packed "The Hurt Locker"(****) . Winner of 4 awards at last fall's Venice Film Festival and hailed at the Toronto Film festival, folks, this clearly isn't your daddy's, or granddaddy's, war movie! Taking place in 2004, the army has a unit in place, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) squad, whose job it is to disarm the multitude of homemade bombs (IED's or Improvised Explosive Devices) scattered throughout the streets of Baghdad. On a limited tour of duty, we are introduced to the EOD's trio played by Anthony Mackie ("Half Nelson"; "We are Marshall"), Brian Geraghty ("We are Marshall; "Jarhead"), and team leader Guy Pearce ("Memento"). When Pearce loses his life while in the midst of disarming a bomb, a new team leader is brought in that changes the whole dynamics of the squad. Is Sergeant James (brilliantly played by Jeremy Renner) a brave individual? A loose cannon who never follows protocol? A dude who is a junkie-addicted to the insane job that is the only thing he knows? Just plain crazy? All of the above??! That is up to the viewer to resolve as you follow the unit on each of their missions that will literally have you gripping the arms of the seat-or the person next to you time and time again. Included are some nice cameos by David Morse and Ralph Fiennes. And Bigelow has assembled a talented veteran crew to help tell her story including Mark Boal (who helped create "In the Valley of Elah") who wrote the smart effective screenplay based on his experience as a reporter in Iraq after spending time with an EOD squad; Director of Photography Barry Ackroyd ("United 93"; The Wind That Shakes the Barley") whose hand held camera gives an extraordinary documentary feel to the tale; production designer Karl Juliusson (who was the PD on one of my all time favorites, Lars von Trier's "Breaking The Waves"); a memorable score by AA nominees Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders ("3:10 to Yuma"); and sound design by AA nominee Paul N.J. Ottosson ("Spider Man II" and "Spider Man III"). Although Bigelow is as sure handed as anyone orchestrating the amazing action sequences, her storytelling is just as assured for a film that, hopefully won't be ignored by the masses as just another war flick. The riveting Q&A with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal was moderated by Washington Post Critic Ann Hornaday that gave everyone further insight into this remarkable film that will be put in limited release on June 26th.


-As I said last year, it would be nice to have an opening night film instead of the short films that have become somewhat of a staple. However, I did enjoy the majority of them and thought it was one of the stronger selections in recent years.
-The inclusion of food from 2 of the areas finest restaurants was a welcome addition to Opening Night.
-There were some glitches I encountered on Friday, the first full day of screenings, such as late starting times, DVD copy with no sound, to name a couple. But the last 2 days were perfect-everything going off as scheduled with no problems.
- I screened some fabulous films (average rating 3.2 stars for the 8 documentaries and 4 narratives screened). My main disappointment was Academy Award winner Marshall Curry's doc "Racing Dreams". I expected more but, as I said in my review, I was slightly biased against the subject of race car racing-in any form.
-Overall, Jed Dietz had brought in some fine features and the Q&A's were never boring. The infusion of a greater number of documentaries and foreign fare was a definite plus.
-I missed the free outdoor screening that has been prevalent the last several years.
-The closing night film was the strongest closing of the 11 festivals. Having the director and screenwriter present, and the Q & A moderated by one of the areas leading critics, Ann Hornaday, made for an entertaining evening and a perfect wrap to the 11th Annual Maryland Film Festival (B+), recovering nicely from last year's mediocrity!

Scene from "Man With a Movie Camera"
Maryland Film Office Director, Jack Gerbes, & actor/dir Matthew Modine at the MFF Film Panel series


Dir Michael Fountain

"Poliwood" Panel (l to r) David Brock, Matthew Modine,
Barry Levinson, Jed Dietz, & Dan Rodricks

Matthew Modine & Jed Dietz
introduce "The Hurt Locker"

Scene from "The Hurt Locker"

Screenwriter Mark Boal, Dir Kathyrn Bigelow, & critic Ann Hornaday at the Q & A

11th Maryland Film Festival-Day 3

Saturday May 9, 2009

Every year the festival has presented a classic film in 3D and for the 8th straight year our host is The Sun critic and 3D expert, Chris Kaltenbach. This year's selection is director Roy Ward Baker's ("Don't Bother to Knock" & "A Night to Remember") 1953 drama, "Inferno" (***) starring Robert Ryan, Rhonda Fleming, and William Lundigan. Nearing the end of the 3D craze in the 50's it was one of the first 3D films shot in Technicolor and stereophonic sound. Ryan's wife is having an affair with his business partner and while all 3 are traveling through the Mohave Desert, Ryan falls off a horse & breaks his leg. Fleming and Lundigan leave him to get help-or do they? The film nixes the usual 3D effects of items flying off the screen into the audience and instead concentrates on the story which, although dated, it was compelling enough to hold my interest. The print was fabulous and the technicolor process used is one that is no longer around making the screening all the more special.

Jed Dietz and company have brought more documentaries and foreign films this year to the festival than ever before and next up, direct from its premier at The Toronto Film Festival, is the Slovakian documentary "Blind Loves" (***) by director Juraj Lehotsky. Here we are presented with a group of blind folks and the topic is their quest for love and companionship in a world comprised mostly of sighted people. We are introduced to music teacher Peter; a blind married couple Elena & Laco who are expecting their first child; blind Miro and his partially blind girlfriend, Monika; and teen Zuzan, who is seeking love at her new high school. The film jumps back and forth to each, never spending an inordinate amount of time with any of them as we peer into their universe to see how they experience circumstances that most sighted people take fully for granted. There is even included a neat animated segment that stars one of the subjects. I would have liked to have known a little history about each person as the film seems to be more about the here and now. However, the lightheartedness is prevalent throughout and never depresses.

Another foreign documentary was next up: "Nina Simone: La Legende" (*** 1/2) which continued the neat tradition by the MFF folks of having films picked and hosted by people who are not in the film business. Our guest host for this one is musician Ian MacKaye (featured in the documentary "American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986"). This 1992 made for French T.V. documentary is a fascinating look into the controversial performer who continuously marched to her own beat throughout her life. A classical pianist who then became a jazz, R&B, & gospel icon, she is also known for her political stances that pulled absolutely no punches. Included in this terrific account are both contemporary and archival performances as well as interviews that give a glimpse into the career and life of one of America's most talented free spirits of the 20th century. Afterwards, the audience was treated to a wonderful Q & A session with Ian that was a pleasant compliment to this rarely seen work.

Topping out this satisfying day was Bobcat Goldthwait's latest dark comedy "World's Greatest Dad" (*** 1/2) starring Robin Williams in one of his rare subdued roles as the father of a troubled teen. Kyle (Daryl Sabara from the Spy Kids films) is one disrespectful child and Williams is one loser of a dad who happens to be a poetry teacher in Kyle's school. So what is it that makes him the "World's Greatest Dad"? Knowing nothing going in is the key to this one so no spoiler here. Suffice it to say that, as much as I liked Goldthwait's last ("Sleeping Dogs Lie" aka "Stay"), this one is more consistently funny and dark as he explores a topic that surely will turn off some in the audience. However, the Saturday night sold-out crowd in the main theater gave Bobcat such an ovation that it nearly brought him to tears as he revealed that he could hardly conduct the amusing Q&A that followed. After the applause finally subsided, director John Waters was the first to jump to his feet to inform everyone there how much he loved it. (Bobcat stated that his first choice was Philip Seymour Hoffman but when he couldn't get him, Robin came aboard. Not a bad 2nd choice!) The film, which was very well received after its Sundance premier, is set to be released on August 21. Don't miss it!

Sun Critic Chris Kaltenbach and MMF Director Jed Dietz introducing
"Inferno" in 3D

Musician Ian MacKaye & MFF Program Admin., Eric Hatch introduce
"Nina Simone"

Nina Simone

Director Bobcat Goldthwait ("World's Greatest Dad")

Directors John Waters & Bobcat after the screening of "World's Greatest Dad"

11th Maryland Film Festival-Day 2

Friday May 8, 2009

First up is a "trip" to the outskirts of Cairo to see how 60,000 Zabaleen garbage workers have, for generations, been dealing with the city's waste. "Garbage Dreams" (***) is an aptly named title for Mai Iskander's excellent documentary, as it is the dream of this collective to reclaim the job they've done for years without the benefit of modern day technology and hardware. Reclaim because their livelihood is being threaten and they have been trained in little else if this job is abolished by the city government. The film follows 3 teenage boys in particular as they are about to be relieved of the only occupation they know as a more modern but less efficient corporation is about to take over. It's a world that I'm sure most of us are unaware of as we witness the possible extinction of a whole culture built around garbage collection. Fascinating.

Next was film director/artist Agnes Varda's self-titled amazing documentary "The Beaches of Agnes" (****). Varda, who is now 80, tells her own story using her artistic background as a photographer throughout the film, which won a French Oscar (Cesar) in 2008. Although her name might not ring a bell to a lot of people reading this, her work certainly will be. Considered the Mother of the New Wave, her most renowned films includes "Cleo From 5 to 7", "Le Bonheur, "Vagabond", & "The Gleaners and I". Married for nearly 30 years to Jacques Demy ("Umbrellas of Cherbourg"), we see her hobnobbing with the likes of Depardieu, Godard, Deneuve, Jim Morrison, Alexander Calder, Jane Birkin, Robert DeNiro, Viva, and giving Harrison Ford his first infamous role (when the studio told him he'd never make it in film). They are all there in various ways-with Varda constantly giving commentary to her philosophy, work ethic, and her raison d'etre. And the artistry Agnes uses to formulate the documentary is mesmerizing and profound. All of this makes for a fascinating look into one of the premier artists of our generation.

I was highly anticipating my next film from academy award nominee Marshall Curry (2006's critically acclaimed "Street Fight"). Winner at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, "Racing Dreams" (**1 /2), however, was a major disappointment. In all fairness, despite being kind of a sports nut, I think NASCAR racing in any form is senseless and boring. So, my interest waned considerably throughout the 93 minute documentary that had me looking continuously at my watch. Actually, the documentary has a professional look and feel to it, but this story, about the world of kart racing (mini cars that go up to 80 miles an hour) by following the quest of 3 pre-teen youngsters to win the World Karting Association championship, had me disinterested from the start. Marshall tries to get us involved by including home footage as well as the requisite track stuff, but, watching their "stage" dads and moms living out their dreams through their offspring ultimately turned me off completely.

After a dinner break, I took in my last film of the day. After 3 documentaries, it was time to chill with my first narrative feature, "Seventh Moon"(* 1/2). The third film from director Eduardo Sanchez who caught lightning in a bottle with the indie/Internet hit "The Blair Witch Project", I was expecting something a little more satisfying than this mess of a ghost story set in China. Things got off to a bad start when it was discovered a couple of minutes in that the DVD copy Sanchez brought to the projection booth was minus a soundtrack. Luckily he had a promotional DVD. Unluckily, it had imprinted on it that it was a promotional copy-which appeared on the bottom of the screen print for the entire run of the disc. It didn't matter as the film probably would have played better in silence. Newlyweds Melissa (Amy Smart) and Yul (Tim Chiou) are honeymooning in his native country during the Seventh Moon ghost festival celebrating the full moon of the seventh lunar month which, legend has it, is when the dead are free to walk the earth. They hitch a ride with a cab driver who agrees to take them to his grandmother's house deep in the dark countryside. The film then takes on a "Night of the Living Dead" feel and look. Instead of jumping in fright, I jumped with glee after the credits started to roll.
The Charles
Home of
the MFF

MFF Operations & Develop-
ment Asst Eric Cotten with dir Mai Iskander
("Garbage Dreams")

Film Critic Andrew O'Hehir introduces "Beaches of Agnes"

Agnes Varda

A scene from "Racing Dreams"

Director Marshall Curry ("Racing Dreams")

Dir Eduardo Sanchez ("7th Moon")

11th Annual Maryland Film Festival-Day 1-Opening Night

Thursday May 7, 2009

Opening night at the 11th annual and this year's program is becoming somewhat of a MFF tradition: nothing but shorts. Started in 2002, and continuing each year beginning in 2004, Festival director Jed Dietz has devoted opening night as an homage to the short film and may be the only festival in the world to present its opening night program to this unique and little appreciated art form.

An added treat is the addition of host comic/director Bobcat Goldthwait, who is on hand to present his own short film. (His much buzzed about new feature, "World's Greatest Dad" starring Robin Williams will have its Maryland premier on Saturday night.) Goldthwait has long ago abandoned his manic comic persona but not his comic sensibilities as he kept everyone laughing throughout with his sharp wit.

First up was "Goldthwait Home Movies" (***1/2). It's the fictional 40 year reunion of the "original" cast. Actually, it's Bob's home movies while he was growing up with current generally hilarious voice overs to fit the "action". It's a hit-and-miss affair that mostly hits-so much so, that a lot is lost amid all the laughter. A great way to start off the program!

The rest of the lineup included:

-the experimental "The Bellows March" (***) in which director Eric Dyer explores the use of a process he used in 2006's MFF opening night short "The Copenhagen Cycles". It spans the history of the moving image combining the pre-cinema zoetrope and modern digital video.

-"Done in One" (***1/2) is a 7 minutes short done in a single shot with no editing (hence the title) which tells the tale of a guy who reflects on why he received an unexpected beat-down and, as a result, discovers how it all came to be. Ingenious perfectly timed interacting action produce the answers that come at the end/beginning.

-Michael Langan's "Dahlia" (***) is most notable for its score: vocal percussion set to the rhythm of life in the city.

-"Trepan Hole" (**1/2) by Anday Cahill uses stop action animation that goes on a little too long and makes those 6 minutes seem a lot longer.

-"Grand Teton" (**) by director Julia Kim Smith takes a Korean-American family's video portrait in the Grand Teton National Park and reunites them in the same spot 35 years later. An interesting concept, but, unfortunately, it didn't sustain my interest over the 5 minutes running time.

-The best of the lot was clearly Marc Kess' brilliant "Mildred Richard" (****). Kess uses the audio of a 1940's radio production to recreate the crime story using his own visuals. What makes it even more remarkable is the stunning black & white cinematography to mimic films from that era and having the actors perfectly mouth the original dialogue. The result is not only a neat 19 minute murder mystery, but a visually stunning compliment to the audio.

-Finally it was fitting to conclude the collection with Jim Jacob's "About Film Festivals" (***) which is, well, about film festivals. Kind of an instructional video, Jacob's uses wry humor as he deadpans all you need to know to navigate through these type of events.

Following the Q & A with all the directors, we were treated to the best opening night grub the festival has ever provided with contributions from the wonderful Asian restaurant Ra Sushi Bar Restaurant, Belvedere Square's Neopol Savory Smokery, and Parkhurst Catering. All in all, a great way to start off the 11th annual!

MFF dir Jed Dietz & host Bobcat Goldthwait

Bobcat, Jed, & the short film directors

"Tokyo Sonata" *** (119 Minutes)

Sunday May 3, 2009

Off to Cinema Sundays at The Charles for their latest offering. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the legendary Japanese director by the same surname) is best known in the U.S. as concentrating in the horror genre (2001's "Cure" & 2006's "Pulse"). Here he concentrates on a different horror that is currently being experienced in real life throughout the world: the current state of the economy and how it is affecting the job market in general, and the family unit in particular.

Merriam-Webster defines sonata as a "an instrumental musical composition typically of three or four movements in contrasting forms and keys". Here he has produced a literary composition in separate parts that are each distinct yet interconnected in a way that, by the conclusion, it may or may not give hope not only to this family but to everyone facing these dire times.

The tale begins as we see businessman Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) being fired in favor of a younger worker. To avoid the shame, he begins a charade to hide his unemployment from his wife Megumi (Kai Inowaki) and 2 sons by dutifully leaving for "work" each morning-only to wander the city looking for employment while occasionally stopping to eat at a local soup kitchen where he joins other businessmen standing in the same line.

Other story lines are followed. The younger son (Kai Inowaki) just happens to be a blossoming child prodigy on the piano (discouraged by the stressed father). The older son (Yu Koyanagi) is about to join the U.S. Army to obtain American citizenship. Then the tension is upped when Megumi is kidnapped by a bungling home intruder.

We think we know where all these story lines are heading. But Kurosaw (who co-wrote the script with Max Mannix & Sachiko Tanaka) always surprises by refusing to telescope the outcomes.

Don't expect great action. The story is slow and meticulous as it reflects Japanese society that most U.S. citizens are not aware of. Our lives and the way we deal with adversity is far different that what you will see on the screen. Yet, the wonderful acting and the way the film gives us a window into Japanese society makes the ride all that more interesting.