That cinephile’s paradise, the Maryland Film Festival, runs from May 4-8 this year. The festival starts, as always, with Opening Night Shorts! at the Brown Center, followed by Q&As with the directors and an opening night bash. The festival ends with Josh Locy’s Hunter Gatherer, featuring The Wire alum Andre Royo (and, of course, another party). In between, there will be plenty of screenings, film panels in the Tent Village (I'll be part of the Film & Contemporary Criticism panel on Friday, at 3 p.m.), celebrity sightings, and opportunity for lively film talk with friends, both old and new.
Here are a few capsule reviews of some of the films playing at the festival:
Ira Sachs (Love is Strange) is a director of uncommon empathy and insight. His latest explores the perils of gentrification and the wisdom of the young. Sensitive, introverted Jake Jardine (Theo Taplitz) has just moved into his late grandfather’s Brooklyn home with his parents, struggling actor Brian (Greg Kinnear) and psychiatrist Kathy (Jennifer Ehle). Downstairs, their tenant Leonor (Paulina Garcia) runs a rent-controlled dress shop. Her 13-year-old son Tony (Michael Barbieri) is garrulous, athletic, and popular, exceedingly comfortable in his own skin. He immediately befriends Jake and they become inseparable. But this friendship is threatened when the Jardines demand market-value rent from Leonor. We watch, with mounting dread, as all the grown-ups in this scenario behave badly—Leonor, too stubborn to even listen to reason; Brian, fueled by guilt over not being the primary breadwinner at home, making unreasonable demands. The kids intuitively understand that people are more important than money and class. But will their parents see the light? (May 7 and 8)
Penny Lane’s wildly inventive (and surprisingly topical) documentary combines hand-crafted animation, archival footage, and current-day interviews to tell the strange-but-true story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, a great American quack and con-artist of the 1920s and 30s. The Nuts! of the title refer to goat testicles that Dr. Brinkley would surgically attach to men, with the promise of giving them fertility and sexual prowess. Brinkley also became a pioneer of talk radio (he is described as the original Dr. Ruth), country radio (he used the music to hook listeners, then advertised his various snakes oils and products on the air), and infomercials. Eventually, he ran for governor of Kansas and won (but was defeated on a technicality—not that he really wanted to be governor anyway.) He was brought down, finally, by a pioneering member of the American Medical Association, who became obsessed with him, Inspector-Javert-style. Lane’s loose, playful, collage-like treatment of the story sets just the right tone—she’s spinning a tall tale that just happens to be (mostly) true. (May 6 and 8)
As farm-to-table becomes a growing trend, and everybody and their brother seems to have a chicken farm or honey bee colony in their backyard, Boone takes a clear-eyed look at the reality of boutique farming. This is an immersive, experiential documentary by director/cinematographer Christopher LaMarca and editor/producer Katrina Taylor, with natural sound and no narration. Instead, we are placed right in the middle of the Boone dairy goat farm in Oregon with our three nameless young heroes—two men and a woman—as they go about their daily tasks. Every day they get up at the crack of dawn—“Once More I Beat the Sunrise” reads a hand-painted sign in the barn—and we watch as they feed, brand, and milk the goats (fun fact: the goats agreeably—and adorably—hop onto their milking stations without any assistance); tend to the small fruit and vegetable patch; bury two animals (one sick goat and one a beloved pet dog); help deliver a breach baby goat; and even slaughter a chicken for dinner. The sun-dappled cinematography gets up close—focusing on boots crunching leaves, an ax hitting a block a wood, hands stirring goat’s milk into cheese, the blinking eye of a goat. Were it not for the occasional sound of a TV in the background, we almost couldn’t tell what year it was. The work is hard, exhausting at times—the farmers are constantly digging holes and hauling heavy bags of feed; one of them throws out his back —yet gratifying. But all around them, small farms are closing, partly due to Oregon’s strict raw cheese regulations. Is their way of life sustainable? (May 7 and 8)
Stoic loner Toni (Royalty Hightower) is a tomboy, mostly looked after by her big brother Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), who spends his afternoons at a local boxing gym. Toni does sit-ups and pull-ups and even spars with Jermaine, who patiently coaches her. But being that she’s 11, a few things are starting to change: She develops the tiniest crush on one of Jermaine’s buddies, acquires a sassy new best friend (Alexis Neblett), and begins to look at the older girls at school with a mixture of curiosity and awe. In particular, she is enamored by the girls on the school’s dance team, and longs to join in. But when the girls on the team start to exhibit signs of a mysterious, spasmodic ailment—the “fits” of the title—she is baffled. What are the fits? Are they a metaphor for the sexual awakening of adolescence? Or is writer-director Anna Rose Holmer suggesting that the conformity of adolescence is its own kind of conversion disorder? Holmer never makes it clear. (The film’s score, punctuated by atonal bursts from a clarinet, is almost the stuff of horror films.) Her film is slow-paced and methodical, filled with arresting long shots of kids dancing in the cavernous gym, wiling away the hours in the boxing ring, or hanging out on the chain-link-covered bridge near the school. We watch Toni as she quietly observes the world around her, making that uneasy transition from childhood to adolescence. (May 6 and 7)
Do Not Resist
After witnessing the faceoff between protesters and police in Ferguson, MO—and later, here in Baltimore—you may’ve asked yourself, “When did the police get so militarized?” Craig Atkinson provides context in his chilling and essential documentary. Turns out, since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security has been issuing armored vehicles and other militarized weapons to the police, sometimes in small towns that have virtually no crime. (“More Mayberry, Less Fallujah” reads one sign protesting the acquisition of a BEARCAT tank in Concord, NH.) The cops, who attend SWAT-team training camps and motivational sessions led by super-creepy weapons guru Dave Grossman (sample line: “What do you fight violence with? Superior violence!”) seem to enjoy their new toys. But while these militarized weapons are meant to combat terrorism, we don’t need to look any farther than recent events to see what happens when the cops turn them on their own citizenry. (May 7 and 8)