Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Maryland Film Festival 2010 Preview

Picks and Pans for those on the Economy Plan

It's the Economy, stupid.

For those of us who aren't well-heeled enough to shell out $175-250 for All-Access Passes to this week's 11th annual Maryland Film Festival, some careful budgeting and time management are called for. (And the 3-for-$20 ticket deal isn't just an option - it's a necessity.)

I mean, even if I could afford those All-Access passes, I'd have to sit on my ass in the dark for at least 20 hours to justify the cost (where'd I'd no doubt be annoyed by the New Millenium phenomena of people constantly flashing their Blackberries and iPhones on and off during the screenings - what, you don't think it's annoying just because it doesn't ring?), plus some films I want to see overlap or conflict with another film I've committed to seeing. Bottom line: you can't see it all, no matter how much free time and moolah you have on your hands.

You can't see 'em all!

So, I start by reviewing the film line-up and seeing what's available now or will be available soon on DVD or NetFlix (Yes, I know, I know - this is the Big Screen "Cinematic Experience" Purist's Nightmare but it works for me and I can press pause when I wanna grab a snack or pee!) or what I can catch on the better cable channels like IFC or Sundance (especially helpful with the Shorts Programs, as Sundance regularly programs its "In Short" series that screens many of the films I've seen over the years at the MFF).

Then, I narrow it down to the best value, like I'm thumbing through the Racing Form to select the horses I wanna play. So, in the spirit of the recent Kentucky Derby (Yeah Todd Pletcher - Maryland, representin'!), here's my tout sheet to the best values at this year's Maryland Film Festival.

I gotta admit, nothing jumps out at me right away as absolutely can't-miss-it essential, from the 3-D movie (a pre-"Golden Era of William Castle" Western by William Castle) to the silent-with-live-orchestra screening (the always-excellent Alloy Orchestra backs Chang, a film by the makers of King Kong - though I'm a little confused as to whether this will be the 1927 black-and-white print or the 1956 colorized version since the MFF program guide features a color photo) to even John Waters' annual celebrity screening pick.

And Saturday's gonna be a bitch because of that aforementioned "overlapping/conflict" thang...Ideally, I'd like to catch the 2:45 pm "Videopolis" film screening at the Metro Gallery (right across from The Charles) of my friend Armando Valle's short "The Waterboard," and then, hightail it up to the Wind-Up Space to catch the "Works-In-Progress" screening...that is, if I can make it in time...Ah, time... "He flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor, his trick is you and me, boy" as Bowie lamented. Ain't it true, Ziggy...it's the reason I'll probably miss seeing the new film by local film innovator/genius Eric Dyer, Media Archaeology 2110, which is playing as part of the "Avant-Garde Shorts" program Friday at 4:30 pm and Saturday at 9:30 pm.

OK, here's what's in my In Bin, subject to availability, flexibility, and stamina...

*** PICKS ***

0s and 1s
(May 8, 5 pm, @ Charles 5; May 9, 11:30 am @ Charles 4)

To me, this looks like the most interesting film concept at the festival, kind of like Memento (or Irreversible) with its ending-to-beginning format or Brick with its Old School hard-boiled detective genre updated to a contemporary high school setting. As MFF programmer Scott Braid describes it, "The entire movie appears on our screen as though on a laptop running on a fictional operating system. The screen bursts with chat bubbles, system-warning windows, MP3 applications, email messages, web browsers, and anything else you can think of that might pop-up on your laptop monitor. It is an approach to filmmaking that is totally fresh, and provides a real treat for the eyes." It kinda reminds me of that Aqua Teen Hunger Force computer virus episode where pop-up windows kept opening up until they completely covered the screen. This is the world premiere of director Eugene Kotlyarenko's film.

Dogtooth (Greece)
(May 7, 4:30 pm @Charles 1; May 9, 5 pm @ Charles 2)

The fetching Aggeliki Papoulia plays fetch

Dogtooth is not a Bluetooth cell phone for canines, but rather the story of an eccentric father who lives with his wife and children on an estate not far from the big city, where he's raised three teenagers in a gated community. The "community" is actually his house, and his children have never travelled further than their own backyard. Sounds eerie! Plus Eric Hatch calls it "one of the great accomplishments in recent world cinema," so definitely worth a look. Perhaps the best recommendation for this film was the City Paper's Lee Gardner, who quipped, "How is this not John Water's pick for this year's festival?"

God's Architects
(May 7, 12 pm @ Charles 5; May 9, 9:30 pm @ Charles 4)

This is one of Skizz Cyzyk's picks and I usually stand by Skizz's judgement, as everything he touches seems to turns to gold (though his girlfriend Jen is the exception, having recently gone redhead!) be it his films, music, zines, radio show, or God knows what else this workaholic artiste has on the back burner. This looks like an obvious pick for the American Visionary Arts Museum "Outsider Art" fanatic. I can see why Skizz - lover of The Shaggs, lover of Rev. Fred Lane - picked it. Director Zack Godshall looks at the how "divine inspiration" motivates five outsider artists to create lasting monuments, all on their own dime.

Works In Progress
(May 8, 3 pm, Wind-Up Space, 12 W. North Avenue)

And speaking of Skizz...this year the Wind-Up Space will host a two-hour slate of "works in progress," including four pieces directed (or co-directed) by Skizz. As Sun film critic Michael Sragow says, ..."
"...the four Skizz Cyzyk pieces set for this show on Saturday are of special interest to longtime MFF-goers. He served as Programming Manager for nine years (he stepped down in 2009) and was an omnipresent force during actual festival weekends. Audiences got to know him through his gracious, humorous and knowledgeable introductions. He stuck to a self-imposed rule of never putting his own films into the hometown festival. So they never got to know his films. Until now. Festival 2010 presents Skizz Cyzyk Filmmaker, Unleashed."

Skizz' works in progress, as outlined by Skizz, are:

1. An extended trailer for Icepick to the Moon, a feature-length documentary about Rev. Fred Lane, an obscure musician who became the frontman for an outrageous artists collective in mid-70s Alabama." (This has been in progress since 1999).

2. An extended trailer for Hit & Stay, a feature-length documentary co-directed with Joe Tropea, about the influence the Catonsville Nine has had on the anti-war movement.

3. Scenes from Freaks in Love, a feature-length documentary co-directed with former Liquor Bike guitarist David Koslowski, about how the band Alice Donut has navigated the ever-changing underground rock world for the past quarter century.

4. An animated music video for The Jennifers’ song, "Well Intentioned World."

Also on the bill are world-class cinematographer Richard Chilsolm's Recipe for Change - a documentary about bringing the sustainable food movement into the Baltimore City school system - and Zach Clarke's VACATION! (which Clarke describes as "an existential beach party about life, death, sex, drugs... .").

Wheedle's Groove
(May 7, 4 pm @ Charles 2; May 8 9:30 pm @ UB Student Center)

Seattle's music scene was more than just the Sonics, Hendrix, and Nirvana - it also was hotbed of soul music in the late 60s to mid-70s, as this doc explains. I doubt this is coming out elsewhere anytime soon. There's also a CD of some of the bands represented here available from Light in the Attic Records.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money
(May 8, 11 am @ MICA Brown Center)

Alex Gibney is a great, award-winning documentarian (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side) who always delivers the goods. I'm not especially game to learn more about yet another Fat-Cat Greedmeister (there are so many to choose from these days, from the insurance industry to Wall Street), but I'm sure Gibney will make it worth my while. With an Oscar already in his back pocket, this will no doubt turn up soon on PBS and NetFlix, but if you wanna get a jump-start on the accolades, here 'tis.

12th & Delaware
(May 8, 7 pm @ MICA's Brown Center)
Directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing have some major gravitas in my book, having previously helmed the Oscar-nominated The Boys of Baraka (2005) and the frightening Christian brainwashing doc Jesus Camp (2007). They don't shy away from tough issues, and no topic of debate is tougher than abortion. Well, maybe Oasis vs. Blur. Or Beatles vs. Stones. Boxers vs. Briefs?

Putty Hill
(May 7, 10 pm @ Charles 1; May 9, 4:30 pm @ Charles 1)

I'm the only guy in town who didn't see Hamilton, but easy-going director Matt Porterfield (who teaches film at Hopkins and is the cover boy of today's b free daily) is the new Local Boy Made Good and this is his second feature that, like the first will feature Baltimore neighborhoods and peeps as a central part of its narrative. MFF is pulling out all the stops for homie, presenting both screenings of Putty Hill under the Big Top, Charles Theatre 1.

Cold Weather
(May 8, 4:30 pm @ MICA Brown Center; May 9, 2:30 pm @ MICA Brown Center)

I hate mumblecore films. Hate 'em. With the lone exception of Aaron Katz's Ozu-influenced Quiet City (2007), which featured two outstanding leads in Cris Lankenau (a veritable clone for Baltimore's Adolf Kowalski) and Erin Fisher. The Pittsburgh-based Katz is in town to screen his new one, a genre-tease about about a Sherlock Holmes-obsessed college drop-out, Cris Lankenau again (yeah!), trying to fit in at a blue-collar job, relate to his sister, and solve a mystery. Quiet City was called "a Terence Malick film for a new Lost Generation"; I wonder if Katz's follow-up will be worthy of the same praise. Worth a look.


This looks really cool. Shot live-action in 2007, Mars was "painstakingly" rotoscoped over two years using software developed by director Geoff Marslett (Robot vs. Monkey) specifically for this film. "Boasting a Western-themed soundtrack composed and performed by Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb (with contributions from, among others, Neko Case and Kristin Hersh), Mars is a quirky, upbeat film that offers a smart alternative to the dark notes dominant in the indie-comedy realm – and pulls off, on a micro budget, an experience that feels far more vivid and alive than most Hollywood sci-fi."

Animated Shorts
(May 8, 9 pm @ Charles 4; May 9, 4 pm @ Charles 3)

You can't go wrong with animated shorts, as this year's Oscar-nominated shorts program at The Charles proved. Includes a local hero, UMBC's Phil Davis, as well.

Until the Light Takes Us
(May 8, 10 pm @Charles 5; May 9, 2:30 pm @ UB Student Center)

Mr. Happy says "Paint It Black"

I saw about half of this doc on Norway's Black Metal Scene on a cable channel (IFC? Sundance?) and didn't really like it - the subjects are alternately stupid, boring, or pitiable, and it's not particularly well-made. You get the feeling that these guys have way too much time on their hands - Norwegians aren't exactly on edge from fighting two wars or waiting for the next terrorist attack like us, yet these musicians agonize over whether wearing studs in their leather jackets gives them street cred or marks them as poseurs. Silly! But I promised my friend Ray I'd go with him, plus I can get closure by seeing the other half. One of the guys in a band - Varg Vikernes (Count Grishnackh of Burzum) - killed a rival musician and burned down some churches, which we learn is not nearly as cool as it sounds on paper. The term "Wasted Youth" springs to mind. Still, there's not much out there on this genre.

Closing Night Film - Mother and Child
(Sunday May 8, 7:30 pm @ Charles 1)

Last year's closing film was The Hurt Locker, which I saw for $1 at my local Giant Foods Red Box. As everyone knows, the film won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director (I liked it but didn't think it was that great, but what do I know?), though that may have more to do with its Iraq War topicality and politics than anything else. Anyway, this year's pick looks much better at standing the test of time, which I doubt The Hurt Locker will once all the shouting dies down. I really liked director Rodrigo Garcia's Nine Lives which, like this one, boasts an impressive cast: Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smitts, and (of course) Samuel L. Jackson, who's in everything (I think it's in his rider). Oh, I was kind of amazed that the MFF program guide didn't mention the most interesting tidbit about the director: he's the son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez! And as Roger Ebert has observed, he has the same love for his characters as his father: "...although his stories are all (except for one) realistic, he shares his father's appreciation for the ways lives interweave and we touch each other even if we are strangers."

OK, here are are some early ones to throw out to help narrow the field.

*** PANS ***

Don't believe the hype on these. Better values on offer elsewhere.

Opening Night Shorts & Party
(Thursday May 6, 8 pm @ MICA's Brown Auditorium)

Scratched. I have no stake in this race.

While I usually go to this, the price of a ticket has risen steadily every year since the MFF started back in 1999 - last year it topped off at $35 and this year I was shocked (yes, shocked!) to see that the price of admission is $50! WTF???

Ulysses S. Grant is in the house Opening Night

That officially puts this gala into the class of "Elite Members Only Club," aka Friends of the Festival with Deep Pockets. The type of see-and-be-scene photo op outing that is sure-fire fodder for Sloane Brown's Sun society column or Baltimore magazine. Sorry, I'll pass. Given the state of the economy, is this really the time to increase the ticket price by 43%? For a one-hour program of short films? OK, followed by a "party" with free booze and food, but hey, I can go to any art opening in town for free and get hors d'œuvres and a glass of wine for nada, thank you very much! I went last year and recall getting a bottle of beer and one plate of food, the lines were so long. I don't get it. The closing night party has a ton more food and is a much bigger outdoor cookout, so why's that a mere $25 - including a 2-hour feature film??? Are Goldman-Sachs advising the MFF's accountants this year?

Gimme an effing break! For $50 I can be a Friend of the Festival and get year-round free preview screenings of new movies, passes to the Charles and Rotunda, three free Video Americain rentals, and free films on the Friday of the Festival. For $50 I can go see Johnny Rotten next week at Ram's Head Live, significantly the guy who once asked the audience at a Pistols gig, "Ever feel like you've been cheated?" You know my answer!

Quick Gun Murugun
(May 7, 11:30 am @ Charles 1; May 9, 12 pm @ Charles 2)

Shashanka Ghost's Bollywood film about a time-travelling, vegetarian gunslinger from the '70s looks really stupid, like a Saturday Night Live skit stretched to feature-length ambition. What the recent Black Dynamite was to Blaxploitation films, this much-too-obvious-irony-laden spoof is to Bollywood in general and Westerns in particular. (Hindus in cowboy get-ups sounds funny unless you've already seen the Thai spoof Tears of the Black Tiger.) And speaking of Westerns, it's obviously aimed at Western audiences because it's under 3 hours long.

We Don't Care About Music Anyway
(May 7, 7 pm @ UB Student Center; May 9, 12 pm @ UB Student Center)

I've been called a total Japanophile and while the trailer I saw of a Japanese babe in a bikini playing guitar in the desert did raise my "eyebrow," even I would pass on this. Eric Hatch calls it the "Koyaanisqatsi of French documentaries about Japanese noise music" and says fans of High Zero, Red Room, or True Vine concerts will dig it. Those sounds are pretty much anethema to me and, besides, as Buzzcocks say, "Noise Annoys." This film reminds me that not everything from Japan is necessarily cutting edge and avant-garde; here in Baltimore, we call this genre Motor Moron Music and we've been listening to it for years.

(May 8, 7:30 pm @ Charles 2; May 9, 2:30 pm @ Charles 2)

This caught my eye until I discovered it had nothing to do with either the Beatles or the "You'll Never Walk Alone" football team. Not only that, it takes place in South America! I'm sorry, but anytime I see a description like this...
Liverpool has unsettled and even angered some viewers; indeed, at times the film feels singularly transgressive. However, it accomplishes this not through graphic or offensive content (the film has next to none), but through unusual pacing and disarming narrative choices that violate outmoded storytelling conventions.
...it practically screams This Is A Meandering, Non-Narrative Film (That Simpletons Like You Won't Understand). Sometimes the anti-Hollywood, anti-conventional narrative ("outmoded storytelling conventions") approach simply means the director doesn't know how to write or edit and is basically just a cameraman. Like Groucho Marx said about Freudian analysis overkill: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar! And sometimes films really don't have anything deep or profound to say. I need a better reason to invest 84 minutes of my time.

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within
(May 7, 2:30 pm @ MICA Brown Center; May 8, 2:30 pm @ Charles Theatre)

I read a lot of Burroughs in college and his story is kind of fascinating - his involvement with the Beat movement, shooting his wife in the head while performing the William Tell Trick - but I'm sot sure I can listen to Burroughs' gravely voice drone on for 90 minutes. Plus I wonder, do people really like reading Burroughs, or just think they should?.

*** I'LL PASS ***

Not pans, just ones you can skip and catch at your convenience.

Dan Deacon Presents...Total Recall
(Saturday May 8, 11 pm @ Charles 1)

"Please turn off your iPods and enjoy the show!"

Bring your Hipster Bingo cards to this one, because every scenester in town will be there to touch the hem of Baltimore-based musical sensation Dan Deacon as he presents this late-night, 35mm screening of Paul Verhoeven's Philip K. Dick adaptation, Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone. Like last year's Nina Simone documentary hosted by Ian Mackaye, this will very likely be sold-out. So-so movie readily available on DVD intro'ed by highly touted music star; if that's worth $10 bucks to you, go for it. Or if you like crowds and being in on the contact buzz.

John Waters Presents... United 93
(Friday May 7, 7 pm @ Charles 1)

United we stand (and sit) with John

Another film selected and hosted by local iconoclast John Waters. Strictly for the hipsters and scene-makers and it'll probably be a sell-out, too, so plan ahead. Though this year's pick is being touted as "one of his most controversial yet!" I don't buy the hype. Good movie from Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy, Green Zone), but readily available on DVD and NetFlix (it came out in 2006), so if you go, you're going either for the "Big Screen Cinematic Experience" (admittedly well-suited to this You Are There verite-style action film as its verisimilitude actually made some critics nauseous) or to hear and see John Waters. Waters never disappoints, but I wish he'd get back to some more outre picks. What's controversial about a docu-drama about the one 9/11 plane that didn't reach its target? 9/11 was a shared national tragedy that brought everyone together (if but momentarily); if anything, this is John's least controversial pick.

Related Links:
MFF: 5 Young Filmmakers To Watch (b free daily)
Skizz Cyzyk's 2010 MFF Picks

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