What The Critics Would See

2004 Maryland Film Festival

Special Pullout Guide

May 06, 2004

So there's a ton to see at the Maryland Film Festival this year -- subjects from Metallica to word-game gurus to a Washington church. But with films showing concurrently nearly every minute, how do you decide? Sun critics Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach have broken it down for you day by day.

FRIDAY

Toni Kalem's A Slipping Down Life (3 p.m.) is the first inspired adaptation of an Anne Tyler novel as well as, in its own right, a funny and moving depiction of a young woman desperate for human connection. Lili Taylor, one of the best reasons to go to movies in the past decade, finally gets a role that shows her entire normal-to-out-there range as Evie Decker. This small-town North Carolina girl feels that an eccentric singer-songwriter named Drumstrings Casey (a never-better Guy Pearce) is talking straight to her heart when he breaks into his own tunes. Writer-director Kalem, a writer and actor on The Sopranos (she plays Angie Bompensiero), won many fans' devotion a quarter-century ago as Despie Galasso in Philip Kaufman's gang movie The Wanderers. She finds just the right tone for this story: It's elastic and empathic enough to accommodate a bizarre romantic head-slashing, a mock kidnapping and a death in Evie's family. Kalem will attend.

Jonathan Demme's The Agronomist (7 p.m.) is a triumph of personal documentary-making with none of the grandstanding that has come to dominate the form. Demme's portrait of his friend Jean Dominique, an agronomist turned crusading broadcaster, overflows with their shared humanity, their love of Dominique's native Haiti, and their anger at the brutal subjugation of the Haitian people by dictators and demagogues. Demme knew when he started interviewing him more than 15 years ago that Dominique had the spine for one righte ous fight after another. A representative of the movie's distributor, ThinkFilm -- which scored a big success with Spellbound -- will attend.

Of the movies I haven't seen in any format, I'm most looking forward to two other documentaries. Word Wars (8:30 p.m.) follows four top-ranked Scrabble players -- including one Baltimorean -- to the National Scrabble Championship in San Diego (sounds like a film in the Spellbound tradition). Let the Church Say Amen (11:30 a.m.) promises a fresh look at religious-based social work that has been going on long before "faith-based programs" became political footballs.

-- M.S.

SATURDAY

Fort Ti (1953) is said to be the first 3-D film in which an actor spits at the audience -- a fact that, by itself, should be all the inducement one would need to start Day 2 with this 11 a.m. screening. The host (that would be me) promises to do his best to prepare the audience for the thrill of having this French and Indian War epic (directed by ballyhoo impresario William Castle) hit them square between the eyes. Word has it the new print is a stunner that should make even the funny glasses bearable.

Director Guy Maddin's Archangel (1:30 p.m.) centers on a love triangle involving a Canadian soldier sent to a remote Russian outpost during World War I, an amnesiac Russian woman (she's even forgotten she's married) who's a dead ringer for his dead fiancee, and her husband, a war vet also suffering from amnesia. Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum will be on hand to help unravel it all.

At 4:30 p.m., Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana will discuss their latest project, 50 / 50, a still-unfinished examination of ethics in the field of genetic engineering that mixes elements documentary and fictional storytelling in ways that have made some filmmakers (especially documentarians) uncomfortable.

Saved! a satire of conservative Christian education written and directed by UMBC grad Brian Dannelly, unspools at 7 p.m.; it's definitely worth watching, but since it's scheduled to open in theaters later this month, you might want to check out the 6 p.m. screening of Big City Dick: Richard Peterson's First Movie instead. Peterson, a savant Seattle street musician, has become a favorite of the city's alternative rock bands and a friend of Jeff Bridges, who shows up in the film.

Whatever you see, do your best to make it over to the Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center, 1301 Mount Royal Ave., for an 8:30 p.m. conversation with director Jim Sheridan, a longtime MFF favorite (one of his films has played each festival thus far; last year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. served as host for In The Name of the Father). Sun critic Michael Sragow promises to keep the conversation moving.

Top your day off with an 11 p.m. retrospective of the films of Chuck Statler, a pioneer in the field of music videos (he worked a lot with DEVO) from the days before they were known as music videos.

-- C.K.

SUNDAY

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