Go to the FILM FEST FRENZY Archives.
Lights Out - A long spring weekend in a series of darkened rooms. On one level, that's what we're talking about here.
Last Orders - A Tough-as-Nails Nun Fights to Save Desperate Addicts--and Herself
Robots in Disguise - In Todd Rohal's Locally Shot Short, the Hillbillies Are Us
Rhyme Bandits - A New Hip-Hop Doc Captures Rapping at the Source
Discuss - Music, Video Subjects of Cinema Talk
Shorts - A Short Guide to Small Works at The Maryland Film Festival
Screen Test - Your Chance to See It All

April 24 - April 30, 2002 Send a letter to the editor about this article printer-friendly version
Frenzy Feature Reviews


Coming Attractions

Feature Films at the Maryland Film Festival

Screenings are at the Charles Theatre unless otherwise noted. No byline at the end of a blurb indicates that the film was not reviewed.

Directed by Tom Curran
May 3, 9 p.m.

Twenty years later, director Tom Curran ruminates on the ways the death of his father affected his family.

Body Drop Asphalt

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Directed by Terry Gilliam
May 4, 3:15 p.m., hosted by ex-Survivor Colleen Haskell

Terry Gilliam's ode to the power of magic and wonder is, at its best, movie magic at its most wonderful, a sumptuous feast of imagination, ideas, and fanciful wit. It's also something of a trundling beast of a movie, lacking the narrative drive and thematic clarity of Gilliam's preceding Brazil and Time Bandits, as it follows the titular 18th-century adventurer (John Neville) from the surface of the moon to the bottom of the sea in search of reinforcements to save a European town under siege by "the Turk." The Baron's real enemy, however, is the forces of reason, science, and "progress," personified by cold-blooded bureaucrat Jackson (Jonathan Pryce). (Any resemblance to Gilliam's battles with studio suits and bean counters over this film and Brazil is purely coincidental.) Weighted down somewhat with ideological baggage, Munchausen is fabulous but not joyful, inspired but not quite inspiring. Still, it packs several movies' worth of splendid comic turns (Eric Idle as the world's fastest man, Oliver Reed as a delicately vulgar Vulcan, Robin Williams as the crazed King of the Moon) and visual marvels--the lunar city Gilliam and company created in Rome's famed Cinecittà studio alone makes this an adventure worth having. (Andy Markowitz)

Directed by Paul Callahan
May 5, 1:30 p.m.

A very low-budget feature about a thirty-something man, unfocused and still living with his mom, whose lawyer invites him on a trip to Mexico that's billed as a vacation with a small business aside. But the aside turns out to be the main thrust: a detour to Cuba to smuggle large quantities of cigars to the States. The performances here vary wildly in quality, and the storyline could have come to its inevitable conclusion more efficiently. (Eric Allen Hatch)

Directed by Jon Baskin
At the Heritage CinemaHouse, May 4, 9:30 p.m.

For a film that's all about creative catharsis and heightened self-expression, Beef is surprisingly inert. This earnest documentary, produced, directed, and edited by Jon Baskin, follows a band of angry chicks, all poets of some renown on Manhattan's East Village slam circuit. Anne Elliot is a preacher's daughter who uses poetry to vent about her straight-laced upbringing. Charismatic Jersey girl Cheryl Burke takes the mic to spin tales about alienation, sexuality, bereavement, and rock 'n' roll groupie-dom. And spoken verse is just one of the myriad ways African-American artist and renaissance gal Gloria Williams expresses herself. Beef is earnest and terrifically shot but maddeningly dull; Baskin doesn't seem to know how to construct a compelling story. For instance, we spend an inordinate amount of time with Burke in her mother's kitchen watching the proud parent rave about her daughter's talent, and Baskin draws out the numerous performance sequences well past their sell-by point. Unless you're a big fan of poetry slams ordinarily, you might want to skip this one. (Adele Marley)

Big Time
Directed by Chris Blum
May 4, 11 p.m.

Barely glimpsed in theaters upon release in 1988 and out-of-print on video for years, Chris Blum's surreal concert film of Tom Waits' Frank's Wild Years tour makes a welcome reappearance. Yowsa.

Charlotte Sometimes

Blue Vinyl
Directed by Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold
May 4, 8 p.m.

A lighthearted documentary exploration of vinyl siding and the insidious industry behind it. Really.

Body Drop Asphalt
Directed by Wada Junko
May 3, 1 p.m. and May 5, 11 a.m.

Unlike the most recent crop of Japanese directors who earned American cult fans with chills or creeps (see Takashi Miike's Audition), Wada Junko prefers a slack comedic sense and off-kilter kookiness. Body Drop Asphalt follows the young life of the habitually bored Manaka Ari (Sayuri Oyamada), who turns her daydreams into a best-selling quasi-feminist romance novel. But only through her novel's characters meddling in her life--and a possibly hallucinated run-in with God--does Ari get over her insufferable ennui. Leaping from a glacially meditative opening into bright colors and buoyant pace, Asphalt is the kind of nonsensical lark that gets around to the credits 20 minutes in and boasts two Mercedes-driving young men discussing hip-hop as a Japanese cultural expression. Somehow, all these fractured bits and pieces coalesce into something resembling a cohesive whole. While Asphalt may not achieve a classic narrative resolution, it sticks to a lively visual spirit that leaves an indelible impression all its own. (Bret McCabe)

The Boxer
Directed by Jim Sheridan
May 5, 3:30 p.m., hosted by GQ critic at large Terrence Rafferty

Journalist and critic Terrence Rafferty introduces director Jim Sheridan's earnest and gritty film about a just-out-of-jail Irish boxer (Daniel Day-Lewis) entangled with the IRA.

Charlotte Sometimes
Directed by Eric Byler
May 4, 8:30 p.m.

Michael (Michael Idemoto) works in the family business as an auto mechanic while subletting an apartment in his house to Lori (Eugenia Yuan). Lori likes to make loud love to her boyfriend, Justin (Matt Westmore), and then go upstairs to watch movies with Michael, who is clearly in love with her. When the mysterious Darcy (Jacqueline Kim) becomes a possible romantic interest for Michael, the fragile balance that keeps everyone's relationship functioning tips. Director Eric Byler's film, which plays out like an Adrian Tomine graphic novel, features an Asian-American cast and seems almost revolutionary (despite some awkward acting) in that it deals more with basic issues of loneliness and relationships than the Asian-American experience in the United States. (Benn Ray)


Directed by Milford Thomas
May 5, 11 a.m.

Many modern directors pay tribute to the silent era, but few do so with as much care as Milford Thomas has here. Shot with an antique Mitchell Standard 35mm camera and emphasizing mise-en-scène over camera trickery, Claire impeccably channels the magical mood of cinema's early years. It also has an original soundtrack performed live at every screening by a 12-piece chamber orchestra. But far from a simple exercise in nostalgia or technique, Claire boasts wonderfully imaginative set design, inspired wordless acting, and a playful story (based upon a Japanese fairy tale) in which a mysterious girl appears in an ear of corn to two gay farmers in the American South of the 1920s. They rear her as their own until the moment comes for her to resume her former life. These factors all combine for a warm audio-visual experience that holds its own alongside the surreal work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin (Tales From the Gimli Hospital). (Eric Allen Hatch)

Con Man
Directed by Jesse Moss
At the Charles Theatre, May 3, 2:30 p.m. and the Heritage CinemaHouse, May 5, 1:30 p.m.

A compelling, multilayered documentary about James Hogue, a convicted thief and one-time distance-running prodigy who, at age 31, scammed his way into Princeton posing as a self-educated former ranch hand named Alexi Santana. He was a Big Man on Campus, a top student, and track star touted for a Rhodes scholarship, until he was outed by a woman who recognized him as the same guy who had pulled a similar stunt several years earlier at her California high school. Producer/director Jesse Moss starts in the middle of the story with Hogue's much-publicized posing, back-pedals to explore his enigmatic subject's real young life, then ends with his own search for Hogue, who had vanished back into obscurity after doing time for the Princeton fraud. Moss employs a variety of forms to keep the brief (53-minute) feature visually brisk--8mm, digital video, stock footage--and interviews a wide array of people whose paths Hogue crossed, touching in the process on issues of identity, loneliness, meritocracy, and class. Unmistakable is the interviewees' (and Moss') fascination with, even admiration for, Hogue's ability to pull the wool over an Ivy League school. "I never felt betrayed," one of Hogue's Princeton classmates says. "It was kind of fascination--like, this guy is so much smarter than I am." (Andy Markowitz)

Directed by Peter Lynch
May 3, 6:30 p.m.

Self-described cyborg Steve Mann, the fascinating subject of Peter Lynch's documentary, lives his life broadcasting what he sees over a live Internet feed. But unlike other Web-cam mavens, University of Toronto professor Mann invented the technology he utilizes and has been wearing such gear for 20 years. His "eyetap" technology, for instance, can be worn as a pair of sunglasses; it traces the motion of the human eye, allowing the eye itself to function as a kind of camera. Mann uses this technology to start dialogues about privacy, especially as it pertains to government and corporate surveillance. Cyberman captures Mann inconspicuously documenting police brutality with eyetap cameras; you hear lectures in which he details several commercial environments in which we're being filmed without our knowledge; you often see Mann and the world through Mann's eyes simultaneously. Lynch directed 1996's Project Grizzly, in which a man wastes a fortune building armored suits designed to withstand grizzly-bear attacks; here he further refines his niche documenting idiosyncratic men on quixotic missions. The film could occasionally use more information and less Errol Morris-derived visual flair, but Mann is so compelling that any minor aesthetic qualms are soon forgiven. (Eric Allen Hatch)

Daddy and Papa
Directed by Johnny Symons
May 3, noon

With so many films playing--often opposite each other--over the four days of the MFF, it's sometimes tough to know how to budget your screening time. Thus, we asked the major Film Fest Frenzy contributors to chip in their personal recommendations for the don't-miss titles among those they've seen. Here are the enthusiastically endorsed results, in each critic's order of preference:

Lee Gardner: Daddy and Papa, Big Time, Fluid Movement
Eric Allen Hatch: Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme, Too Soon for Sorry, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
Heather Joslyn: Sister Helen, Design

Andy Markowitz: Hillbilly Robot, Con Man, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Adele Marley: Mermaids of Brooklyn, Mean People Suck, Time Out, the Animated Shorts program
Bret McCabe: Eyeball Eddie, Body Drop Asphalt
Benn Ray: Owned, Given Fish

Johnny Symons' timing couldn't have been better. He had just finished Daddy and Papa, his new film about gay men adopting children, and started hitting the festival circuit when Rosie O'Donnell came out of the closet specifically to bring national media attention to a Florida law banning adoption by homosexuals. While Daddy and Papa certainly touches on the issue (and may benefit from the furor), there is much, much more to the film, not least because Symons and his partner, William Rogers, decided to adopt their son Zachary during production, transforming an objective examination into something much more personal. Symons is a documentary vet (his Long Night's Journey Into Day screened at MFF in 2000 and was nominated for an Oscar), and it shows as Daddy and Papa smoothly weaves together four stories of gay men, both singles and partners, taking on the responsibilities and challenges of adopting and raising kids in a society--and within a culture--that has traditionally frowned on the idea. To Symons' credit, the film doesn't gloss over thorny issues--that the adoptive parents are mostly white and the children mostly black, for one. In the end, Daddy and Papa stands as a smart and winning portrait of loving families that come together by choice and commitment, in spite of both legal and societal odds. (Lee Gardner)

Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman
May 5, 11:30 a.m.

The life and work of French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida hits the silver screen in this documentary.

Directed by Davidson Cole
May 3, 4 p.m. and May 4, 3:30 p.m.

Driven by deadpan dark humor and a dramatic structure learned at the Robert Altman/Paul Thomas Anderson School of Intersecting Subplots, Design encompasses the lives of a voyeuristic photographer, a troubled young couple, and a teenage girl and her alcoholic dad in its web. In doing so, the film--written, directed by, and starring Davidson Cole--is perhaps more successful at delivering a cohesive meditation on the power of fate than was Anderson's similarly themed Magnolia. Wise-beyond-her-years Sonya (Jennifer Morrison) puts her future on hold to play nursemaid to her sad, boozing, cuckolded father (a convincing Daniel J. Travanti, of TV's Hill Street Blues); photog Nicholas (Edward Cunningham, looking like Matt Dillon's creepy brother) preys on women through his lens but fears them in the flesh; betrothed Kate (ball-of-fire Mary Kay Cook) and Seamus (Cole, hilariously hangdog) face Seamus' boredom with their S&M games and his growing sense of paranoia. Design is buoyed by uniformly strong performances and a script full of twists that drive the drama, making Cole a talent worth watching. That said, the male characters' issues with the female ones are surely worth making him sweat a little in the post-screening Q&A. (Heather Joslyn)

The Dogwalker
Directed by Jacques Thelemaque
At the Charles Theatre, May 3, 3:30 p.m. and the Heritage CinemaHouse , May 5, 4 p.m.


A battered, down-on-her-luck stoner catches a lucky break when she stumbles into the pet-sitting business in this flawed, overlong, but occasionally diverting feature debut by Jacques Thelemaque. Ellie (Diane Gaidry) hops a plane from Buffalo to the Left Coast to escape an abusive relationship. Destitute, she hooks up with an irascible and ailing professional pet-sitter, Betsy (Pamela Gordon). Turns out the grumpy old bag resembles Ellie a little more than either of them would care to admit. The domestic-violence motif aside, it's hard to imagine a film whose premise involves marijuana, dogs, and the extremes to which spacey Californians go in pampering their pets would be so grim--no one so much as cracks a smile throughout The Dogwalker. Perhaps the wooden performance of Gaidry--who happens to be the director's wife--is to blame, but a bit of levity would do wonders for this otherwise OK feature. (Adele Marley)

Easy Listening
Directed by Pamela Corkley
May 3, 2:30 p.m. and May 4, 6:30 p.m.

Embrace kitsch--that's the message of Boston-based filmmaker Pamela Corkley's Easy Listening, about a middle-aged pseudo-bohemian named Burt (David Ian) who finds love when a perky, plucky young flautist, Linda (Traci Crouch), joins the easy-listening orchestra in which he plays trumpet. It's 1967--the Summer of Love--and Burt boasts of moonlighting as a beatnik, playing in a jazz combo at night. The truth is, he spends his evenings fielding calls from his harpy ex-wife, and though he's stuck on improvisational jamming, Muzak is really what he has a knack for. Linda too is a misfit in the Age of Aquarius, with her set-and-styled coif, penchant for polka dots, and passion for corny arrangements of pop melodies. They make a cute couple, but Burt's hang-ups about letting his freak-flag fly keep them apart. Corkley's feature debut would have benefited from a beefed-up story, preferably with some added subplots. Ultimately, Easy Listening is the equivalent of a Cheez Whiz-laced Ritz cracker crowned with a pimento: not very filling, but cheesy and tasty. (Adele Marley)

The Execution of Wanda Jean
Directed by Liz Garbus
May 4, 6 p.m.

The Execution of Wanda Jean offers exactly what the title promises, just short of the ultimate deed itself, with few frills and no surprises, save one. Documentarian Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola USA) introduces Wanda Jean Allen, an African-American woman biding her increasingly limited time on Oklahoma's death row for murdering her girlfriend, a crime there is no doubt she committed. As Garbus' camera rolls, Allen's deeply involved legal team scrambles to prepare last-minute appeals, her dysfunctional family tries to hold itself together, and Allen herself tries to cope with the forces pulling at her, including the knowledge that she is scheduled to die within weeks, then days, then hours. Garbus adds no gauzy softening to the grim realities of the situation, right down to the bubbling-over tensions between the well-meaning white, middle-class clemency team and Allen's troubled working-class family. The surprise? That such an unvarnished, inevitable, and often-told tale can still be as involving and moving as this. (Lee Gardner)

Five Years
Directed by Brett W. Wagner
At the Heritage CinemaHouse, May 3, 6:30 p.m.


After doing five years in juvenile prison on a murder rap, Colson Unger (Todd Swenson) moves in with his well-meaning brother Eric (Timothy Altmeyer), over the objections of Eric's wary wife, Renée (Kris Carr). Five Years plays like a low-key character drama, building upon Colson's inability to move past the past and the fissure his awkward, morose presence creates in his brother's happy home--until about midway through, when debut writer/director Brett Wagner detonates his plot bomb and the film shifts neatly into suspense/mystery mode. It's a credit to Wagner's taut screenplay and unobtrusive direction that this change in tenor doesn't necessitate a change in tone; he simply, quietly tightens the film's slow-drive intensity as it shifts from exploring a pained family dynamic to unraveling the deception that created it. Some of the first-time-scripter seams show toward the end with a few too many oh-by-the-way revelations to tie up loose plot points. But for the most part this is an engrossing, assured piece of work, anchored by a first-rate performance by Carr. Michael Buscemi--Steve's brother and the closest thing to a name in the cast--contributes a nice turn as Renée's fuck-up brother. (Andy Markowitz)

Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
Directed by Kevin Fitzgerald
May 3, 7 p.m.

Kevin Fitzgerald's Freestyle probably gets closer to the essence of hip-hop than any previous documentary. While it relays some generalized hip-hop history, Freestyle focuses on those MCs specifically skilled at creating intricate, spontaneous rhymes (as opposed to pre-written recorded raps). Freestyle provides access to a variety of true hip-hop giants, both old-school and contemporary, including Mos Def, Boots of the Coup, Black Thought of the Roots, and members of the legendary Last Poets. However, the film's real stars are the unknown MCs who rhyme in street-corner ciphers (circles of freestylers) and underground MCs like Supernatural and Juice, who are famous not for making records, but for lyrically battling each other at events such as mid-'90s freestyle haven the Lyricist Lounge. It's refreshing to see a positive film about hip-hop that's neither naive nor superficial in its treatment of its subject matter. Instead, Freestyle is positive because it represents hip-hop taking control of its own image. Whether they rap about guns or health food, the MCs in Freestyle choose words without any concern for videos, bling bling, or record sales to suburban white kids. (Eric Allen Hatch)

For more on Kevin Fitzgerald and Freestyle, see the full story.

Directed by Armando Bo
May 3, 8 p.m., hosted by film director John Waters

Oh, those freewheeling 1960s, when men were soft-core filmmakers and ample-bosomed women were their willing inspiration. With 1969's Fuego, director Armando Bo and his muse Isabel Sarli--Argentina's answer to Russ Meyer and Tura Satana--delve into a fiery world of passions hitherto only found in the autobiography of Klaus Kinski. Sarli plays a woman with a ravenous sexual appetite and a habit of lounging around the house (city, lake, wherever) in various states of undress. She settles down with an affluent businessman (Bo), even though--wouldn't you know it?--she just can't curb her carnal cravings. After some impassioned frolicking on a snow-capped peak, in a woody grove, on a doctor's examination table, and as part of some strange post-bath ritual involving a maidservant and a feather, her unbridled passions eventually lead to a tragic end. Bo's camera lingers on the natural beauty found in Argentina's hills and valleys, and in Sarli's topography too. Occasionally narrative logic and continuity are jettisoned for the dramatic effect of a jump cut to bare flesh, and the bossa nova-esque theme to Fuego surges and rises more times than its male leads. But when titillating sexploitation is this seriocomic, you can forgive the minor flaws in exchange for the guffaws. (Bret McCabe)

Le Grand Blanc de Lambarene
Directed by Bassek ba Kobhio
May 5, 1:30 p.m., hosted by Dr. Joel Breman

Albert Schweitzer's Nobel Prize-winning work in Africa gets another look from the African point of view in this Cameroonian/French documentary.

Easy Listening

A Head of Time: Ahead of Time
Directed by Richard and Ruth Slade
May 5, 4 p.m.

Baltimorean Hank Levy was never a marquee name in the music world, but the documentary A Head of Time: Ahead of Time effectively argues that Levy's influence on jazz/big band composition and a whole generation of musicians--often directly, as head of Towson University's esteemed jazz program for 25 years--far outstripped casual fame. Using a serviceable mix of talking heads, vintage stills, performance footage, and interviews with Levy himself (who died in 2001), husband-and-wife directors Richard and Ruth Slade tell the story of a butcher's son and musical autodidact who helped introduce radical time signatures (11/4, anyone?) into jazz in the early '60s with a series of complex but hard-swinging compositions and arrangements that won him the patronage of big-band explorers Stan Kenton and Don Ellis. Later, Levy would go on to found the Towson jazz program and school a new generation of crack musicians (many of whom offer affectionate and reverent reminiscences in the film, as do well-known musicians such as Maynard Ferguson). In visual and storytelling terms, the film is no big whoop, but Levy is such an affable and interesting unsung hero that it should come off as a rhapsody for any serious music fan or Baltimoriana buff. (Lee Gardner)

The Holy Land
Directed by Eitan Gorlin
May 3, 7 p.m. and May 4, 4 p.m.

Maryland native Eitan Gorlin courts controversy in his first feature film, a drama about "God, war, and prostitution" set in Israel.

House Of Wax
Directed by Andre de Toth
May 4, 11 a.m., hosted by Sun film critic Chris Kaltenbach

Wax-museum curator Vincent Price comes up with his own special way of making his exhibits look real in this 1953 cult-classic horror movie, presented in two-projector 3D, just like in the old days.

How To Draw A Bunny
Directed by John Walter
May 4, 11:30 a.m.

Kaaterskill Falls

Documentary about the late Ray Johnson, a seminal figure of the Pop Art era and "the most famous unknown artist in the world."

Kaaterskill Falls
Directed by Josh Apter and Peter Olsen
May 3, 6 p.m.

Script-credited to "Cast and Crew" and shot and edited with tiresome affectation, Kaaterskill Falls makes a persuasive case that improvisation should be left to comedy clubs and Christopher Guest movies. A young New York couple (Hilary Howard and Mitchell Riggs) en route to their upstate vacation cabin pick up a hitchhiker (Anthony Leslie) and end up taking him in for the night. To its credit, Kaaterskill Falls doesn't play the setup for the usual thriller clichés. To its discredit, it doesn't play it for much of anything else, except a series of half-baked conversations and confrontations that feel like acting-class exercises (OK, the Mysterious Stranger is more rugged than you, and you feel threatened--go!), augmented by a grab bag of visual tics and tricks, as if directors Josh Apter and Peter Olsen hope the jump cuts and closeups will distract the audience from the general lack of drama, suspense, or believability. By the time the film finally gets out of the cabin and Something Happens, it's hard to care, although the Catskills scenery sure is pretty. (Andy Markowitz)

Kali's Vibe
Directed by Shari Carpenter
At the Heritage CinemaHouse, 9 p.m.

Kali (beautiful newcomer Lizzy Cooper Davis) longs for the stability of a long-term relationship but doesn't quite get that she actually has to stick with a relationship to make that happen. It doesn't help that her militant-feminist slam-poet girlfriend, Crystal (Phalana Tiller), cheats on her. After kicking Crystal out, Kali succumbs to the charms of Ezra Reese (a very likable Charles Malik Whitfield), a temp in her office who sees Kali as the girl of his dreams. But when Crystal wants to come back, Kali once again displays her inability to stick with a relationship. Kali finally realizes that to have a stable relationship she must choose between the problematic-but-familiar Crystal or the flawed-but-lovable Ezra. Carpenter's film plays out like an African-American Chasing Amy, only without Kevin Smith's witty dialogue. But any clichés in Kali's Vibe are easily overlooked thanks to the naturalistic acting of this wonderful cast. (Benn Ray)

The Last Season: The Life And Demolition Of Memorial Stadium
Directed by Charles Cohen and Joseph Mathew
At the Charles Theatre, May 3, 5 p.m. and the Heritage CinemaHouse, May 4, 2 p.m.

This work-in-progress documentary (co-directed by City Paper contributing writer Charles Cohen) chronicles the history and demolition of the stadium that became known as "the world's largest outdoor insane asylum," and the special place it holds in Baltimore hearts. Clips from the project were premiered on City Paper Online.

My Father the Genius

Louder Than Bombs
Directed by Przemyslaw Wojcieszek
May 4, 6 p.m.

Imagine you're a small-town schlub who works in his daddy's garage. You worship James Dean and listen to the Smiths while your meathead friends sneer and tout the latest Limp Bizkit CD. And now you're an orphan because your father just dropped dead, and on the eve of the funeral, your girlfriend announces she's dumping your ass to go away to college. Got it? OK, now imagine you're enduring all this postadolescent angst in a bleak industrial outpost in Poland. Writer/director Przemyslaw Wojcieszek has created a warm, ruefully funny romantic comedy and a universal portrait of a young man uneasily entering adulthood. Marcin (Rafal Mackowiak) is like a Polish cousin to the John Cusack of Say Anything and High Fidelity. Whether weighing his future, earnestly explaining to his girlfriend's parents his desire to honeymoon in glamorous Manchester, England ("It's the birthplace of guitar rock!"), or circling her for some hot foreplay during his dad's wake, Mackowiak and his director create a memorable and sympathetic boy with a thorn in his side. (Heather Joslyn)

My Brilliant Career
Directed by Gillian Armstrong
May 4, 8:30 p.m., hosted by Baltimore City District Court Judge Catherine O'Malley

Don't be fooled: The best thing about the greatest art form of the 20th century, film, isn't its ability to produce higher meaning through imagery but its amazing ability to freeze time--both real and false time. Take director Gillian Armstrong's exquisite My Brilliant Career. Based on a true tale of a resolute young woman (Judy Davis) determined to live her own life when everyone else thought they knew better, Armstrong's film lovingly details turn-of-the-century Australia, socially as well as physically. Davis, bursting with energy and so fresh she's still enveloped in freckles and an edge of baby fat, is a joy to behold coming into her own as an artist. She's well-teamed with a beaming, slicked-down Sam Neill (with whom she conducts the most romantic pillow fight ever put on screen). This is a lovely look back at a world gone by, and at an actress beginning her own brilliant career. (Luisa F. Ribeiro)

My Father the Genius
Directed by Lucia Small
At the Charles Theatre, May 3, 8:30 p.m. and the Heritage CinemaHouse, May 5, 11 a.m.

Futurist architect and teacher Glen Howard Small never failed to acknowledge his own brilliance. Unfortunately, not everybody agreed with him--and the lack of recognition/success hardened his promise into an abrasive personality that alienated critics, peers, students, clients, and his family as he teetered on the fine line separating feisty from bitter. It's a tightrope director Lucia Small also walks in her first feature film. Small tracks the life/career of this eccentric mind, from his 1950s college years to his fully formed ideas in the 1960s and '70s, with a warts-and-all intimacy that is especially loaded by the filmmaker's relationship to her subject: He is her father and they share a rocky history. This clumsily precocious setup becomes quietly compelling once the movie establishes its two interwoven threads: As architect Glen watches his peers gain prominence and success, filmmaker Lucia reveals how inseparable the personal and professional are in her father's life, to the detriment of both. As one might expect, My Father doesn't conclude in a rosy reconciliation and redemption for any party involved, but by the time you get there, you're almost sorry that Hollywood cliché didn't pop up one more time. (Bret McCabe)

Never Mind The Wall
Directed by Connie Walther
May 3, 9 p.m. and May 5, 1 p.m.

The 95th

Teens from opposite sides of the Berlin Wall fall in love over their friends' and families' objections, but the biggest threat to the relationship comes from East German secret police intent on smashing Berlin's punk movement. Perhaps they can be heroes, just for one day.

The 95th
Directed by Davidson Cole
May 4, 1:30 p.m.

HBO's recent miniseries Band of Brothers gave the full Hollywood treatment to the story of a single U.S. Army infantry company's trek through Europe during World War II. Davidson Cole's The 95th offers a more modest documentary portrait of another storied WWII unit, Gen. George Patton's 95th Infantry Division. Cole followed a handful of aging veterans around for several years, documenting their reunions, gathering their stories, and returning with them to the French town of Metz, where the division was given the nom de guerre "The Iron Men of Metz" by the German troops they defeated there in 1944--the first time the heavily fortified town had been taken by force in nearly 1,500 years. The grandfatherly veterans are appealing onscreen and many of their reminiscences are fairly affecting, but The 95th is so low-key and ruminative that it seems more like something commissioned for a division reunion than a stand-alone film for general audiences. (Lee Gardner)

Directed by Jennifer Read
At the Heritage CinemaHouse, May 4, 7 p.m.

Are hackers hijackers on the information highway, manic-depressive rednecks living in trailers looking to destroy things, "hacktivists" and "e-protesters," or simply geeks who like to take things apart to find out how they work and then share that information with others? Jennifer Read's fascinating documentary explores all these facets, while interviewing famous hackers such as Kevin Mitnick, Cap'n Crunch, and fuqrag (who hacks a government Web site and is shortly thereafter visited by the police, all in front of the director's camera). Read delves into the beginnings of hacking, explores the political ramifications of what hackers do, and shows what hacking is really about today while sifting though its adherents' bad press and their own information-wants-to-be-free rhetoric. Whether or not you agree with the hackers' methods, Owned will provide a clearer perspective on these anti-heroes of reverse-engineering. (Benn Ray)

The Season: Cal Ripken Jr.
Directed by Mitchell Scherr
May 4, 6 p.m.


"Who wrote this script?" radio announcer Charley Steiner cries as Cal Ripken Jr. rounds the bases after homering in his last All-Star Game. Nobody did, but the question--preserved in The Season--captures the strange self-awareness of Ripken's season-long final bow. He was a 41-year-old man, struggling to overcome injury and play baseball, but every move he made was still the text of Baseball History; in producing this TV special-turned-feature, ESPN was essentially making a documentary on a man who was already being documented. Hence, there's little meaty, behind-the-scenes insight--some infield chitchat; a scene of Ripken nearly alone in his hotel room post-game, watching the NBA playoffs while signing box after box of souvenir baseballs. Mostly, this is the public record of one last public performance, and a few cornball touches (sepia filters on 5-year-old highlights, sleepy-town music for the Aberdeen scenes) don't get in the way of the high points. And those are still electric. On Sept. 23, Bill Ripken, up in a box with the crew, turns to the camera: "This is my last at-bat with you tonight. . . . So he might as well go bridge." Crack! The ball soars out to left, and the little brother leans out after it, howling with joy. Composing himself, he faces the viewer again. "Better TV?" he demands. "I think not." (Tom Scocca)

Sister Helen
Directed by Rebecca Cammisa and Rob Fruchtman
May 5, 1:30 p.m.

In 1998, filmmakers Rebecca Cammisa and Rob Fruchtman began filming the daily life of Sister Helen Travis, a Benedictine nun then in her late 60s. Travis, a recovering alcoholic, became a nun late in life after the death of her husband and two sons. By the time the documentary crew caught up with her, she had for nine years run a shelter in the South Bronx--living in a rat-infested, city-owned building with 21 male addicts for whom her recovery house was a last, best hope. Sister Helen, an award winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is a bracingly unsentimental look at the power--and limits--of tough love in taming addicts' demons, including those of the film's title subject. (Heather Joslyn)

For more on Rebecca Cammisa and Sister Helen, see the full story.

Soft for Digging
Directed by J.T. Petty
May 4, 9:30 p.m.

This short (74-minute) feature filmed at least partially in Maryland begins with an old man chasing his runaway cat into the woods. There he witnesses a terrible murder and makes a narrow escape. After reporting the events to the authorities, he gradually finds his eyewitness account taken for a drunken, senile fabrication. Broken into seven chapters, this efficient, low-budget exercise in psychological horror artfully tells its story with only one spoken word in its first 60 minutes of action. Well done. (Eric Allen Hatch)

Standard Time
Directed by Robert Cary
May 3, 5 p.m. and May 4, 1:30 p.m.

Standard Time

Struggling cabaret singer Billie Golden (Isabel Rose, who co-wrote the screenplay) is caught somewhere between her dreams and reality when she runs into former high-school heartthrob Greg (Cameron Bancroft), a successful corporate lawyer who is going through a combination midlife/sellout crisis. And despite fate constantly throwing pianist Elliot (a weathered Andrew McCarthy, who has replaced his signature eye-popping acting style with a more subdued squint) in her path, she begins a relationship with Greg while she figures out if she should give singing one more try or quit altogether. Cary's romantic musical plays out like a modern-day Pretty in Pink (the similarities to director John Hughes stem from much more than McCarthy's presence in the cast), as Billie decides between the safe-but-unfulfilling life as the wife of a corporate lawyer or the unsure-but-possibly-rewarding life as a struggling artist. (Benn Ray)

Sundance 20
Directed by Doug Pray
May 4, 3:30 p.m.

Sundance Labs helped nurture Quentin Tarantino, John Cameron Mitchell, and both Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas), among others. Doug Pray's documentary looks inside Robert Redford's filmmakers' finishing school, where young writers and directors can develop projects away from studio pressure and with the comfort and guidance of established peers. Participants in the 2001 Labs will accompany Pray at the MFF screening.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song
Directed by Melvin Van Peebles
May 5, 10:30 a.m., hosted by NAACP Chairperson Julian Bond

After an introductory dedication "to all the Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man," Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song tells of the titular taciturn black hustler (director Melvin Van Peebles), raised by whores and working sex shows. He's busted by the LAPD because they need a black suspect, doesn't matter who. On the way to jail, the cops beat up a black radical named Mu-Mu (Hubert Scales). Sweet beats up the cops (a shocking image in '71) and then begins a film-long flight--supported by Earth, Wind and Fire's ass-kick funk--that eventually sends him in the direction of Mexico. It's easy to find reasons to distance oneself from Van Peebles' very independent film (financed by the director and Bill Cosby and released by a French outfit): The acting is sometimes sketchy, and the "nostalgic" presentation of Black Power, use of spilt screens, and anachronistically "arty" camera work locate it firmly in its period. But that's carping on details. Even 30 years later, Van Peebles' film, though cited as the first "blaxploitation" feature, is sui generis in its simple--but not simplistic--narrative propulsion, cool ferocity, and total disinterest in kissing the viewer's behind. (Ian Grey)

Talking To Strangers
Directed by Rob Tregenza
May 4, 1 p.m.

Rob Tregenza's groundbreaking, rarely screened 1988 film follows would-be artist Jesse as he travels through Baltimore, talking to strangers in a series of 10-minute single-shot takes. Among the ships passing in Jesse's night is the late Stoc Marcut of the local '80s hardcore band Fear of God.

Too Soon For Sorry

Too Soon for Sorry
Directed by Katharina Weingartner
At the Heritage CinemaHouse, May 4, 4:30 p.m.

This brave, potent documentary has an unabashed ax to grind with the American prison system. Too Soon for Sorry delineates the manner in which the U.S. government has continued enslaving ethnic minorities and the lower classes through racial profiling, the drug war, corporate greed, and fear fostered by media distortions. Articulate prisoners, sociologists, historians, and activists passionately discuss who is imprisoned (as well as who isn't), why they're imprisoned, and what government and ruling-class motivations exist to keep them there. Along the way, the film visits a company whose designer jeans and sweatshirts are all made by inmates and a woman's prison in the Bronx where inmates get paid 15 cents an hour to answer phones for a multimillion-dollar company. Dead Prez, a hip-hop group whose music aims to pick up where the Black Panthers were halted, speaks and performs. One talking-head quote echoes long after the lights come up: "No society since Nazi Germany has imprisoned so many people in so little time." (Eric Allen Hatch)

The Unfinished Civil War
Directed by Glenn Kirschbaum
May 4, 1 p.m.

Slavery vs. emancipation. States' rights vs. national unity. Hate vs. heritage. The 19th century vs. the 21st. You may think you know the drill by now, but The Unfinished Civil War, a History Channel-produced documentary, offers an at-times surprising spectrum of colors between the Blue and Gray. Based on Tony Horwitz's terrific 1998 nonfiction book Confederates in the Attic, the film is by turns humorous, thoughtful, and infuriating. There's a fresh exploration of the tiresome Confederate-flag controversy (which seems downright quaint, post-Sept. 11), including footage of a pro-flag rally speech by one Dennis Wheeler of the North Georgia Council of Conservative Citizens that's scarier than anything in The Panic Room. But the heart of Civil War is its interviews with both black and white battle re-enactors. These mostly blue-collar guys, you learn, use the war as a blank canvas to express their thespian impulses, their obsession with history, their ethnic pride, their ethnic hatred, and, in the fascinating case of Hagerstown resident John Krausse, to quench a thirst for identity and affirmation. Clear your schedule for a long and lively post-screening discussion. (Heather Joslyn)

What Matters Most
Directed by Jane Cusumano
May 3, 9 p.m.

Writer/director Jane Cusumano's first feature film was completed just one month before her death from cancer, a fact that's stated in What Matters Most's end credits. Cusumano's labor of love, while infused with sincerity and boasting a couple of strong performances--one of them by the director's daughter--doesn't quite feel like a big-screen attraction. Instead, this tale of star-crossed teen lovers in rural West Texas (where apparently no one has heard of birth control) plays like a combination of a Lifetime movie and an ABC Afterschool Special, with a dose of overripe Tennessee Williams thrown in for good measure. Polly Cusumano plays white-trash brainiac Heather Stone, who begins a romance with brooding jock/musician Lucas Warner (Chad Allen of TV's Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman, hoarsely growling all his lines in a goofy attempt to signal Lucas' sensitivity). Heather and Lucas are in l-u-v, but Lucas' daddy (Marshall Teague) is the Richest Man in Town and bullies his son into taking a more "decent" gal to the winter formal. Though its maker will never be able to build on her first effort, one can glimpse the more complex films that might have lay ahead of her in Polly Cusumano's honest performance and in the unexpected poignancy Gretchen German finds in the potentially thankless role of Lucas' desperately bored mother. (Heather Joslyn)

What Matters Most

Women, The Forgotten Face of War
Directed by Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdattir
At the Charles Theatre, May 3, 3:45 p.m. and the Heritage CinemaHouse, May 4, 11:30 a.m.

This documentary will likely put viewers closer to the conflict in Serbia than they ever wanted to be. More importantly, it's told entirely by women--so profoundly affected by this war where rape and torture were common. Women, the Forgotten Face of War begins in 1999 as thousands of families--mostly women and children--are fleeing their homes in Kosovo for refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania. Six women are introduced in a series of black-and-white stills, then asked to describe their experiences. It's almost impossible not to wince when a woman named Arfita describes hearing her father scream while she was gang-raped and says, "At that moment, I knew there was no God." Cameras follow the same women over a two-year period as they go home, get jobs, go back to school, and go on with their lives in the face of their horrific pasts. Directors Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdattir (1998's brilliant The Brandon Teena Story) deliver again. (Paul D. Eagle)

© 2003 Baltimore City Paper