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

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