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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”
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")


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


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



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

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