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"The Artist" **** (104 minutes)

Sunday December 4, 2011

It has been 84 years since a silent film has won the Academy Award's Best Picture.  1927 also happened to be the first year the Academy gave out awards when actually two films were honored:  "Wings" won "best production" as "the most outstanding motion picture considering all elements that contribute to a picture's greatness"; while F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise" was similarly honored as "the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude". 

Come February 26, I predict that "The Artist" will finally break that streak.  There has not been a movie this year that has even come close.

French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius has made a film that is truly one for the ages.  At last count, it has garnered best picture nods from critics' groups in New York (both the New York Film Critics Circle and the New York Film Critics Online), Washington D.C., Boston, Las Vegas, and Indiana.  In addition, it has received the most SAG and Golden Globe nominations.  Last spring, Cannes awarded its top male acting prize to lead Jean Dujardin.  Going in, I thought no way could this film meet my expectation.  I was wrong.  It was exceeded.  And by a large margin.

The basic story is as old as cinema itself:  George Valentin (French actor Jean Dujardin) is THE silent medium's biggest star.  With his thin mustache and winsome smile, he is a physical compilation of Errol Flynn, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Clark Gable, and easily brings to the screen bucket loads of charm and charisma.  It is 1927 and he is at the top of his game. 

The film opens with our hero proudly standing directly behind a giant movie screen, gazing up at the reverse  images, while the audience in front is gloriously reacting to the premier of his latest creation.  The smile on his face is as wide as the ocean.  Meanwhile, Constance (Missi Pyle), his co-star, is standing in the wings, impatiently waiting for her introduction-all the while realizing that her popularity, not to mention her ego, is a far distant second. 

On the red carpet afterwards, Peppy Miller, a shy attractive autograph seeker (perfectly played by the director's wife, Bérénice Béjo) is inadvertently pushed onto the walkway in front of the star as he is making his way out of the theater.  When George willingly signs her book and then poses for photos, the paparazzi snap away with the resultant headlines screaming, "WHO'S THAT GIRL?".

Later on, after Peppy, an aspiring actress, lands a bit part with help from George, her career takes off.  With the advent of talkies and George's subsequent refusal to embrace the new medium resulting in his firing by Kinescope Studios mogul Al Zimmer (a cigar chomping John Goodman), the stock market crash, and the dissolution of his marriage from his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller):  George's popularity and financial empire start spiraling downward.  The once proud and prominent star is soon left with nothing but his dog, Uggie (more on him later), his faithful butler, Clifton (the always dependable James Cromwell), and a tiny barren apartment.

The acting by Jean Dujardin must be singled out. His delicately expressive performance, balancing an over-the-top acting style in front of the camera while subtly transforming himself when dealing with his crumbling reality after the camera stops rolling, could easily win him an Academy Award. It is the best most complete performance I have witnessed this year.

Also, look for one of the most romantic scenes I have ever experienced in a darken theater when George first realizes his attraction for Peppy as they are shooting their first scene together.  George slyly causes take after take to be shot so that he can slowly develop his enticement.

Although on the surface, the black and white movie appears to be a gimmick, it is actually a lovingly recreation, not a mocking, of the era.  Hazanavicius has meticulously studied the medium to such a degree that he used film stock that would produce a grainier look.  He even speeds up the film slightly by shooting at 28 frames per second instead of the normal 24, as it is projected on a nearly square screen in a 1.33 aspect ratio.  Moreover, although this is a silent film, it is anything but.  The amazingly lyrical score by Ludovic Bource, with a slight assist by composer Bernard Hermann from Hitchcock's "Vertigo" during a chase scene, beautifully "speaks" the universal language on the screen.  Also, the eye-popping production design by Lawrence Bennett is also worthy of mention and Oscar consideration.

Finally, it's been a good year for dog actors:  Laika (director Aki Kaurismaki's canine) in "Le Havre";  Cosmo the Jack Russell in "Beginners"; the Doberman and dachshund in Scorcese's "Hugo"; Skeletor the adopted greyhound in "50/50"; the bulldog in "Hipsters"; even Rowlf in "The Muppets"-just to name a few.  However, Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier, is the scene stealer of the millennium and well deserving of this year's Cannes Palm Award.  His crowd-pleasing performance only adds to the immeasurable charm this cinematic masterpiece has from start to finish.

It is one thing that director Michel Hazanavicius has so lovingly recreated the silent film and its era, but another to tie in a story and screenplay that will have you smiling, laughing, crying, sad, joyous, and practically dancing in your seat at various points throughout its running time.  I am certain you will feel happier leaving the theater than when you came in, and that you will have a newfound appreciation and understanding as to why audiences around the world first fell in love with moving pictures a long long time ago.

The film started its limited release on November 25 and opens in Baltimore on December 23 on two screens at The Charles.
George (Jean Dujardin) meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo) 
on the Red Carpet and pose for the papparazi

Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) reads about her husband's encounter with
Peppy the next day

George and Peppy
George and Uggie

George contemplating his next move after his downfall

Kinescope Studio mogul Al Zimmer (John Goodman)

"Tinker Tailor Solder Spy" (***-128 minutes)

(l to r) Actor Gary Oldman, Director Tomas Alfredson, and AFI Programmer
Todd Hitchcock at the AFI European Union Film Showcase closing screening of
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"


Monday November 21, 2011

Off to Silver Spring to screen the closing night film of the 24th AFI European Union Film Showcase, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" with an appearance by British actor Gary Oldman and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (see coverage below following this review).   Tomas' previous film was the outstanding 2008 coming-of-age vampire classic "Let the Right One In".  (Although "Cloverfield" director Matt Reeve's 2010 U.S. remake "Let Me In" is admirable, it is nowhere as accomplished as the Swedish original.)

For his second commercial project, the director tackles John le Carré's 1974 bestselling spy novel that was initially made into a seven part, 350-minute BBC 1979 TV series starring Alec Guinness.  And herein lies part of the problem:  compacting the considerably dense spy novel into the 2 hour plus running time practically demands background knowledge of the story and a scorecard to keep track of the myriad of characters that comprise the wordy screenplay. 

It is the 1970's Cold War and a British intelligent agent (Mark Strong) is killed in Hungary resulting in the firing of top agent George Smiley (a subdued but effective Gary Oldman in the Alec Guinness role) and his boss, Control (the wonderful John Hurt).  However, Smiley is brought back in to uncover the Russian mole within the MI6 (the British Secret Service Intelligence agency-code named "The Circus") who was responsible for the assassination.  With the help of Circus agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), Smiley ultimately narrows the Mole's identity to Percy ("Tinker"-Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (the well-dressed "Tailor"-Colin Firth), Roy Bland ("Soldier"-Ciarán Hinds), and Toy ("Poor Man"-David Dencik).

The incredibly talented cast is matched in mood through DP Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography, and the intricate production design by Maria Djurkovic. 

Those willing to devote their time and rapt attention, and not expecting any James Bond-like pyrotechnics and chase sequences, should ultimately be rewarded with an intelligent screenplay by Peter Straughan and his late wife Bridget O’Connor, as well as outstanding ensemble acting and production values.  Just be certain that you have your have your fill of caffeine or else you might miss the spy thriller's climax.

The movie began a limited U.S. platform release December 9, including Washington D.C. 

(l to r), "Poor Man" (David Dencik), "Tailor" (Colin Firth), 
"Tinker" (Toby Jones), Control (John Hurt), 
George Smiley (Gary Oldman), and "Soldier" (Ciaran Hinds)

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Following the screening was an extended interview/question and answer session moderated by AFI Programmer Todd Hitchcock.  In response to Todd's question as to what he saw was appealing about the role of George Smiley and what was the challenge that he had to figure out, Gary knew that  Guinness had made the role so iconic so he tried to bring his own interpretation after reading the books.  He pointed out that Alec was nearly 70 when he did the series, so there was that difference to explore.  He realized they were mining the same material and that there were places that they both would meet.  However, there were other shades to Smiley that initially presented the challenge of doing the role differently.  Overcoming Guinness' towering performance, that for many was the definitive portrayal of the character, was a challenge-but gave credit to Alfredson for having great faith in him.  

Todd then asked Tomas to explain how he went from making "an incredibly inventive vampire movie in Sweden" to pursuing John le Carree's spy material in the U.K.  Tomas revealed that it was quite hard to explain why one accepts to start working on a project.  However, he did say that when opening a script or, in this case a book, it is a very emotional thing.  If he gets many images in his head and if he reacts very quickly, for example, crying, laughing, or his heart starts beating, for him, it is the big impulse he needs to accept a project.  He also commented that he felt "Let the Right One In" was not a vampire movie but was a story about a young kid, and that this film was not an espionage film.  For him it was about the soldiers of the Cold War, and that it was a very personal and emotional journey about relationships.

Todd pointed out that since the film is a 70's Cold War period piece, and asked if it had a contemporary resonate with the U.K. audience considering the film's tremendous popularity in that country.  Gary responded that a great deal really has not changed over the years-other than the faces and the enemy and  remarked that he personally gets the same kind of sensation watching the news today as he got when was fifteen-years-old.

Gary mentioned that he saw the original series but did not want to use it as a template or revisit it-that he did not want to be contaminated with an impersonation.  He remembered it as "this big ghost that cast a shadow and I was terrified".

When asked by an audience member about a possible sequel covering the remaining books, Tomas replied that there might be one or two films in the future.

A question was raised as to why Tomas decided to use an old Julio Iglesias live disco version of "La Mer" over the last four minutes of the the action, which was contrary to the overall somber mood set throughout the movie.  Tomas stated that during the scenes when George was listening to music in his apartment he thought about using a soundtrack that gave a glimpse of George's inner life.  He eschewed the use of opera since the director thought of him as a romantic-which would be the total opposite of the life he lived in gray and dull England, and immediately he thought of Iglesias.  However, Tomas did not use it there because "it would be a little too strange".  However, he did find a rare vinyl recording of Iglesias' "La Mer" and decided to use it in the final scenes to "bring in a little fresh air" which would have the effect of "opening a window".  He thought the song created that feeling, and that its use was not supposed to create a happy end feeling.  

Gary was quizzed about his favorite role (he's been in over 60 films over the past 25 years!) and said it would be playing Lee Harvey Oswald (in Oliver Stone's 1991 film "JFK), stating that it was an exceptional experience because there was little of the character on the page.  Stone instructed Oldman to thoroughly research Oswald to prepare him for the part.  He also mentioned Tony Scott's 1993 action adventure "True Romance".  Gary then added that he has jokingly said that he's been waiting over 30 years to play the part of George Smiley explaining that in the past he has played characters who physicalized their emotions and that it was a joy not having to express it in a physical way in this film.

When asked whether he plans to direct another film (he directed "Nils By Mouth" in 1997), Gary said he would like to but bringing up two boys has taken up a lot of his time.  However, he said he was looking at a couple of projects and is hopeful he can direct one within a couple of years.


"The Descendants" (** 1/2-115 minutes)


Wednesday November 9, 1011

Alexander Payne's success performing double duty as a director and screenwriter has clearly placed him in my elite category.  His four previous films include "Citizen Ruth" (1996), "Election" (1999), "About Schmidt" (2002), and the phenomenal "Sideways" (2004) which would have been my pick for a Best Picture Oscar. Each successive film has gotten better and better.

Therefore, after a long seven-year hiatus, my anticipation and expectation gauges were nearly off the charts when I went to screen Payne's latest. I suppose there was really nowhere to go but down (excuse the pun) after "Sideways", which might help explain my overall disappointment.

George Clooney (extremely busy this year with his third release) plays successful real estate lawyer Matt King, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, whose wife lays in a hospital, comatose from a boating accident. We quickly learn that their marriage was already on shaky ground, made shakier when his eldest daughter Alexandra (Shalene Woodley in a performance that will surely put her in running for Best Supporting Actress) reveals to Matt that her mother was having an affair with a local real estate mogul (Matthew Lillard). Payne proceeds to juggle a number of plot lines:
- Matt's chagrin (he calls himself "the backup parent") of now having to care for his precocious daughters Alexandra and Scottie (pre-teen Amara Miller)-a task previously handled exclusively by his wife.
-the decision to pull-the-plug on his brain dead wife
-his search for his wife's lover
-Matt, as the main executor of his family's trust, must decide on the winning bid for 25,000 acres of prime beachside property that has been in his family since 1860.

Payne, along with his co-writers Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash have adapted Kaui Hart Hemmings' 2007 novel to produce a darkly comedic script that is uneven and ultimately uninspiring-which is a problem when dealing with the nearly two hour running time. Clooney's somewhat droll ineffective voiceover narration in the beginning is, thankfully, dropped a quarter of the way through. Also, although Clooney tries his best to portray the full range of emotions as he threads his way through the myriad of crises, I never found myself as connected and involved as I was with Payne's other films. Sid (Nick Krause), Alexandra's boyfriend seems out of place here and would be more at home in a Judd Apatow comedy. Finally, Payne's saturating nearly every frame with native music will either have you enthralled or annoyed depending on your musical tastes. Put me in the latter category.

On the plus side, there is a terrific supporting role by the wonderful Robert Forster as his cantankerous father-in-law and, visually, the film is a loving post card of Hawaii.  However, in the final analysis, the drama didn't grab me and ultimately left me cold. 

"The Descendants" has platform openings beginning November 18 (including DC) and a November 23 Baltimore opening.

(l to r) Alexandra King (Shailene Woodley),  Matt King (George Clooney),
Scottie King (Amara Miller), & Sid (Nick Krause)

"The Man Nobody Knew" (*** 1/2-104 minutes) + Interview with director Carl Colby

Friday October 7, 2011

What everybody knew was that the slight William Colby (hardly the prototype as a James Bond-type poster child) was appointed in 1973 by then President Nixon to be the 10th director of the Central Intelligence Agency, until President Ford replaced him with George H.W. Bush in 1976 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandals. We also knew that he died in 1996 at the age of 76 when his body was discovered on the shores of the Potomac eight days after embarking on a solo canoe outing. However, other than his public service record and achievements, as the title of Carl Colby's title conveys, nobody really knew the man.

Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker Carl Colby, William's eldest son, tries to enlighten the world on the enigmatic persona who seems to have had a single-minded life purpose, personally trying to better this country's interests around the world. Carl's comprehensive exposé, for the most part, succeeds as best he can to convey what made his father tick by interspersing two aspects of his life: his public service and his family life outside the spotlight. However, what we end up with is possibly more questions about the senior Colby than when we had going in.

His career as a real life spymaster, (referred to by the cumbersome subtitle, "In Search of My Father CIA Spymaster William Colby") begins as an OSS officer who trained for missions parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe. This eventually led to his involvement with post-war covert operations such as the alliance with The Vatican in the late 1950's to remove the Communist Party, heading the CIA in the Far East during the Vietnam War buildup, overseeing the coup & the assassination of Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 Saigon, and becoming the man in charge of the controversial Phoenix Program during the Vietnamese War 1967-1972. This latter program put the term counterinsurgency into our vernacular. His patriotism and tenacity led to his appointment as Director of the CIA-only to see it all explode in 1975 when he defied the President after taking the higher moral ground by revealing to Congress the agency's darkest secrets.

However, the more fascinating aspects of the documentary are the private intimate moments including photos and footage only a family member could provide. The personal history includes, what at first, appears to be an idyllic life when the family settled with him in Italy. However, later in William's career, after recognizing the inherent dangers his family faced (Carl remarks as a young child he at times heard bombs exploding in the distance outside of town)William chose to continue his oversea assignments alone, leaving his family, including his devoted wife Barbara (whom he later divorced after 40 years), behind in the states. We also learn that it was up to Barbara to care for Carl's sister who suffered from epilepsy and anorexia nervosa which led to an early death in her twenties. William avoided his daughter's care and illness, having no patience for her condition. He seemed to have carried this guilt throughout his life.

The rare archival footage incorporated throughout is nothing short of stunning. The clarity of the film stock is totally devoid of scratches and literally jumps off the screen. Carl supplies over 80 interviews with family, former colleagues, prominent government & media members (including former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense and Director of CIA James Schlesinger, as well Pulitzer Prize journalists Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh, and Tim Weiner) in his attempt to complete a knowing portrait of his father. Although, the sheer number of talking heads tends to bog down the proceeding, overall, this is an impressive work that tries to humanize as much as possible a stalwart Government servant & patriot who ultimately became an indirect casualty of the Vietnam War but whose service to the country was immeasurable.

The film opened October 14 at L.A.'s Nuart Theater and October 21 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. It begins a run at Washington's D.C. E Street Theater & Fairfax Va.'s Cinema Arts Theater on October 28, after which it platforms in other theaters around the country.
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INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR CARL COLBY:

Carl Colby has been involved with over 40 documentaries that have taken him all over the world with assignments in over 30 countries. His films have covered a wide array of subjects including films about Franz Kline, William de Kooning, Bob Marley, Frank Gehry, George Hurrell, and Franco Zeffirelli-the latter of which won an Emmy Award for the 1984 PBS production "Zefferelli's Tosca". Among his numerous career achievements were producing and directing films covering Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday" which won Best Film at the USA Film Festival); Washington artist Gene Davis; & musical performance films on Kid Thomas Valentine and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Clifton Chenier and his Red-Hot Louisiana Band, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. He also produced a TV version of the Obie Award-winning musical "One Mo' Time!". His interest in space exploration resulted in his producing and directing the award-winning film "Voyager: The Grand Tour" which won First Prize at the 3rd International Animation Festival in Hiroshima, Japan.

During the interview Carl gave credit to producers Grace Guggenheim, daughter of the late great filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, and David Johnson for pushing him to be more personal and to try and reach further-which was hard for him but realized in the end it was necessary. In addition, he told me he decided not to put more of himself in the movie. That it was a conceit he did not want to do. "If you see me now, you'd see that I'm kind of a settled OK looking guy. But how could I pull that off in the movie? I want to be the 8 year old who adores his dad in the beginning. I want to be the 12 year old who later hears rumbles coming from 30 miles in the outskirts of town and I'm beginning to get kind of worried. I want to be the guy who's 17 years old hearing people call my father a war criminal. I want to grow up in the course of the film. That's one of the secrets, the techniques that I think the film pulls off without people being aware of it."

On commenting on his career over the years making documentaries about interesting personalities and why it took him so long to point his camera at his father, Carl remarked that he realized early on he would be fine if he talked with him about Gorbachev, Putin, Chechnya, or the drones-he would have an opinion and it would be very interesting, "but he wouldn't go into the emotional zone. He would say 'that's your department, friend'. Or if I asked him why did you divorce my mother. He would just wave it off like not say anything. So it would be very frustrating. So only afterwards when he died that I thought well maybe I got license now. I'll approach it from the underneath."

JB:
How long did the project take you to complete from start to finish?


CC:
It took about 5 years. I started thinking about it about 10 years ago while I was watching CNN's coverage of 9/11 and I saw Wolf Blizer interviewing James Baker two hours after the towers fell. He asked Baker how did it happen and Baker said that he traced it directly back to the Church and Pike Hearing back in the 70s when William Colby the CIA Director was forced to reveal the CIA's "Family Jewels", which led to the dismantling of America's and the CIA's ability to conduct clandestine action and covert activity-sort of endangering America. I thought, wow, that's pretty interesting. My father's been dead five years and it seems like he's relevant. And then, 2 weeks later I see photographs of CIA operatives sporting beards and wearing turbans and riding camelback & horseback with The Northern Alliance in Northern Afghanistan against the Taliban-and I thought well that's like the OSS. I then thought that maybe there's a story here. So I started more as a professional profile of my father because I do more profiles of individuals and I thought maybe that's an angle. And then I interviewed my mother and everything changes.

JB: You elicited commentary from an extensive list of about 85 individuals ranging from top government officials, CIA employees, the media, and, as you mentioned, your mom who puts a softer human light on your father's personal life outside the CIA. Were any of these participants harder than others to convince to be interviewed?


CC: Well, I took it very seriously that this is my one shot. If you ask somebody like James Schlesinger, who you might know from your family but who's not going to otherwise give you an interview, when I went to pre-interview him , I'd better know what I'm talking about. So for the CIA and in a project like this, I have to know something in order to get something. So, I did a lot of reading and researching which has kind of been a hobby of mine my whole life, reading about current affairs and international relations. I was pretty versed in the flow of the dialogue of the conversations about these things. So, I did a lot of homework spending about a day and a half, two days writing each Email invitation, researching what I would I ask these people and then I'd put it in the Email. A small group said sure I'll talk to you. I knew your dad. Usually that was the old guard CIA people. The current CIA people or the top journalists and others-they wanted to see that I had some substance here; what was I up to and was I up for this task. Tim Weiner, someone like that. I have to know my game. Then I think they perceived that I was going to do something serious so they participated.

JB:
Were there any public figures you actually wanted to interview but who refused to cooperate?


CC: Well, nobody in particular refused. I just sort of had a hard time connecting with Dick Cheney. His office was very interested but he was writing his book, or he had another heart attack, or had some heart issue. So that sort of derailed that for a while. And President Bush and Henry Kissinger I just had continuing dialogues with and it just never came to past because the film takes a certain direction and at some point you go after interviews that are serving your story and that are serving the narrative in your writing and making.

JB: Did you encounter any type of government resistance while making the film?

CC: No, not at all. I had no secret access or any privilege access to CIA or anyone else and I obviously made it very clear from the beginning that this is no exposé. I not interested in revealing classified secrets or documents or anything of that sort, or operations, or any one's names. I just basically asked for what the normal American citizen would ask for and took it from there.

JB: Near the end of the film, you narrated that after your dad left the CIA he could be crueler than anyone you ever knew. Can you elaborate on that statement?

CC: He lived at the tip of the spear. He had a mission. He was very serious. He could be serious. He could be friendly. He was the opposite of The Great Santini. I mean, he was not a bombastic, competitive, physically brutish character-not at all. He was kind of affable and quiet and would have a discussion with you. And he would write to me and I would write back to him cordially. What I think I meant by that was that I just don't think that he operated in the emotional zone. It's just not his territory.

JB: So emotionally, he was cruel.

CC: No, I wouldn't say that. He's just not operating in that zone. And I think he had a very low boiling point. So he could absorb pain, an intense amount of pain, and he could inflict pain. And I don't mean that in a very negative way. I just think that he was a warrior. And he had a job to do and he did it very well. There are warriors now: General James Mattis , or General John Allen, or a number of other generals I can name out in Afghanistan today who are fighting the battle. Would I say that they were mean? I wouldn't necessarily say always that way but there is a cruelty in a way that when you accept loses and when you are able to withstand loss. Most people fold. Most people can't take it. He was always quoting Truman: "You can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen". His kitchen was white hot, and he wasn't leaving the kitchen.

JB: And that comes across in the movie.

CC: He was one of these guys, I don't know if you ever feel like you're in danger or whether you feel the necessity to do this, but some people carry around a phone number or two that they're going to call, if something happens. Like, whom are you going to call? Well, I think if you knew him, I think you'd want his phone number in your wallet.

JB: Did you ever hear your father commenting how he felt about Bush Sr. succeeding him at the CIA? Did he ever have an opinion about that?

CC: I think initially he thought that Bush Sr. was a very effective unifying force in a way that helped the agency. That he took on the mission of the individual officers. He rallied around them and tried to support them and cast them in a positive light-in a sense sold the CIA back to the Congress. He tried to rally support for the mission of the CIA even though it started to be decimated by that time. Basically, the gate was up. I mean the Congress had had its fill of the CIA and wasn't going to fund much of it. And that was actually a pretty treacherous time. I mean the mid 70s was not a hay day for the CIA and for America. We'd just lost the war in Vietnam. The Russians were ascendant; they were threatening us. There were 30,000 Cuban troupes in Angola. The Caribbean was kind of in flames. Latin America was starting to bubble up. South America was kind of up for grabs. Most of Africa was kind of in play. And the oil crises was hitting. And, so it wasn't a really strong time to be an American.

JB: You included an enormous amount of amazing archival footage. And I was really impressed with the pristine quality of the images-devoid of the usual scratches and imperfections you usually get with such stock footage. Did you go to any special lengths to clean up these images?

CC: One of the luckiest most fortunate things that happened to me is that I allied myself with Grace Guggenheim as my archival producer and one of our key producers. And she is the queen of the archival footage. Her father's legacy is extraordinary-he made not only heartfelt and beautiful films but very simple films. From a film standpoint, I learned from him. Grace set about really ferociously combing the National Archives and a lot of commercial sources for the best possible footage. She did a super human job from everything down to the transfers to the no scratches-just doggedly going after the very very best. Particularly the stills and how we animated the stills-just everything. It just looks gorgeous on screen. And then we decided at the end, thanks to our main producer, David Johnson, to go ahead with the 35mm transfer. And the sad part is that I worry about what is happening to history and what's happening to those films, which are few and far between. We paid every possible right. We did everything correctly in terms of royalty payments and rights payments and clearances worldwide and we got the best possible transfers. I worry that people are either not using this footage or that they're stealing it and putting on YouTube. It's kind of sad in a way that we're losing our history. And I would give a huge amount of credit to Grace and to her father because of the example that her father set. He's probably the finest filmmaker of his generation not only in documentary, but one of the finest filmmakers of the century.

JB: You did a great balancing act between showing the business side of your dad and the personal side, which is a hard juggling act.

CC: That was one of the hardest things. You really tapped into exactly the right film question. That was the toughest thing. Frankly, I couldn't let 45 seconds go by or more without bringing my father back into the story. People say to me how come you don't have anything about the Korean War or how come you don't have about what happened in XYZ? I said, well, he's not involved with that. It's a tangent. It's like you're on a freight train from New York to Philadelphia and all of a sudden it takes a left turn to Atlantic City and all of a sudden you're lost.

JB: This might explain why it took you 5 years to get it all together.

CC: Exactly.

JB: Finally, are there any more theatrical films in your future?

CC: I tapped into some interesting arenas here so I'm going to look at that and there are a couple of other documentaries that I'd like to do. I'm working on a book that would come out with the release on TV & DVD late next year. That's kind of the next step. And then I'll try to launch one of these other projects.

William Colby testifying before Senate Church committee
in 1975

(l to r) Catherine, Barbara, William, Carl and Jonathan Colby

Complete coverage of The 13th Maryland Film Festival

After an incredibly tough, damp Baltimore winter, the first week in May brought glorious, and, for the most part, surprisingly dry weather to the faithful attending this mini-gem of a festival held May 5-8. Keeping to its tradition since 2004, Opening Night dedicated itself to the short film genre-and for the first time this year had the distinguished Washington Post critic, and Pulitzer Prize nominee, Ann Hornaday, on hand to kick off the festivities. As usual, the menu of films Festival Director Jed Dietz and his programmers Eric Hatch & Scott Braid offered variance in tone, style, and expertise, as patrons had to carefully scrutinize the offerings to pick out a feature that would be ultimately worth one’s time and money. A significant cross-section of films culled from festivals all over the world literally offered something for everyone-be it documentary, drama, comedy, experimental, or fantasy. There were films of all types to satisfy the genre tastes from the ardent to the casual moviegoer. As usual, celebrities such as John Waters chose & introduced their favorites, there was a 3D classic from the 50’s, and the world-renowned Alloy Orchestra returned to offer their musical interpretation of several silent comic classics. And topping it all off was a wonderful Closing Night film that played at the opening night at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the HBO produced documentary “Sing Your Song” that covered the incredible life and career of Harry Belafonte. Having the 84 year old superstar present to deliver a wonderful Q&A moderated by his long time friend, author Taylor Branch, made this a four-star evening to remember. Therefore, even if several films disappointed this critic, there were enough enjoyable highlights to make this highly anticipated weekend in May in Baltimore totally worthwhile.

Top 5

(1) “Viva Riva”
(2) “Better This World”
(3) ”Meek’s Cutoff”
(4) “Terri”
(5) ”Sing Your Song”
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Thursday May 5, 2011

Day 1-Opening Night



The after party in the lobby of The Brown Center

After a horrendous winter & spring, what a pleasure to have beautiful clear skies and temps in the 60's greeting the throng that packed the beautiful Brown Center on the campus of Maryland Institute College of Art for the 13th annual. After scoring a phenomenal coup a couple of years ago when eventual AA winner "The Hurt Locker" was screened with director Katherine Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal months before its release, Jed Dietz can be counted on to present a surprise or two to those who come out to the Charles Theater corridor this weekend.

As has been the tradition for several years, the opening night menu honors the short film genre. After welcoming remarks, festival director Jed Dietz welcomes the MC for the evening: the distinguished critic for the Washington Post (and ex-Baltimore Sun critic) Ann Hornaday.

Ann introduces each of the short films which, this year, for the first time, does not include any animation or experimental. Each of the four films presented depicts unique narrative story lines that expertly show off the varied talents of the filmmakers who created the following mini masterpieces:

"Pioneer" (***-15 minutes)-
Director David Lowery uses ingenious sound design (as Ann pointed out in her introduction) and spot-on acting by a first-time 4 year old toddler to tell a story of a father who tries to comfort his son who has just awakened during a thunder storm. The fantastical story he relates brings back memories most of us have when storytelling was so much a part of our childhood.

"We're Leaving" (***-13 minutes)-Fun offbeat narrative story about Rusty, his wife, and their 18 year-old "son", Chopper. Chopper brings new meaning to the word "baggage" when they find that they are being forced to move after 26 years. It is hard enough having to move but more so when having to deal with Chopper, who just happens to be their pet alligator. Director Zachary Trietz keeps the nervous humor going-all the while you will be wondering and anticipating what Chopper is going to do next. Director Zachart Treitz and his crew get amazing closeups of Chopper-who proves he has acting "chops" of his own.

"The Strange Ones" (*** 1/2-15 minutes)-The tension shifts gears as directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein present the winner of the evening. This is the kind of short film that those who love the genre point to when explaining the beauty of the genre. A narrative is told in 15 minutes that could easily expand to a feature length. The plot is simple: two supposed brothers are forced to find their way when their car breaks down. They happen upon a secluded hotel where a girl who works there offers to help them. Speaking to each of them separately reveals to her a mystery that has her rethinking her offer. Great subtle performances by all three, especially by experienced actor Merritt Wever, makes this one easily the highlight of the four.

"Seltzer Works" (***-7 minutes)-This fascinating short documentary by Jessica Edwards takes us into the almost forgotten world of seltzer deliverymen and one factory that makes the increasingly elusive bottles and product. In 7 minutes, we visit the Gromberg Seltzer Works in Brooklyn and meet Kenny Gomberg, a 3rd generational owner of a factory that will soon perish into history-as are its proponents, who wouldn't think of pulling a bottle off of the grocery shelf.

After a Q&A with the filmmakers, all of the attendees headed to the lobby to celebrate the start of, what I am sure, is another interesting festival that should appeal to all moviegoers.

Festival Director Jed Dietz
opens the 13th annual



Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday
MC's and introduces the shorts



The shorts film makers


Director David Lowery ("Pioneer")

(l to r) Actor Rusty Blanton & Director Zachary Treitz
("We're Leaving")

irectors Laren Wolkstein & Christopher Radcliff
("The Strange Ones")

Director Jessica Edwards ("Seltzer Works")

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Baltimore's own, director/writer
John Waters hanging out in the
Tent Village

Friday May 6, 2011-Day 2


"Green" (*-75 minutes)
This mumblecore production actually gives mumblecore a bad name. First-time director Sophia Takel includes herself in the cast in this extremely tedious story of a couple (Kate Lyn Shreil & Laurence Michael Levine), who are renting a country house while Levine does some blog writing. Their lives become entwined with a mysterious neighbor (Takel) who may or may not be an innocent third party to the occasional odd goings on-which doesn't amount to much as it turns out. The film opens with a lot of mundane conversation & continues on and on and on with more inane dialogue (a staple of the mumblecore genre) throughout its running time. There is supposed to be mounting tension as what appears to be a friendly triangle slowly (and I do mean very slowly) turns into jealousy. In the final analysis, all this conversing had me completely zoning out for most of its (what seemed interminable) 75 minutes. Takal was co-star and editor while Levine directed the somewhat successful 2009 indie film, “Gabi on the Roof in July” which played here in 2010 & had a limited release in New York. However, unfortunately, I was disappointed, bored, & ambivalent by this effort.
During the Q&A, director Sophia Takel, who plays the mysterious neighbor who imposes herself on the couple, revealed that, in real life, she and Laurence are engaged and that Kate Lyn Shreil are roommates.



(l to r) Actress Kate Lyn Sheil, director/actress Sophia Takal,
nd actor Laurence Michael Levine

"Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" (** 1/2-112 minutes)

The winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes has been garnering very favorable reviews from the majority of critics. Alas, I fear this one will try the nerves and patience of the average moviegoer who, if they enter the theater with even a smidgen of tiredness, will be snoozing throughout. Thai director Apichatpong "Joe" Weerethakul drew inspiration from classic Thai films and his own experiences to tell this tale of a dying man (Thanapai Salisaymar) who encounters the ghost of his first wife, his deceased son (who appears in another animal form) and other odd encounters that take him on a spiritual journey into his past lives. This movie is anything but a straight narrative as it covers the themes of reincarnation and fantasy like no other film I have ever witnessed. And there is a ”romantic” scene involving a catfish (!) which would have made Alejandro Jodorowsky proud. Once again, the pace is extremely laborious (I think I entered a past life or two of my own during those 112 minutes), but, if boredom steps in, you can marvel over the wonderful Thai scenery which elevates “Uncle Boonee” an additional 1/2 star in my rating. The film is currently in limited release.




The apparition of the dying man's son

"Better This World" (*** 1/2-98 minute)
Ahhh-I knew it would take a documentary to get me out of my cinematic doldrums. This extremely well done and disturbing doc by Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane del la Vega is another film (there seem to be a ton over the last couple of years) that will have you leaving the theater thoroughly disgusted with our Government and legal system. Two young idealistic men from Austin, David McKay and Bradley Crowder, attempt to "better this world" by partaking in peaceful protests at the 2008 Republic National Convention. These two extremely naive lads are definitely not the terrorist types but when an older activist they meet in Austin leads them astray, they ultimately find themselves in custody at the RNC in Saint Paul Minnesota slapped with terrorist charges for possessing eight Molotov Cocktails. Through excellent story telling devices by the filmmakers, we learn that their leader, an informer for the FBI, entrapped these two young idealists. We then follow their legal trials and the devastation to their family and friends, which concluded with their eventual imprisonment. The dynamics between the two friends and the betrayal each faced to avoid imprisonment is both heartbreaking and poignant-and completely unnecessary in the post 9/11 climate that now permeates our world. Brilliant editing and score only adds to the excellence. The film premiers September 6 on the PBS series P.O.V.
During the Q&A, Randy stated that, since he's been released from jail, he went back to school and continues remain active in community organizing issues around immigration, school budget cuts in the school system. He revealed that jail made him appreciate each day and not take anything for granted and is working very hard to make the most of life. He also stated that the government's actions of entrapping individuals is not an isolated incident and that it is much more prevalent than people think and is one of the reasons this film was made. When asked about his contact with David who is still incarcerated, Randy said that, as a condition of his release, he is prohibited from any contact with his friend or he will return to prison. He currently has two more years of probation.



(l to r) Producer Mike Nicholson & activist Bradley Crowder


"Without" (***-89 minutes)
An interesting psychological character study about a 19-year-old-girl who takes a part time job in a sparsely populated town caring for a wheelchair bound elder (Ron Carrier) while his family takes a vacation. First time actor, Joslyn Jensen gives a wide-ranging performance going from a dutiful caretaker to bored employee to crazed caretaker as strange things start to occur around her-or do they? Rookie director/screenwriter Mark Jackson quietly and effectively depicts the boredom Joslyn is encountering caring for the elder resident. Although at first dutiful (she is given an outrageous list of tasks and instructions by her employer), she finds herself slipping into patterns of neglect, negligence, and fear. An effective score helps to complement and elevate the visual tensions. My main problem with the film is the large number of red herrings thrown our way. Clearly, director Jackson never met a MacGuffin he did not like; and the result is that, at the end, I expected something more substantial & powerful. However, the nice acting turn by the lead actor, and the intriguing sound design, elevates "Without" a half star to the respectable three star category. A nice first effort all around makes Mark Jackson a name to watch.
At the Q&A, Mark said he and Joslyn had worked previously on smaller experimental films. This marks her first feature length movie. Joslyn performs a neat cover of a Lil Wayne song, which can be viewed on YouTube where she also covers other rap songs. She also mentioned that she performs at a New York sushi bar as a hobby.



Invalid Frank (Ron Carrier) being read t o by

Joslyn (Joslyn Jensen)


Director Mark Jacobson & actress Joslyn Jensen


"Terri" (***1/2-101 minutes)
First premiering at Sundance, this is a wonderful new coming-of-age work by director Azazel Jacobs ("Momma's Man"). Newcomer Jacob Wysocki gives an amazingly subtle performance as Terri, an overweight teen who must deal with high school bullying, a couple of nerdy friends, and taking care of his ailing uncle (Creed Bratton-"Mask" and TV’s “The Office“). Clearly, he wants a better life. However, the question becomes “Will he?” when confronted with the opportunity to break out of his loser life. Brilliant indie character actor John C. Reilly (2010’s “Cyrus” and this year’s “Cedar Rapids”) is on hand to provide most of the humor as Terri's High Principal who takes Terri under his wing and who has a heart so big you will want to reach out and hug him! (I wished I had a principal like him during my early schooling years.) The movie rests clearly on the shoulders of Wysocki who is capably up to the task. (When he decides to wear pajamas to school “because they’re comfortable”, you do not question his motives.) Mandy Hoffman also provides an appropriate score, which is the perfect addition to this satisfying human comedy ably written by Patrick deWitt. The film began a limited platformed release in New York and L.A. on July 1.
Azazel, commenting on selecting the role of Terri, said Jacob was chosen when he realized that he brought to the character a confidence and sense of self that would have been hard to act out or direct. As for the wonderful score, he left Mandy create it with little direction other than dropping off the draft to work from.








Principal Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly, right) confronts

troubled students Chad (Bridger Zadina, left) & Terri

(Jacob Wysocki, center)


(l to r) Director Azazal Jacobs &

festival director Jed Dietz


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Saturday May 7, 2011-Day 3

"Meek's Cutoff" (*** 1/2 -104 minutes)
Ever want to know what it was like to cross the Cascade Mountains in Oregon in 1845? Of course, none of us will ever know, however this film by director Kelly Reichardt ("Old Joy", "Wendy and Lucy") has to be as close to depicting this experience as any other. Using the classic box framing of films of yore, the director is so intent on authenticity that by the conclusion of the film you will feel like brushing off your clothes to rid yourself of the dust and sweat you just experienced on the screen. A totally minimalist film, you will follow three families traveling by wagon train, along with their hired guide, as they slowly make the treacherous journey. In search of water and destination is only part of their problem. They now must deal with the Indian threat all around them-which is an immediate concern when they capture a lone scout. Tensions mount, as they now must decide how to maintain their sanity and their lives fearing that any moment his tribe will be coming to his rescue. DP Christopher Blauvelt's cinematography and his prolific use of natural lighting, the acting by Michelle Williams & Will Patton as the lead family and Rod Rondeaux as the Indian adds to the realism. But it is the grizzled portrayal by Bruce Greenwood as the guide, Stephen Meek that is the standout. Also, a beautifully understated score by Jeff Grace adds to the enhancement of the experience. If you go in not expecting shootouts or the usual Hollywood western touches created to satisfy the action-minded audiences, you will walk away haunted by the trials and tribulations these pioneers endured in the 19th century. The film is currently in limited release.

Baltimore Sun critic and author, Michael Sragow (whose book on Victor Fleming, "Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master", was praised by Peter Bogdanovich in the Wall Street Journal as the greatest book written about a film director) introduced the film and interviewed Will Patton following the screening. In his opening discussion, Michael mentioned that Reichardt deliberately shot the film in the aspect ratio (the so-called "golden ratio") of the classic American movies to make it seem that more authentic. The squared-off screen made the actors more prominent and not overwhelmed by the landscape.




Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams)


(l to r) MC critic/writer Michael Sragow & actor Will Patton
leading the post-screening Q&A

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Belafonte

Sunday, May 8, 2011-Day 4-Closing Night


"Septien" (** 1/2 -79 minutes)
Director Michael Tully has created a film that is a great example of art-house independent film fare that grabs the viewer and throws him into a strange world inhabited by weirdo’s & misfits. (Hmmm-sounds a little like early John Waters.) Unfortunately, although the plot is fresh initially, I eventually became exhausted trying to figure out the motives behind the strange characterizations and even stranger goings-on. After an absence of 18 years, Cornelius Rawlings (mysteriously played by the director) suddenly returns home to his surviving two brothers who are living on the family farm in Tennessee. Dysfunctional with a capital "D", Ezra (Robert Longstreet) is a cross dresser, while his brother Amos (Onur Turkel) excels at some kind of creepy violent porn art (the actor actually provides his own artwork). Throw in the appearance of a couple of inane characters such as the eccentric plumber who used to be Cornelius' high school football coach (with whom he had a serious conflict while he was on the team years ago-and may or may not be the reason for his long absence) & a fire and brimstone-type preacher and you have a hotchpotch of plot points that never quite come together cohesively in the end.






The 3 brothers (l to r): Cornelius (Michael Tully),
Amos (Onur Tukel), & Ezra (Robert Longstreet)

Director/actor Michael Tully, editor Marc Vives,
& actor Onur Tukel


"Viva Riva!" (****-96 minutes)
No movie has been shot in the Congo for 25 years-until now. And what an impressive feature- film debut for Congolese director Djo Tunda Wa Mungay (he's previously done two documentaries)-who intends to establish a cinema base in his home country. You will need a seat belt to hold you in place for almost its entire running time as you enter the seedy crime-filled realm that could easily be any city in the U.S. There is a gas crisis in the capital city of Kinshasa (pretty timely!). Riva (earnestly played by Patsha Bay), the film's charismatic central character, has stolen a shipment of petrol from Cesar, an Angolan crime boss (Hoji Fortuna who is perfectly cast in the "godfather" role). Riva's simple plan is to return with the stolen goods to his hometown of Kinshasa to make a quick profit. Cesar's pursuit alone would be more than enough for him to handle. Unfortunately, there is the local kingpin Azor whom Riva angers after he boldly tries (and eventually succeeds) to whisk away his hottie moll, Nora (Manie Malone). Also, there are additional characters trying to backstab our hero including a female Commandant (Marlene Longage) and her lesbian lover Malou, and a priest who seems to worship the all mighty dollar more than The All Mighty. The pacing and plot twists are frantic (be advised there are gobs of humor, sex, and violence-all necessary in this genre) but the filmmaker never loses his way. Wonderful cinematography (Djo actually shot the darn thing using a small D5 still camera that mimics film to such a degree that you'll be hard pressed to tell the difference from a full blown 35mm print) and a heart-thumping score makes this on one of the most entertaining popcorn films I've seen in many a year. "Viva Riva" opened in New York last June and should make its way across the country not long thereafter. Bravo!
After the screening, Djo stated that prior to the shoot, he organized a two month training workshop a year before production to teach the actors how to work before a camera. Another workshop was conducted for them a year later just before production to have them work with an acting coach after which they were given the script.


Riva (Patsha Bay)

Director Djo Tunda Wa Mungay

CLOSING NIGHT FILM: "Sing Your Song" (*** 1/2-103 minutes)
The HBO-produced documentary is actually two films: The life and extraordinary career of legendary singer/actor Harry Belafonte. His accomplishments in the entertainment industry were groundbreaking in many ways, and the numerous accolades he has received could not be more deserved. We learn of his association and friendship with Brando & Poitier among so many other artists throughout his enormously successful career. The other part of the journey covers the varied political social activism that Belafonte's life has encompassed: from the 60's civil rights, to apartheid, to the Iraq war. We see his close association with such monumental figures as JFK, Mandela, and Martin Luther King, as well as the influences they had on his other life miles away from the lights on Broadway or the glitz of Hollywood. What starts out as the story of one man becomes a global affair that makes you realize what a satisfying journey this 84-year-old talent has become. A wonderful editing job and a great score by Hahn Rowe beautifully tie it all together. Kudos to festival director Jed Dietz, who, after screening it at this year's Sundance on their opening night, pulled many strings to, not only obtain the print, but to arrange to have Belafonte appear in person. A remarkable windup to another successful fest. "Sing Your Song" (which refers to Paul Robeson's advice to Harry when he said, "“Get them to sing your song and they’ll want to know who you are") will premiere this fall on HBO.
After the screening, Harry spoke about the sacrifices he made making his global jaunts and the effect it had on his children having to be judged constantly for what he had said or done. He revealed that his choices were made accompanied by a great sense of anguish and guilt for sacrificing his family for this life. It was his daughter Gina, the lead producer of the film, who pushed him hardest of all to do the film because she felt strongly about his legacy and not so much the celebrity. He stressed that he didn't want his celebrity to get in the way of the message.


Belafonte (2nd from right) singing with his fans


Author Taylor Brnach moderates the Q&A with
Harry Belafonte

2011 SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival


WOW!-the first word that comes to mind in describing the ninth edition of this wonderful film festival. Artistic Director Skye Sitney and her talented staff have done it again-and actually have outdone themselves. Lovers of the documentary film genre who have not yet attended SILVERDOCS are missing a golden opportunity to view films firsthand that, for the most part, will thoroughly entertain and instruct. Moreover, the majority of screenings offer audiences a golden chance to interact with the filmmakers and, in some cases, the subjects of the doc, for provocative Q and As, with post-screening discussions often spilling out into the lobby. With over 2200 submissions, the festival programmers have chosen 108 films from 58 countries that are sure to whet the appetite of anyone who wants to explore a myriad of subjects of life on the planet. I screened 28 films from such diverse subjects as music, art, crime and punishment, war, love, music, animal experiments, sperm donors, sports, litigation, the automobile industry, human mysteries, the food/restaurant industry, child bullying, sex slavery, a horse whisperer, and Sesame Street. And this was only after viewing 25% of the selection of top-notch quality documentaries offered, several of which are sure to make their way to theaters near you. It is highly likely that one or more will make the list of Academy Award nominees. With the completion this past year of the beautiful Silver Spring Civic Building around the corner from the AFI Silver Theater, the festival has finally secured a permanent home base of operations. And, the Opening Night Party there was a huge success-helped in large part by an updated version of a photo booth machine that kept festival goers entertained with their own prints as the collage of photos rotationally appeared on the lobby walls. This stellar festival, held each year in mid-June, should be a must-see on any serious film buff's list as the quality of choices and activities will assuredly not disappoint.

TOP 10
(1) "Being Elmo"
(2) "Project Nim"
(3) "Donor Unknown"
(4) "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles"
(5) "The Rescuers"
(6) "Scenes of a Crime"
(7) "Give Up Tomorrow"
(8) "Semper Fi: Always Faithful"
(9) "The Bully Project"
(10) "Hot Coffee"

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Monday June 20, 2011
DAY 1-Opening Night

"The Swell Season" (*** -90 minutes)
The ninth annual was greeted with glorious weather in Silver Spring Maryland. And to kick off this amazing festival was an up-close utterly raw peek into the musical and personal relationship of the two musicians who are the driving force behind the recently formed pop group, "The Swell Season". 35 year-old Glen Hansard and 18 year-old Marketa Irglova appeared in John Carney's 2006 indie masterpiece, "Once" and their beautiful song from that film, "Falling Slowly" won the duo an Academy Award in 2007. That film chronicled the fictionalized romance between the two musicians who meet while he is doing his thing as a struggling street musician. Life soon imitated art when a real life romance blossomed between the two who together formed an amazing pop group that toured after receiving their AA honor. Directors Chris Dapkins, Carlo Mirabella-Davis, and Nick August-Perna followed the group for two years and managed to capture the essence of their music-as well as the intimate painful moments of Glenn and Marketa's, what was to be, doomed relationship. Filmed in glorious HD black and white, the music sequences are superb while the film successfully manages to quietly, but powerfully, draw the viewer inside the world of two people who made magnificent music together-both on and off the screen and stage. The film opens nationwide on October 7.

Marketa Irglova and Glenn Hansard

(l to r on the Red Carpet) "The Swell Season" directors
Chris Dapkins and Nick August-Perna,
SILVERDOCS Artistic Director Skye Sitney, and
Bob Boilen, NPR Host of "All Things Considered"

(l to r on the Red Carpet) David Leavy (Discovery
Communications Executive Vice President of Communications
and Corporate Affairs)
, Ike Leggett (Montgomery County Executive),
Nick Augusta-Perna and Chris Dapkins ("The Swell Season" Directors),
Bob Gazzale (
President and CEO of The American Film Institute),
Sky Sitney (SILVERDOCS Artistic Director), Bob Boilen (NPR Host of "All
Things Considered"), and Laura Michalschyshyn (TV and film executive
who is President of Planet Green/Discovery Health/Fit TV
at Discovery Communications)


The Opening Night audience awaits the screening of "The
Swell Season"


Bob Gazzalle, President and CEO of The American Film Institute 
opens the 13th SILVERDOCS Film Festival

SILVERDOCS Artistic Director Skye Sitney introduces the
opening night film


(l to r) Directors Chris Dapkins and Nick Augusta-Perna with
moderator NBR Host Bob Boilen after the screening


The lobby of The Silver Spring Civic Building, which hosts
the Opening Night after-party


"The Swell Season" Directors interviewed at the after-party

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June 21, 2011-DAY 2

"The Ballad of Genesis & Lady Jaye" (** 1/2-72 minutes)
Slight experimental film of the unusual relationship between industrial rocker Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (of the pre-punk group Throbbing Gristle and post-punk Psychic TV) and his partner Lady Jaye who was a young dominatrix when they met in 1993. Director Marie Losier creates a home movie quality to the visuals that provide a peek into the world of this particular music genre. A kind of strange love story, the film tries to explain the motives of these two performance artists who eventually married and then attempted to physically look like each other through plastic surgery. The narration by Genesis over clips of the two on and off the stage helps to explain the psyche of their deep personal relationship that ended with Lady Jaye's untimely death in 2007. Besides the home movies, archival footage, band footage, and interviews, the director covers the life of Genesis before Lady Jaye enters the picture-from his unhappy childhood growing up in Britain, to his 1970s art scandals, to his association with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. But it is this bizarre love story that is at the main center of it all that, like watching a train wreck, makes it hard not to watch.


Genesis

"The Price of Sex" (*** 1/2-72 minutes)
The title indicates perhaps a light-hearted look at the world's oldest profession. Instead, photojournalist/film maker Mimi Chakorova gives a powerful exposé into the world of sex trafficking in a film that will stay with you long after the lights go up. Although this is a worldwide tragedy, Mimi, who grew up in Bulgaria before emigrating to the U.S. in the '80s, concentrates on Eastern Europe where, with the fall of communism, mass poverty allowed naive woman to be snatched up and sold as sex slaves. It took her seven years to compile the various stories that shockingly reveal how these women are so violently brutalized that, even if they escape, they are emotionally, as well as physically, permanently scarred for life. She also obtains footage in Dubai and Ankara (which actually bans pre-marital sex but not prostitution), filming the red-light districts where doing so is dangerous for anyone with a camera. (All of her equipment was stolen from a Dubai hotel room at one point.) Mimi boldly puts herself in harm's way by interviewing customers (who happen to be cops) and pimps-even posing as a prostitute in Ankara in order to fully document this unconscionable human rights tragedy. And, it was surprising to learn that woman, not men, are the primary recruiters of the soon-to-be sex slaves. My main problem with the doc is a minor one: Mimi's voiceover narration, although earnest, sounds too monotone and unprofessional. However, her dedication to educate the masses to this issue is truly remarkable and, hopefully, successful in helping to end this activity that brings devastation to the lives of many women around the world.

One of the women sold into sex slavery

Director Mimi Chakorova

"Semper Fi: Always Faithful" (****-75 minutes)
Retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger's 9-year-old daughter died of leukemia in 1985 while the family was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina-the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast. When it was discovered that the cause might have been due to toxic waste contamination at the base, he undertook a 14-year journey that ultimately brought him to the halls of Congress where it was finally revealed that The Corps was covering up one of the largest water contamination in our nation's history for over 30 years. His main purpose was not to expose the military, but to get acknowledgment from the organization to which he devoted his life and service. He joined forces with another veteran, Michael Partain who had contracted a rare male breast cancer and together they attempted to right a terrible wrong. What makes this situation so appalling is the military's reluctance to contact all the residents of the base during the contamination period, stating to Congress how difficult it would be to do so. Directors Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon have constructed a true-to-life horror story that gets scarier with each passing frame. Winner of the Documentary Editing Award at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, this is yet another powerful expose of another government cover-up and how one man CAN make a difference.

Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger

(from l to r) co-director Tony Hardmon, Jerry Ensminger,
Michael Partain, and co-director Rachel Libert


"Being Elmo" A Puppeteer's Journey" (****-76 minutes)
Winner of the 2011 Sundance Documentary Audience Award earlier this year, this delightful heart-warming story of African-American Baltimore native Kevin Clash not only could easily be nominated for next year's Academy Awards, but here's an early prediction that it will win it. The talent behind (inside and under) the beloved Sesame Street character, Elmo, Kevin knew his life calling early on and pursued it to the hilt. He began by putting on puppet shows for his Turner Station neighborhood friends, and then later he received a huge break on a local television show that led to working with the infamous Captain Kangaroo. This ultimately landed him the Muppet gig at the top of the puppet food chain. So curious was Kevin to learn how the Muppets' "skin" appeared seamless that he took a side trip away from his high school's field trip in New York to seek out Muppet builder Kevin Love, who later introduced young Kevin to Jim Henson. One of the more interesting tidbits is the fact Elmo was rescued off the scrap heap when its original human voice (the late Richard Hunt, who gave Elmo a deep caveman inflection) hated the character and asked Kevin in 1984 if he wanted to give it a try. The rest was history. The editing by Justin Weinstein, screenplay by co-director Phil Shane, and score by Joel Goodman are all top-notch that will surely help to put the documentary in strong contention for an Academy Award. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will be amazed at Kevin's incredible journey that began with his backyard puppet shows and now continues with his key role perpetuating the brilliance and joy that Jim Henson's Muppets bring to the world. The film was bought by ITVS and Independent Lens and will hit the theaters on October 21. This one is not to be missed!



Elmo and his pal Kevin Clash

Kevin Clash and Elmo (back row center) with his siblings,
parents, and daughter Shannon (far right)
on the red carpet prior to the screening

Kevin, Elmo, and Shannon

(from l to r) producer Corinne LaPook, editors Justin Weinstein
& Philip Shane, director Constance Marks, and Kevin Clash
at the Q and A


Elmo hugs his fans after the screening

"Buck" (***1/2-88 minutes)
Director Cindy Meehl's wonderfully quiet portrait of Buck Brannaman, the inspiration behind the bestselling novel by Nicholas Evans, and Robert Redford's 1998 film adaptation "The Horse Whisperer", won the Special Jury Documentary prize at Sundance. You will walk away with a great appreciation and respect for a man who didn't let a childhood marred by a physically abusive father prevent him from becoming a successful family man who had a way with horses, and who has touched many folks along the way. The film follows Buck, his wife and daughter, as they travel from ranch to ranch instructing owners on the proper techniques to use for "breaking" troublesome horses. His philosophy for success: warmth and compassion instead of brute force-the former of which he rarely experienced as a youth. Clips are shown of him and his brother Bill as children being marketed on TV and touring the rodeo circuit as "Buckshot and Smokie, The Idaho Cowboys" doing rope tricks-all the while being beaten and bruised by their stage dad. After Buck's high school coach sees the bruises, the authorities were called and the two brothers were subsequently placed in a foster home. It becomes clear that Buck's teaching methods and philosophy stemmed from what he experienced and learned from his past. Accompanied with a beautiful soundtrack, you will leave this film feeling nothing but joy in your heart for a man who overcame adversity to, as he puts it, help horses deal with people problems. "Buck" began its limited nationwide release on June 17.


Buck Brannaman training wild horses

(from l to r) co-producer and creative advisor Andrea Meditch,
editor Toby Shimin, co-producer Julie Goldman, & director
Cindy Meehl at the BUCK Q and A

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June22, 2011-DAY 3

"Jiro Dreams of Sushi" (****-82 minutes)
Would you pay over $300 to have 22 pieces of sushi, and only sushi? There are many folks around the world who gladly fork up (excuse the expression) this expense to dine at the 10-seat "Sukiyabashi Jiro" restaurant. The restaurant has earned the rare prestigious 3-star Michelin rating and its owner is 85-year-old Jiro Ono who, along with his two sons, has created this culinary eatery gem. American film maker David Gelb provides a fascinating exposé of Jiro and what it takes to receive that rating which, as Japanese food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto points out, will likely disappear upon Yiro's retirement or demise-no matter the effort and talent of his sons to carry on his legacy. A beautiful profile of a man who creates food as art as meticulously as any classical artist, and a fascinating peak into the unique process that helps create and maintain the restaurant's 3-star rating. Gelb includes a soundtrack that utilizes several selections by the renowned 20th century American composer Philip Glass and is the perfect complement to the visuals. The film was bought by Magnola Pictures and a spring 2012 release is planned.


Jiro (foreground) preparing his sushi

Director David Gelb

"The Bully Project" (****-94 minutes)
When the Columbine school massacre occurred on April 20 1999, the aftermath included reports that the two young assassins had grown up as victims of bullying. They decided to end the lives of thirteen of their classmates-before turning their guns on themselves. It is unconscionable that it has taken over twelve years for a film such as this to finally address what is unfortunately becoming almost a daily occurrence across this country. Besides the everyday threats of violence by others (metal scanners at school entrances are as common as recess) it seems young people are now killing themselves, and others, in record numbers in order to end years of abuse at the hands of their fellow students. Director Lee Hirsch ("Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony"), who revealed during the Q and A that, growing up, he was also a recipient of bullying, has meticulously created this moving look into this outrageous, and totally preventable, phenomena. He follows five families in five states across The Bible Belt throughout one school year that focuses responsibility, not only on the perpetrators, but also includes parents, administrators, and teachers. One particularly disturbing segment includes school administrators being confronted by the parents of their bullied child after Hirsch manages to film the abuse on a school bus. The school administrators' reaction and their lack of action are almost as scary as the bullying that would eventually lead to tragic results. Moving and powerful, the film was picked by the prestigious Weinstein Company for a nationwide release on March 9, 2012.  


Alex Libby-one of the subjects of the film

(l to r) Director Lee Hirsch (l); Anurima Bhargava,
Chief of Educational Opportunities Section in Civil Rights
Division of the Department of Justice; Lisa Thomas,
American Federation of Teachers; Michel Martin,
NPR Host Tell Me More at the post-screening panel


Director Lee Hirsch

(l tor r) Teryn Long, Troy Long, Tina Long and David Long
featured in THE BULLY PROJECT at the film’s
post-screening panel supported by The Fledgling Fund
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Thursday June 23, 2011-DAY 4

"Sound It Out" (*** 1/2-82 minutes)
The east coast premier of director Jeanie Finlay's documentary focuses on what is lately becoming a dying breed all over the planet: the local independent record shop. Despite vinyl making somewhat of a comeback the last several years, especially with audiophiles and collectors, these quaint neighborhood establishments are slowly becoming a distant memory. Finlay takes us to the last one of these stores struggling to exist located in Stockton, a poor section of northern England, and gives us, not only a fascinating peak into the inner workings of the shop and its owner, but also the often strange somewhat eccentric clientele that frequents it. A shop that is barely existing economically, it takes someone who has a passion for his job to keep the shop existing. And that exactly describes "Sound It Out" owner Tom Butchart and his employees whose vast knowledge of the music business can help locate the most obscure recording. On occasion, the tiny shop even provides just enough space for local and regional struggling musicians to set-up and entertain clientele breezing through the racks of vinyl. Soon, the meager space is filled with curious listeners who just happen to be walking by the store. An amusing nostalgic trip that will especially delight and flood the memory banks of those who have amassed a ton of music over the years. The film opens nationwide September 16.

Tom Buthchart and his record shop

"Where Soldiers Come From" (*** 1/2-91 minutes)
Director Heather Courtney introduces three close buddies from a small northern Michigan town, Hancock, who want to make something of their lives. Dominic Fredianelli, Cole Smith and Matt "Bodi" Beaudoin have little career options other than military service so, after graduating high school in 2007 they decide to support each other and enlist in The National Guard. Courney follows each through boot camp and then takes her cameras to film them during a 9-month stint in Afghanistan where they search for IED's. You'll be reminded of "The Hurt Locker" as you ride along where an unexpected attack/explosion can occur at any instant. Courtney's intimate profile shows what devastating effects their deployment can have, not only for the principals, but also their families, friends, and acquaintances-whose scenes back at home are edited between the Afghanistan footage of the boys desperately trying to survive their tour of duty. The good news is that each survives their stint. The not so good news is the lingering effect war has on their emotional and physical well. A fascinating look into the effects of war seen from the viewpoint of those brave soldiers on the front-line and those who anxiously await their return. PBS will air the P.O.V. produced film to coincide with a September 9 limited nationwide release.



(from l to r) Bodi, Dominic, and Cole back from Afghanistan

(l to r) Cole, Dominic, and Bodi, with director Heather Courtney

"Give Up Tomorrow" (****-95 minutes)
SILVERDOCS screened a film last year, "Presumed Guilty", which focused on the corrupt Mexican criminal justice system that wrongly convicted a Mexican street merchant of murder. Michael Collin's film about a clearly innocent Filipino student, Paco Larranaga (along with 6 others), falsely accused and sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of two sisters, makes that Mexican case seem like a parking ticket trial. Paco's case eventually involved the U.N., Amnesty International, and even the country of Spain who are feverishly trying to free Paco, who has now been imprisoned for over a decade. Two Cebuana sisters, Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong, disappeared on July 16, 1977. When a blindfolded, battered, and handcuffed body of a young woman was found in a ravine two days later, the police, who first declared it wasn't one of the sisters, reversed field and said the corpse was Marijoy based on fingerprints. Paco had one minor fighting incident as a teenager and was currently attending a culinary school in Cebu, 300 miles from where the girls were abducted. Despite the testimony of 35 witnesses (students and teachers), including photographs of him there the night the girls were taken attesting to his presence in Cebu, Paco was convicted along with six others. This doesn't even scratch the surface of the injustice he faced over the next twelve years. Winner of this year's Tribeca Special Jury, Best Director Prize., this beautifully edited, riveting, comprehensive true-to-life nightmare should help generate even more worldwide support from everyone who screens it. The PBS P.O.V. film will air on PBS sometime in 2012.

Paco Larranaga

(l to r) campaigner for Amnesty International Brian Evans,
director Michael Collins, and producer
Martyr Syjuco

"The Rescuers" (****-91 minutes)
Stephen Spielberg's "Schindler's List" was about one man, a non-Jew, who tried to make a difference in saving hundreds from Hitler's concentration camps. In "The Rescuers", Emmy winning director, Michael King introduces us to thirteen foreign diplomats who were instrumental in saving tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. The production values are beautifully rendered as the film journeys to fifteen countries undertaken by noted Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert and anti-genocide activist Stephanie Nyombayire, a survivor of the 1990s Rwandan Civil War. Weaving interviews with survivors and descendants of the diplomats, together they trace the history of these courageous government officials who risked their livelihood and lives to save others. Most people will know the story of Swede Raoul Wallenberg. However, most of the other rescuers will probably be obscure to most viewers. Reenactments by the film maker make the stories even more powerful when combined with the interviews, and help to keep the stories moving at a brisk pace. Included is an amazing original score by Paul van Brugge. The film will have you ponder, as did Gilbert, "the mystery of goodness" and why people of prominence, and who had everything to lose, would risk everything to try and help a persecuted group who were far removed from their own political and social class. This is not just another Holocaust film as it uncovers little known details behind the incredibly brave actions of others who took action to save their fellow man from unconscionable evil.

 


Historian Sir Martin Gilbert and anti-genocideactivist
Stephanie Nyombayire
(l to r) Director Michael King, Producer Joyce D. Mandel,
Program officer for U.S. Institute of Peach (USIP),
Lawrence Woocher, and panel moderator David
Sullivan, Research Director of The Enough Project

The Guggenheim Symposium honors Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker
This year's 11th annual award, named in honor of the late great filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, goes to Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker whose documentary work together over 50 years covered many aspects of American life. The two influential filmmakers have covered such diverse subjects as Bill Clinton inaugural presidential campaign (1993's "The War Room"); the dot com phenomena (2001's "Startup.Com"); Al Franken's transformation as he leaves a career of comedy for politics (2006's "Al Franken: God Spoke"); 16 French pastry chefs competing in the ultimate French pastry competition-the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (2009's Kings of Pastry"); and pop music when a young Bob Dylan was profiled in 1967's "Don't Look Back" and the landmark 1968 film "Monterey Pop"-which covered the first and only 1967 Monterrey International Pop Festival which paved way for that 3-day festival in upstate New York 2 years later. Concluding the symposium was a glimpse of their latest project restoring lost footage from a never-before-seen documentary on the late Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
 
(from l to r on the Red Carpet) Discovery's executive vice president for
corporate affair
David Leavy, Festival Director Sky Sitney,
former NPR Weekend Edition Sunday Host Liane Hansen,
filmmakers D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus,
filmmaker, producer, and daughter of Charles Guggenheim
Grace Guggenheim; AFI Silver Theater Director
Ray Barry 
Senator Al Franken gives salutary remarks
at the start of the symposium
(l to r)Filmmaker D A Pennebaker, moderator former NPR
Weekend Edition Sunday Host Liane Hansen
, and;
filmmaker Chris Hehegedus

 

The two honorees received the 2011 Guggenheim
Symposium award from Grace Guggenheim, right
(l to r) Al Franken, D A Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus,
Skye Sitney, and Grace Guggenheim pose for photos
at the conclusion of the symposium
(l to r) Al Franken, D A Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus,
Skye Sitney, and Grace Guggenheim pose for photos
at the conclusion of the symposium
"Renee" (*** 1/2-78 minutes)
In 1976, 6'3" Renee Richards burst onto the professional woman's tennis tour. A year earlier, known as Richard Raskin, an American Ophthalmologist, she had undergone sex reassignment operation. Eric Drath has created a fascinating documentary that details the complex gender issues Renee has dealt with throughout her life. A natural athlete while growing up (Richards was once scouted by the New York Yankees) the film chronicles when, as a young man, he decided to change his identity, then stopped the process when he fell in love with a beautiful woman. After they subsequently married and had a son, the couple divorced after 5 years, and he then decided to complete the gender transformation. A portion of the film deals with Renee's, now adult, troubled son, as well as his off and on relationship with his mom/dad. I would have liked to have been given deeper insight into these relationships, as well as the relationship between Renee and her sister, who, to this day, refuses to accept the transformation. Despite that, Renee's gender struggles and her life off the court will surprise many who know her only as a controversial sports figure when she tried to compete in the 1977 U.S. Open. The documentary will have you asking more questions about the overall psychological makeup and motivations of the subject, however, you won't be bored . The ESPN produced film will air on that channel in the fall.
Renee Richards still playing in retirement
Renee conducts the post-screening Q and A
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Friday June 24, 2011-DAY 5


"Fire in Babylon" (***-82 minutes)
Filmmaker Steven Riley mixes politics, culture, and sports by concentrating on the rise of the West Indian cricket team that challenged colonialism with the emergence of one of the most successful sports teams in history. Considered a laughing stock for years in the international cricket community, the West Indies Team during the 70's and 80's, under the leadership of its captain, Clive Lloyd and superstar Viv Richards, turned the cricket world on its ear by finally ending the continual dominance of the powerful Australian team. Their 15-year undefeated run, to this day has been unequaled in any sport. Riley includes topical commentary, song and music by noted Caribbean artists (including Bob Marley) to help put the team's exploits in proper context with the cultural climate that existed in the world during this period. My main complaint is that, even though an understanding of the rules of the game is unnecessary to appreciate the story, a brief history of the game that began in Tudor England in the 16th Century, would have put all of this in proper and more meaningful perspective for those of us who have minimal knowledge of the game. The film is in limited release as of June 24.




The West Indian team celebrates a win 
Director Stevan Riley (l) with AFI Silver Head Programmer
Todd Hitchcock at the Q and A 


"Incendiary: The Willingham Case" (*** 1/2-101 minutes)
The East Coast premier of yet another documentary focusing on the Texas justice system gone awry. This time around, we are presented with the details of the case involving the conviction and execution (and this is no spoiler) of Cameron Todd Willingham, accused of setting a house fire in 1991 that killed his three children. It seems that the arson investigation was based on incomplete science and inaccuracies that were disproved by a later independent investigation using current up-to-date forensic science. No problem, right? Well, despite the expert analysis of the evidence, unfortunately, public opinions of a dude who was considered a lout, as well political interference and motivations (the footage involving ex-Governor Rick Perry's defiance in granting a stay of execution will definitely have you feeling incendiary yourself) did not help a lick in keeping Willingham from that fatal injection in 2004. Directors Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr. present a thorough examination of the evidence and, although they leave open the slim possibility that he may have actually set the fire, you will walk out of the theater feeling equal amounts of outrage and disgust that yet another innocent man may have been needlessly executed. Another blow for proponents of capital punishment, the doc has a limited release beginning June 24.



Barry Scheck (l) defending Todd Willingham (center) during his trial

Directors Steve Mims (l) and Joe Bailey, Jr.

"Scenes of a Crime" (****-88 minutes)
As if the previous film did not make me feel queasy enough, along comes the East Coast premier of one of the most devastating docs you will ever see dealing with another wrongly convicted man. Using portions of the actual 10-hour police interrogation tapes, directors Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock intercut the footage with expert analysis of the process describing how easily someone could wrongly confess to a crime he/she never committed. A 4-month old baby was brought into a Troy, NY hospital in 2008 and incorrectly diagnosed with a skull injury. After being transferred to another hospital, the baby died. Subsequent blood analysis pinpointed the cause of death due to a bacterial infection-and not due to head trauma. While all of this was happening, Adrian Thomas, an out of work father of six, was being unmercifully grilled by two of New York's finest-all the while convincingly professing his innocence. As time unfolds, the detectives' persistence and techniques result in a false confession that will have chilling consequences down the road.  Blue's and  Grover's film is riveting and truly unforgettable. The winner of the Grand Jury Award at this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, this interrogation will have you shaking your head in disbelief and anger as the incredible facts of the story unfolds on the screen.

The Troy New York police station interrogation room

Adrian Thomas (center)at his trial, flanked by his attorneys 
 
Directors Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles" (****-88 minutes)
In the 1990's, embedded linoleum tiles started appearing on various streets of Baltimore that read: "Toynbee idea in movie 2001. Resurrect dead on planet Jupiter." I even remember the local media here covering this odd and mysterious occurrence. An explanation was never forthcoming-until now. Jon Foy's fascinating film plays like an eerie mystery novel-except this story is nonfiction. It seems hundreds of these tiles have also been appearing for years on the streets of Philadelphia, D.C., New York (including at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel!), and even in Brazil. Who could have been placing these tiles in the middle of busy thoroughfares without detection? And what do the phrases mean?? Three Philadelphians, led by a local artist Justin Duerr, became so entranced and obsessed with these questions that they turned into amateur sleuths in order to unravel the mystery. The discovery of each clue leads to even more fascinating revelations that will be certain to get you involved-even if you never previously heard of the Toynbee Tiles. Foy does a remarkable job in film construction in his first effort and wears many hats as director, cinematographer, editor, and composer (he's produced a brilliant score to complement the visuals). This is one of the most entertaining and compelling docs I've ever seen, and richly deserving of this year's Sundance Best Documentary Directing prize. A limited release begins on September 2. 


Justin Duerr

An embedded corner of one of the Toynbee tiles


"Hot Coffee" (****-88 minutes)
In 1994, a New Mexico elderly lady spilled McDonald's hot coffee on her legs because of a faulty lid. When Stella Liebeck sued McDonald's after being severely burned, the case became an instant cause célèbre that proceeded to be ridiculed and slammed by the media and late night talk shows. Before the screening, attorney-turned-filmmaker Susan Saladorff asked the audience if they thought the lawsuit was frivolous. Nearly 3/4's raised their hand. After the screening, when the question was posed once again, no one's hand was raised. And for good reason. It seems that at least 700 complaints were on McDonald's files regarding the problem involving extremely hot beverages and the resulting injuries. Moreover, photos of the devastating burns Stella endured convinced everyone in the audience that the lawsuit was more than justified. After presenting that case, the film then enters the world of tort reform where big business is being let off the responsibility hook by limiting the amount plaintiffs can sue. Several examples are presented that will have folks rethink their position on these reform laws being passed in many states that, in the end, prevent victims from getting what they truly deserve because of gross negligence. A real eye-opener, Susan's first effort is a stellar reminder to all of us on the power of the media, how it can falsely sway public opinion, and the necessity for each of us to seek out the truth. The HBO-produced documentary began its run on the cable channel on June 24 and is currently available on DVD
.
 


The subject of the tort case
"Dragonslayer" (**-74 minutes)
Meet Orange County skateboarder/druggie/slacker/single dad(!) Josh "Screech" Sandoval whose exploits and lifestyle are exhibited in all its fury by director Tristan Patterson. Using the gimmicky device of counting down chapters from 10 to 1, along with meaningless titles, each meandering unconnected segment is comprised of snapshots of Screech's nomadic existence over the course of a year-whether it's practicing his craft in empty neighborhood swimming pools, performing in skating events, getting high (which is quite often), falling in love-whatever. All of this inane activity is further punctuated with frequent bursts of loud annoying metal "music". Although this is more a character study on the lifestyle of one of the sport's minor players, the filmmaker does record some interesting skating footage by having Sandoval utilize a flip camera during the skating sequences. It's hard to fathom how the film won the grand jury and cinematography prize at this year's South by Southwest Festival, as well as the best international feature at Toronto's Hot Docs festival. The doc did not resonate, since the human subject at the center of the film had little, if any, social redeeming qualities that would have made it more palpable. At its conclusion, it had me wondering, "What's the point?", as well as feeling that I desperately needed a shower.



Josh "Screech" Sandoval plying his skills in an abandoned swimming pool

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Saturday June 25, 2011-DAY 6-Awards and Closing Night



SILVERDOCS Artistic Director Skye Sitney opens 
the award ceremony

The Festival's Prestigious Sterling Awards:
-Best World Feature: "FAMILY INSTINCT" with a Special Jury Mention to "POSITION AMONG THE STARS"
-Best US Feature: "OUR SCHOOL" with A Special Jury Mention to "The Bully Project" and "WHEN THE DRUM IS BEATING"
-Best Short Film: "GUANAPE SUR" with An Honorable Mention to "Still Here"

Additional Distinguished Awards:
-The WGA Documentary Screenplay Award: "THE LOVING STORY"
-The Cinematic Vision Award: "LIFE IN A DAY"

(Audience Award Winners Announced Sunday June 26: "DONOR UNKNOWN "-Audience Award Feature and "MR. HAPPY MAN"-Audience Award Short)

"Donor Unknown" (****-78 minutes)
With the proliferation of sperm donor labs comes the inevitable consequence of many children being born from the same "dad". In most cases, these "fathers" remain, for the most part, anonymous. However, with the easing of record access rules and the Internet, more and more children of these circumstances are able to act on their curiosity of locating the person who contributed half of their chromosomes. Meet JoEllen Marsh, a 20-year-old from Pennsylvania with 2 mothers (immediately coming to mind was last year's "The Kids Are Alright") who took it upon herself to not only try and identify Donor #150, but used the resources available to her to locate 12 (!) of her half-siblings. Director Jerry Rothwell could have taken this journey in two different directions: either waiting until the last reel to reveal the father, or to introduce "the dude" early on, eliminating the suspense for both the children and the audience (as in the narrative film just mentioned). I believe Rothwell chose the proper path by letting us in on the character that used the donation process to make a living for eight years by donating an average of four times a week. Meet mass donor #150, Jerry, who, in his younger days, was a Chippendale hunk. It would be easy to put his desirable characteristics on his application (including "dancer"). The catch: Jerry has since become a slacker, a beach bum living in a trailer on Malibu parking lots, caring for his pet bird. Along the way we visit the donor labs and the process that males must undertake (this part of the film is a hoot for those of us who have never visited these locations). Rothwell scoots back and forth from JoEllen and two of her half-siblings as they prepare for the big meeting, to Jerry and his nomadic lifestyle-all the while as we anticipate the surprise these kids are in for when they travel across country to finally meet their "father". The film is a total joy as it raises questions as to what constitutes a family and the consequences of creating progeny in the modern age. The film premiered on the PBS series "Independent Lens" in October.



JoEllen and her biological father, Jerry

Director Jerry Rothwell

"Age of Champions" (****-70 minutes)
Another film dealing with older folks trying to live out their days being active instead of being sedentary while counting down the days. Young@Heart (2008) depicted seniors in a chorus tackling rock songs that showed how their love of music continued to help make their life both meaningful and fulfilling. Here, it is the competition of sports that provides the same outlet to a group of amazing folks competing in the 2009 Senior Olympics. The World Premier of Christopher Rufo's ultimate feel-good film is, excuse the pun, one for the ages. Rufo concentrates on a basketball team of grandmas, a 100-year-old tennis player, a pole-vaulter and his attempt to upend his feisty rival, and a pair of swimming brothers from D.C., one of which recently diagnosed with cancer, actually delayed his chemo treatments in order to compete at the event. Interspersed with the actual competition are up-close profiles that will have you cheering for these amazing athletes for reasons other than their athletic prowess. You will also realize that, in the end, winning or losing really does not matter-whether you are a teenager or a centenarian. What does matter is the desire and the ability to compete at any age that makes the human condition unique and life worth living.

(l to r) John and Bradford Tatum - 88 and 90 years old, competing at the 
2009Senior Olympics


(l to r) senior Olympic swimmer Bradford Tatum, Tigerettes senior
basketball players Nikki Leader and Kitty Sparacello, 
senior Olympic swimmer John Bradford, producer Keith Ochwat, 
and director Christopher Fufo


Tigerettes Nikki Leader and Kitty Sparacello in the lobby after the World 
Premier

"The Revenge of the Electric Car" (*** 1/2-90 minutes)-Closing Night Film

The Closing Night Film is director Chris Paine's continuation of his 2006's "Who Killed the Electric Car", which described the auto industry's apparently successful attempt to rid the planet of the alternative vehicle that would have revolutionized our lives as well as the planet. As we are slowly reemerging from the greatest recession in history, the electric car appears to be making a comeback. Paine profiles four individuals who are in a race to manufacture and market the vehicle. We see GM head honcho, Bob Lutz, do a complete turnabout after single handily destroying the EV1 prototype (to the utter dismay of Danny DeVito) in the first film. We meet Nissan's legendary CEO Carlos Ghosn gambling his business' fortune on The Leaf. PayPal millionaire Elon Musk creates his $100K version and names it the Tesla-all the while facing bankruptcy. And probably the most interesting of the four: Greg "Gadget" Abbotts who creates vehicles in a warehouse by converting gas guzzlers into electric versions for an affordable price-despite a devastating fire that wiped out his first prototype. All these stories are accompanied with slick editing backed by a terrific soundtrack, and given an effective narrative by Tim Robbins. Keep in mind that it is not necessary to have seen the first film as Paine supplies sufficient background and a summary of the pertinent points to bring you up to speed. A fall theatrical release is being planned.



Greg "Gadget" Abbott with one of his converted vehicles
(l to r) car maker Greg "Gadget" Abbott; Sierra Club Director of Green
Transportation, Anna Mesnikoff; panel moderator Ray Wert, 
Editor-in-Chief of the  political website Jalopnik; senior reporter 
for NPR's Marketplace, Nancy Marshall-Genzer; director Chris Paine  
after the post-screening panel discussion

-----------------------------------------------------------

Sunday June 26, 2011-DAY 7


"Never Make It Home" (*** 1/2-93 minutes)
The world premier of G.J. Echternkamp's touching inspirational film about the final tour of guitarist/lead singer/free spirit Kirk Rundstrom with his band "Split Lip Rayfield" is ultimately life affirming. In 2005, Echternkamp started filming the Kansas-based band for a music video. Unexpectedly, eight months into filming, Rundstrom was diagnosed with cancer and given two months to live. Despite being a family man, Kirk decided to spend the rest of his days doing what he loved best: playing music (described by one of the musicians as "all-acoustic, scorched-earth slamgrass"). The final tour actually becomes a source of exaltation and, instead of wallowing in despair, Rundstrom remained upbeat to the end-all the while entertaining the legions of fans that adored him and his group until his death in February 2007. Echternkamp's camera captures poignant interviews that never become maudlin as we journey inside the unique tour-never knowing if each performance would be the final one. The wonderfully mixed music only adds to the total enjoyment of this profile of a musician who cherished every day as if it was his last. And although we know how it all turns out, the director made the correct decision not to depict the final note of the last song of the farewell concert-allowing the music, visuals, and Rundstrom's memory to linger in the minds of the audience.
 
Musician Kirk Rumstrom in his glory

"Project Nim" (****-93 Minutes)
Director James Marsh won the Academy Award for his brilliant documentary "Man on Wire" in 2008, and he should garner equal accolades with this fascinating account of the experiments that began in the early 70's involving Nim the chimpanzee. The project was the brainchild of Columbia University professor Herbert Terrence who theorized that primates, raised in a human environment practically from birth, could be taught to communicate words and even grammatical sentences with humans via sign language. Using the same dramatization techniques he employed in his award-winning documentary of the amazing high wire exploits of Philip Pettit, Marsh has also included home movies and news footage to tell the incredibly heartbreaking life history of Nim Chimpsky. Heartbreaking because, after Terrence first places Nim in the care of a soft-parenting ex-student (and lover), along with her husband and seven kids, Nim's care is subsequently handled by an estate funded by the University, and then back to the stark research institute where he was born and separated from his mother. Interviews with all of Nim's caretakers and the detailed history of Nim's journey ends up turning a dry science project into a complex convoluted human soap opera in which Nim becomes the ultimate victim in the end. The film opened on a limited basis on July 8.
 

 
Researcher  Herbert Terrence and Nim

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Monday June 27, 2011-DAY 8


"The Redemption of General Butt Naked" (*** 1/2-84 minutes)
Despite the somewhat humorous title, directors Eric Strauss's and Daniele Anastasion's documentary is anything but. Liberia's 14-year civil war that ended in 2003 was brutal, and one of the leaders at the forefront of this brutality was Joshua Milton Blahyi, known during this period as General Butt Naked-a man who believed that being naked in battle guaranteed his invincibility. Responsible for maiming and killing thousands (which he admitted to before Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission), this wartime monster turned charismatic repenter/evangelical Christian preacher now seeks out those whom he directly and indirectly harmed. Over the course of five years, the filmmakers were able to locate folks that became part of this amazing story. We see Blahyi in action as he repeatedly tracks down the people and families that were affected by his atrocities in order to beg for their forgiveness. Is he truly sincere or is he merely trying to escape retaliation for his actions? These are just a few of the questions that will haunt the viewer, as there is no easy pat answer to this complex character. Strauss and Anastasion, to their credit, remain neutral and let the visuals tell the incredible story that leaves open the possibility that, despite Blahyi's apparent remorse, he will surely be looking over his shoulder for many days to come. A fascinating story that is stranger than fiction.
 


 
The General preaching to his constituents


"The Interrupters" (***-144 minutes)
Director Steve James, whose 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams" about Chicago inner-city high school basketball players is considered in some circles one of the greatest docs ever made, returns to the Windy City to examine a group of ex-gang members' intent on stopping the incessant youth violence in the inner city. Together with bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz (whose article about the subject first appeared in the New York Times Magazine), James follows a couple ex-gangers, part of the organization named CeaseFire, whose purpose is to stop, or interrupt, the violence before it happens. James filmed several subjects for a full year (the doc is divided into four seasonal segments) and culled over 300 hours down to 144 minutes to help explain how interaction coupled with common sense could be just the answer to warding off the needless violence that pervades Chicago and too many of our urban landscapes. The fact that each of the individuals from CeaseFire have past histories that closely mirror the inner city youths makes their preaching more effective to their target audience. Although the captivating "Hoop Dreams" benefited from its unusual lengthy running time (clocking in at 171 minutes), this one, unfortunately, is in definite need of some serious editing as the material tends to be repetitious and, after a while, mind-numbing in its pronouncements. Despite that, this ambitious documentary is an important work that should serve as a major educational tool for urban areas desperately trying to figure out a counter attack and solution to this major problem. (NOTE: After SILVERDOCS, it was reported that James has reedited the doc down to 125 minutes for the theatrical run which began in limited distribution on July 29.)

 

 
The Interrupters trying to stop the violence before it begins
by speaking to youths on the streets of Chicago

"The Loving Story" (*** 1/2 -77 minutes)
Another wonderful HBO presentation. This one details the case of the interracial marriage of (white) Richard and (white/Native American) Mildred Loving. When they married in D.C. in 1958, they promptly returned to their home in Virginia's Caroline County where they were arrested for violating the state's anti-miscegenation laws. The Lovings received a suspended sentence only if they agreed to leave Virginia. However, returning and taking up residence in Washington D.C. did not prevent them from sneaking back home for extended periods-since both had families firmly rooted in Old Dominion. A letter to attorney-general Robert Kennedy set in motion their fight to legally return to their rural Virginia home that they were forced to vacate. This fight eventually landed in front of The Supreme Court in 1967 where their two very young and inexperienced ACLU attorneys, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, presented their case. The result was the overturning of the miscegenation laws, not only in Virginia, but also in 16 other states. Producer/director Nancy Buirski (who founded the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival) has presented a beautiful film chock full of wonderful white and white archival footage and photographs to tell this story that was a landmark case during the tumultuous civil rights era. What makes it even more special is the care she took to carefully edit the story to show the Lovings as two people who were deeply in love and became caught up in a cause each would have gladly avoided if left to their own volition. A film that mirrors the current struggles of gays and lesbians to wed, surprisingly this is the first documentary dealing with interracial marriage; and it is amazing to realize that it's only been 44 years since these racial laws have been overturned in many Southern states. The film is scheduled to air on HBO early in 2012.
 
 
Richard and Mildred Loving 

"Life in a Day" (*** -90 minutes)
In this day and age of YouTube and instant videos, why not give a multitude of folks on the planet a video camera to record a snippet of their life on a single day? Director Kevin McDonald ("The Last King of Scotland") obtained over 4,500 hours of video recorded on July 24, 2010 from over 80,000 people in 21 languages from 192 countries. Then, Editor Joe Walker ("Hunger") whittled it down to 90 minutes to produce a film that is just what the title says-a mostly fascinating cinematic time capsule of life in the 21st century. YouTube and Ridley Scott corroborated on this project that has humor, action, and pathos-along with the depiction of mundane existence that each of us on Planet Earth experiences from time to time. There is some cohesiveness than the random placement of videos. Various sections are devoted to the videographers answering questions from folks holding placards such as, "What's in your pocket?" or "What do you love?" that merge with the depiction of the day that starts with the full moon at midnight through the last seconds of 7/24/10. An effective, non-obtrusive soundtrack by Harry Gregson-Williams and Matthew Herbert backgrounds the visuals. And Joe Walker's incredibly impressive editing should be required viewing and analysis in film schools across the country. My only gripe is that, even at the relatively short running time of 90 minutes, the film tends to drag and lose occasional focus. However, the overall concept works and will, undoubtedly, have the viewer realizing just how wonderful and varied life is around the globe. The National Geographic Film will be in limited release in theaters on July 24, 2011, on the one-year anniversary of the shoot.

 
 
 
A couple of the over 80,000 participants around the world
who were filmed on July 24, 2011