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Dude Fest and ‘Lebowski’ abide in Baltimore this Saturday!

3 Jun

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June 3rd, 2009-

You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude. You don’t wanna know about it, believe me. 
Hell, I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon… with nail polish. These …amateurs! ” – Walter Sobchack, The Big Lebowski

 Carving out it’s own unique niche in American pop culture,  the penultimate Coen brothers epic of  mere mortals facing the darkness of nihilism and the random chaos of the universe has won accolades right and left since the time of its release. No Country for Old Men, right? Ha! We are talking The Big Lebowski here, the Coen’s laugh-out loud 98 comedy that combines post-modernist straw grabbing, stoner humor and noir potboiler with a savage, glowering John Goodman thrown in for added effect. But like I need to tell you. Continue reading

MFF review: Life, Death, Summer and Zombies

25 May

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Make Out With Violence (2009) 105 min. Director: The Deagol Brothers. Writer: The Deagol Brothers, Cody DeVos, Eric Lehning. Starring: Eric Lehning, Cody DeVos, Brett Miller, Leah High, Tia Shearer, Shellie Marie Shartzer.   Cinematography: David Bosquet, Kevin Doyle, James King. Film editing: Brad Bartlett, The Deagol Brothers. Original music: Jordan Lehning and The Non-Commisioned Officers.

 

cinemagrade A- John Hughes meets Night of the Living Dead meets Tarkovsky’s Solaris. That’s how one of the Deagol Brothers, directors of the indie horror comedy Make Out With Violence,  pitched the film before it’s screening at the Maryland Film Festival on Friday May 8th.

It’s true, the film incorporates all of those above mentioned elements but that description only gives you a point of reference, it doesn’t prepare you for the kind of film Make Out With Violence really is. The Deagol Brothers, a filmmaking troupe who arent really brothers or named Deagol, have put together something really special here; a teenage comedy with heart-felt laughs, an art-house drama with real pathos, and a horror flick with a human dread that reaches down into the bones. Make Out With Violence carries the kind of quirk that made previous indie faves like Guatemalan Handshake and Napoleon Dynamite so endearing and it embraces the darkly comic in a way that few films have since Heathers.

Its much more than that though. Make Out With Violence, at its core, is a summer seranade to that most certain of constants: loss.

High school has ended forever for five friends and the summer before the rest of their lives sits in front of them. The sleepy small town they call home is in the midst of a balmy warm spell and cicadas chirp in the nearby fields. Each day has that hazy golden promise of runs through the sprinklers with friends and revelatory late night conversations by the pool-side. But nothing is as sweet as it should be for the Darling twins Patrick and Carol, their friend Rody and gal pals Addie and Ann. Wendy is missing. In fact, Wendy, the sweet and gentle core of this breakfast club has been missing for awhile; well before graduation. So long that the town has given up looking for her, and as the movie opens Patrick, Carol and their little brother Beetle(who narrates the film) are on their way to Wendy’s funeral.

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The details of the funeral and the various car rides, half-finished conversations and long walks back from the service all feel uncomfortably real. Three years ago, on May 11th, my wife and I lost a mutual college friend of ours who was taken suddenly in a tragedy that was hard to process.  It was a bracing jolt of reality and sadness, and it hit not only us but almost our entire community of friends. Something had changed for us; one of us was gone and it was a strange feeling. The next few days were different for everyone. The filmmakers understand this. They also understand that while the funeral wil be the end of it for many, there will always be that group of people for whom it is only the start of something more painful and complicated.

The characters at the fore-front of Make Out With Violence, regardless of how close they might have actually been to Wendy, have all been hit exceptionally hard by her passing from their life and the rest of the film addresses what happens after that long trip back from the cemetary. There is a scene outside of a darkened home when Patrick returns and realizes no one else is back yet. He doesn’t go inside, but simply sits on the porch and stares. Going in would assuredly be worse, especially for Patrick. He was in love with Wendy.

 

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One of the Deagol Brothers after the MFF Friday night screening of Make Out With Violence

Things fall apart for the little group after the funeral. Carol, who has been pining for Addy since day one,  follows her around like a puppy dog and tries to be emotional available to her after Wendy’s death. Addy is having none of it. She’s too busy feeling guilt and apathy and providing Wendy’s grieving boyfriend with what the movie snarkily refers to as “sleaze comfort.” Abby’s friend, Ann Huran, in turn, has been eyeing up Carol for quite awhile and he is all too aware of it.  Ann Huran is the kind of girl who is so forthcoming and deliberate that it never dawns on anyone to use anything less than both her first and last name everytime they see her.

Beetle, who at 10 or 11 is significantly younger than the others, spends alot  of time drawing pictures of Wendy as an angel, and thoughtfully observing the patterns and new behaviors of his friends and family in the wake of this tragedy. Patrick, he notes, is taking the death of his friend particularly close to the heart and making sure that everyone around knows it. He was in love with her  but never told her, and now he spends all of his time considering the lost words, memories and possibility that left with Wendy. His friend Rody dodges the entire thing by leaving for the summer and entrusting the care of his parents’ home to the Darling boys.

And then, Wendy comes back. From the dead.

 With this turn of events,  Make Out With Violence springs to new life and quickly became one of the most compelling viewing experiences I have had this year.

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 Beetle and Carol are wandering in the woods hunting cicadas and find Wendy…alive. Sort of.  Her body has been tied between two trees and she stands there, head lolling to the side, body decaying as she violently struggles against her bonds. Carol approaches her and sees the truth– She is a zombie. A full blown, creepy make-up, R0mero-would-be-proud, zombie. Beetle and Carol take her down, wrap her in a tarp and take her to Rody’s house where they show her to Patrick and he decides to keep her in the bathtub.

From this point on, Make Out With Violence follows the brothers down a two-lane, twisted highway to Wierdsville. On one hand, the story continues to develop as a wide-eyed John Hughes coming of age rom-com would, with each of the brothers struggling to connect with their beloved and agonizing over the newly presented possibility that their secret longing might be finally professed. Patrick and Beetle send Carol out on a step by step quest to win Addie’s heart while Patrick dotes on his lost-but-found love in the same way that those other Darling boys did with that other Wendy in Peter Pan.

On the other hand, everything is beginning to look like The Twilight Zone; Wendy is a freakin’ zombie, Addy is emotionally vulnerable, distraught and sleeping with her dead best friend’s beau, and as Patrick becomes uncomfortably obsessed with the living-dead girl he and Carol start drifting apart.  Beetle is on the sidelines watching it all and stumbling over new, disquieting realizations like “Dead things come back different. They can’t ever be what they used to.’

Everything that takes place in the second half of the film is more or less the pay-off for the film’s set-up–if a film like Make Out With Violence can really have a traditional pay-off. It may play by the rules of narrative storytelling and realistic character development but its primarily an internal, evocative meditation on loss and the way it can become a catalyst to new beginnings. It just happens to do this with alot of knowing detail and humor. It embraces the hokey self-seriousness that accompanies first crushes and unrequited loves and doesn’t shy away from the grislier physical aspects of death.

The going is tough for the Darling boys. Yes, Wendy was once their friend and they loved her but everything that is left behind has a stench, and a darkness, and theres the little problem that all she wants is living things to eat. At one point the brothers make a shake out of raw meat and she simply pukes it back into the tub. They try a rat and she seems to like this fine. Later Rody’s parent’s dogs find their way into the bathroom and….nevermind, you really don’t want to hear.

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The Deagol Brothers are really talented as both technicians and artists, and if you take some time to check out the cast and crew on this thing you will realize that alot of the efforts here are interconnected. The acting is very good for an indie film of this nature, and the actors, especially Addie, really understand the ways in which people shut-down and close-off in some areas while opening up in others when something catastrophic happens to their world. Wendy, as the zombie gets to play a rotting shadow of the thing she once was and her greatest gift to the movie is making lost motor functions and grim eating habits hilariously poignant and queasy. Brett Miller as Beetle narrates the movie in a small, meek tone that reminded me of Linda Manz’s narration in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Speaking of Malick, it’s clear the Deagols are fans of his because it shines through in the way their movie looks.

The cinematography is amazing. There really isn’t another word for it. The entire town is caught in a never-ending summer, and both shadows and sunshine are made to be menacing. There is care and detail and patience in the way shots are framed and scenes play out. The screenplay, the visuals, and the soundtrack(more on that in a sec) are perfectly in sync. A night-time rendezvous by the pool between Addie and Carol is a perfect example. As the two grow closer all of the information on screen builds to an emotional peak and before she feverishly kisses Carol, Addie exclaims “Lets get AWESOME!’ It’s funny, it’s a pay-off, and it adds resonance to the scenes that follow it.

The films finest piece, however, is a morbid candle light birthday dinner between Patrick and the now putrifying Wendy. Eric Lehring as Patrick gives a detached performance that seemed like the work of a fledgling actor early in the going, but upon reflection he captures perfectly the self-delusion necessary to keep viewing this walking husk as his lady love.  He bakes her a cake, dresses her up, lights candles and sits with her, and for a moment it could be a sequence from a different movie. This would be the point where Eric Stoltz or Anthony Michael Hall would finally win over the girl with their earnest and selfless devotion. Instead Wendy makes a shambles of the cake and falls head-first into the carpet. The following interplay between the two works as drama and as a portrait of the film’s themes played out visually.

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 The soundtrack is one of the film’s strongest elements. A stirring collection of 80s style glamrock, otherworldly ambient tracks and pieces both poppy and disturbing, its been designed to fit the movie so well that it isn’t absurd to think of Make Out With Vi0lence as a musical at times. Its all original music, done by the Non-Commisioned Officers who happen to inlcude Eric Lehring(who plays Patrick and helped write the film) and Jordan Lehring (who plays Rody). I was so impressed, that when I learned that the Deagol Brother present at the screening had copies he was selling, I immediately bought one. They can also be picked up off the film’s website HERE.

In closing, Make Out With Violence is a wonderfully strange and challenging film. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it after the first viewing. In the days that followed, it grew on me quite a bit. It attempts so much, and brings so many disparate pieces together, that its abrupt ending is rather jarring. But then, loss is also like that and to make the decision to leave the audience in the middle of that feeling rather than give them an artificial sense of closure is ultimately the right decision. It ends the film the same way it began; with a hole punched right into the middle of the world. Death can do that. Expect to hear more from me on this one, as I’m sure it will be present on any end of the year’s best list I might do.

I’ll also keep you posted on the film’s progress and if it gets a theatrical, dvd or any other kind of release.

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Stagecoach rolls onto The Senator’s screen– Floyd, Beatles and live bands help theater rock on in face of uncertainty

23 May

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So, what happens to The Senator now? Wednesday night’s meeting, called together by State Senator Joan Carter Collins, was unfortunately one I couldn’t be in attendance for but Astro Girl covers it pretty thoroughly at her blog so I’ll just direct you THERE. Essentially, there are no resolutions or laid-in-stone outcomes as of right now. It looks like The Senator is headed to auction in something like 60 days and the recent CHAP legislation putting constraints on what modifications can be made to the theater’s interior may put off potential buyers and investors.

Adam Bednar of the Baltimore Messenger questions the timeliness and wisdom of that particular move by the City HERE.

So, nothings clear. We knew that much. If you happen to be reading this from outside Baltimore and have never heard of The Senator you can check out their website HERE and check out The Senator Community Trust as well as the Friends of the Senator Theatre  blog. All who are curious about what they can do to help the Senator at this time can find more information about that at the SCT’s website.

At this point I think it’s important to gather together as many who care about The Senator  as is possible and generate futher interest and passion about what happens to it in the future. I’m planning a few articles here and a feature covering movies from the Senator’s last 70 years of operation.

Questions I have. How much longer will the theater be showing these revival movies and concert attractions? Are suggestions regarding film selections welcome? Certainly, it would be the height of awesome to see something like 2001 or Lawrence of Arabia or Metropolis on the Senator’s screen one more time. I confess to being unsure about what rules are governing what is being shown or not shown, but if there is an opportunity for suggestion or community input wouldn’t that be helpful in generating interest?

If someone is interested in pitching a fundraising event, concert or whatever, who do they see about it? Are there ways other than what I have suggested here to expand the community’s interest?

Right now, though, The Senator is still showing movies and we can be thankful for that.

Choosing a movie from the year the theater opened for business–1939– The Senator screens John Ford’s delightful western Stagecoach featuring Claire Trevor and Ford’s own muse John Wayne, who made another 12 pictures after this one with the director. An interesting and insightful article about Wayne and Ford and their relationship is up over HERE.

The movie itself is one well worth seeing on a big screen and is historically the first picture where Wayne’s persona of The Duke shines. It’s his breakout film and a fine adventure on its own. I personally prefer the duo’s collaborations on The Quiet Man, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but Stagecoach is more lively and straightforward; a beaming highlight of matinee escapism. For five bucks, it could  make for a fun family outing at the movies–something a bit more unique than a rush to the local multiplex.

Returning for its third weekend at The Senator is the trippy Beatles toon Yellow Submarine. Not much to say about this one except that it yields endless rewatchability. I recall showing it to a summer art camp of 6-12 year olds many years and marveling at the varied reactions. None of the kids convulsed or exploded, so all in all it was success. Melding the Beatles music with bright, eccentric animation really does the trick as far creating a captivating playground in which to usher a younger mind into the halls of classic rock music. If, of course, thats what you are going for.

Also on the roster and perhaps a bit too trippy for the tykes is the Pink Floyd concert film P.U.L.SE.-Live at Earl’s Court 20.10.94, London. I can understand the purpose of this, but it wasn’t possible to show Floyd’s exceptionally odd, and just plain exceptional,  The Wall? Now thats a movie I’d like to see splashed across the Senator’s big screen.

Finally, in something more ambitious and part of the wishful thinking that would push the Senator forward as a potential market for musical venues, is “One More Saturday Night” a fundraising concert event that will feature live performances by  38 Cents A Gallon, J.D. and the Blades, and Shinola as well as Grateful Dead short films.

Information regarding all movies,events, showtimes and ticket prices are available on the theater’s website, which is once again, right HERE.   

 

Balticon 43 hits town this Memorial Day Weekend

22 May

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 Balticon, one of the longest running sci-fi conventions in the country,  heads into Hunt Valley this weekend and promises four days of sci-fi, fantasy and nerdy goodness. I noted on the website there are costume balls and LARPing (live action role playing). All of that was of less interest to me than the potential authors and guests present. Well, if you have got some time and money to burn this weekend and are looking for excuses to pull your latex Khan chest or black trenchcoat and sunglasses out of retirement this looks like your venue. Or if you are just looking to immerse yourself in pure unadulterated geekdom(nothing wrong with that), it sounds like there will be plenty to tickle your fancy. Wow, I used the phrase “tickle your fancy.”

Seriously, if anyone out there attends this lets hear about it. Maybe some pics too?

Ive always wondered whether it’s worthwhile for the more casual fan or similar to Otakon in that it caters to hardcore dedicated fans. To the point: Is there more to this than costumes and niche interest stuff?

These are the details for the convention, taken from the Balticon official site which is located HERE.

 

The Maryland Regional Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention

Memorial Day Weekend      May 22-25, 2009
At Marriott’s Hunt Valley Inn, Baltimore, MD

Author Guest of Honor:

Charles Stross

Artist Guest of Honor:

Kurt Miller

Music/Filk Guest of Honor:

Mary Crowell

Special Guest of Honor:

Scott Sigler

Ghost of Honor:

Edgar Allan Poe

2008 Compton Crook Award Winner:

Mark L. Van Name

2009 Compton Crook Award Winner:

TBA

 

BALTICON 43 SCHEDULE:

We have made the Balticon 43 Pocket Schedule available online.

A Four Day, 24-hours-a-day Extravaganza!

Over 300 Hours of Multi-Track Programming featuring authors, publishers, editors, artists, scientists, musicians and other creative SF luminaries. Join over a thousand SF fans for the area’s largest and longest running convention of its kind! Visit our huge art show, dealer’s room, concerts, dances, gaming room, computer room and video room. Everything Science Fiction and Fantasy in one huge package.

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Notice to prospective Balticon program participants. Invitations will start going out by Oct. 17, 2008. If you wish, you may download the survey (in Word) here and email it to program@bsfs.org. A list of potential program ideas is available here. You may send additional ideas to program@bsfs.org. Inquiries received after Jan. 15, 2009 will not be guaranteed a program slot. –>

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The POCKET PROGRAM is now available as a PDF download! Come and get it!

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HOURS OF OPERATION:

 

Most areas of the convention will close at 3:00am each night with the exception of Anime, Video, Filk and the Frankie & Vinnie’s Con-suite. These will be open 24 hours a day or as close to that as our volunteers can manage.

REGISTRATION:

 

Membership rates are

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  • $48.00 for adults and $24.00 for children (age 6-12) till February 28, 2009
  • $53.00 for adults and $26.00 for children (age 6-12) from March 1 through April 30, 2009 –>
  • Full Weekend: $60.00 for adults and $30.00 for children (age 6-12)

 

On-line registration is now available!

Pre-registration is also available by mail. Please send name, address, email address & phone number with payment to:

Balticon 43, PO Box 686, Baltimore, MD 21203-0686 or click here for membership form.

Single day registration rates are now available!

Single Day Rates (at the door only):

Friday: $29 Adult / $15 Child
Saturday: $41 Adult / $22 Child
Sunday: $36 Adult / $18 Child
Monday: $15 Adult / $8 Child
Sunday/Monday: $46 Adult / $23 Child
Monday (Teachers for AboutSF Teachers Workshop only): $11
Balticon 44 Early Registration: $44 Adult / $22 Child
Active duty military receive free one-day membership on Monday

GROUP RATE FOR MEMBERSHIPS:

Buy ten memberships at one time of one type and get the eleventh free. Must provide names and addresses and pay with one check or credit card transaction. Great for fan clubs, family groups or circles of friends. Buy 20 and get two free. For details write registration@bsfs.org or use mail in form. This offer is ONLY available by MAIL. This offer can NOT be completed online.

If you have already pre-registered, you may now check your status online. Please allow five (5) business days for online pre-registration and ten (10) business days for pre-registrations sent in via postal mail. To check the status of your pre-registration, please use our Am I Registered? page.

Balticon Podcasts! There will be Podcasting during Balticon 43, if you need some information before arriving at the con, or if you want to listen to our recent podcast interviews, check out our web site: www.balticonpodcast.org

Now Playing: The Story of Anvil searches for a happy ending

22 May

 

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Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009)  90 min. directed by: Sacha Gervasi. featuring: Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow, Robb Reiner,Tiziana Arogoni, Slash, Lars Ulrich. cinematography: Christopher Soos. original music: David Norland

Anvil photos(color) by Brent J. Craig.

 

” Honestly, how many  bands do you know that are still together after 30 years ? You’ve got The Rolling Stones, The Who…you’ve got Anvil.”–Slash, guitarist for Guns and Roses.

cinemagrade bNever heard of Anvil? Don’t worry, neither had I until I saw this wacky, warm-hearted documentary by Sacha Gervasi, script-writer for Spielberg’s The Terminal.  If you do remember Anvil, then it’s because you were around and alert during the mid-80s, the only time the metal band experienced anything remotely considered popularity. Back then they were fiery, reckless newcomers touring with bands like Whitesnake and Bon Jovi and being called “the hottest thing in heavy metal music”.

The likes of Slash, Lemmy from Motorhead and Lars Ulrich from Metallica  provide talking heads at the opening of the film, praising Anvil and their influence on the metal scene. And then all of them get quiet, solemnly wondering what ever happened to Anvil? They had the talent, and the drive, but it just didn’t seem to hit for them.

The film then flashes forward 25 years and we see what happened to Anvil. Lead singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow, who used to come on stage in fetish gear brandishing sex toys with which to play his Flying V, is now a blue-collar worker whose vocation is delivering meals for the Choice Children’s Catering service. Living an obscure, fallen existence that would make Randy the Ram shake his head with sadness, Kudlow keeps talking about his band and the promise of the future the entire time he’s schlepping frozen shepherd’s pie all over Toronto. 

He doesn’t sound that crazy when you realize that while Anvil’s fame evaporated in the 80s, the band itself did not. They are still playing together, and as the film opens Steve has just landed a new agent in the form of  Tiziana Arrigoni, a loopy Swede who books the band on a whirlwind, haphazard European tour. What follows then made me initially doubt the film’s authenticity.

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Tiziana doesn’t speak english very well, and she doesn’t seem to be adept at scheduling the proper transportation to and from events for the band. Steve, ever the sad-eyed optimist stands at the window watching the packed bus they were supposed to be leaving on and says ” Until you become a real commodity, this is what you deal with.” Later when they miss the plane, sleep in the airport and then arrive two hours late to a gig in Prague where they play and the promoters refuse to pay them Steve ultimately brushes it away with “”Everything on the tour went drastically wrong. But at least there was a tour for it to go wrong on.” And that, more or less, is the reason Anvil is still around at all. Steve keeps one eye fixed on the future with anticipation as he and his bandmates keep toiling in the face of a less than stellar present.

Reiner and Kudlow have been friends since they were 14 and Steve’s the goofy, energetic lead while Robb stands around glaring like Heathcliff on the moors. Over the course of the film, the pair have numerous heated fights and Robb quits at least three times, always re-emerging to Steve, reconciling and then moving forward again. Their wives and family members acknowledge the bond and we realize their off-kilter brotherhood is the glue that holds this way past its sell-by date band together. After the European tour ends with a wheeze–the Transylvanian concert only draws 178 in a venue that the promoters tell him can seat 10,000–Anvil regroups, ditches Tiziana and plan to record their 13th album with no funds left to do so. All of this would be horribly depressing if Steve weren’t so hopeful and the band themselves so quirky. Really, really quirky in fact. To the point that it would be easy for one to assume this was a mockumentary.

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Christopher Guest’s This is Spinal Tap! haunts every frame of this movie. So on point was that original satire and so typical are Anvil as a metal band that there are hilarious overlaps. Besides the fact the drummer’s name is Robb Reiner, a knob gets turned to 11, and Anvil makes an almost spiritual sojourn to Stonhenge, both films boast  the colorful antics of the band’s members. One of Anvil’s original written songs is called Thumb Hang, an ode to the Spanish Inquisition. Robb turns out to be a painter in his spare time. I was  suprised to see that his work bears a resemblence to Edward Hopper in its construction and it’s really not that bad. He talks about the lonely qualities of his art, and then shows us his masterpiece: a still-life of a turd floating in an austere toilet bowl. He is most proud of the realistic texture.

Eventually Steve’s sister gives him the money( inspiring the line “Family is important s**t, man!”) necessary to produce a new record with their old producer and he and Robb squabble, break up the band, repair it an hour later, and manage to finish the job. Where the film goes from there should be left to the viewer. At this point we have wriggled on the hook with Steve and Robb and their families and the future is uncertain, but it doesn’t look good. Anvil find themselves back in Japan and watching the two lifelong friends wander the streets of Tokyo while Chris Sool’s melancholy score plays, we hope for the best for these guys even if Anvil fails.

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The film is very, very funny and it’s also good-natured, despite the occasional strong language from the aging rockers. Director Sacha Gervasi has an interesting connection to Anvil; he was their roadie when he was 16. His affection for them shines through here, and he edits the movie with a knowing gentleness–even when things are falling apart between Robb and Steve, the film knows better and follows them long enough to show that they know better too. Gervasi captures the chaos of their tour, the oddness of their Toronto fan-base including Mad Dog and Cut Loose–two guys who have been following Anvil for years, and the bitterness of their obscurity in the face of their short-lived success. There is a great bit of incongruity when Lips, who once ran across stage in the 80s wearing nothing but rubber straps, struggles with being pushy on a telemarketing job he has been given by Cut Loose. “Ive been raised to be polite all my life, and I don’t think I can do this.”

In the end, it’s a surprisingly moving film that captures steadfast dedication to a dream and an  idea, and  to a friendship. I can’t guarantee you will be won over by Anvil’s music, or think Robb and Steve are swell guys who have made clearly wise decisions and have appropriately stewarded their dreams. I do contend though, that you will walk away from Anvil with a smile on your face and a refreshed sense of hope in the power of optimism.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil opens in Baltimore today at The Charles Theater. Find showtimes and theater info HERE.

MFF review: Seventh Moon takes terror to China

20 May

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Seventh Moon(2009) 87 min. directed by: Eduardo Sanchez. written by: Jamie Nash and Eduardo Sanchez. cast: Amy Smart, Tim Chiou, Dennis Chan. cinematography: Wah-Chuen Lam.  Original music by: Kent Sparling and Tony Cora.

cinemagrade b Horror is an interesting thing. Like comedy, it’s difficult to pinpoint what will make one person laugh or one person scream. It can be a tighrope walk trying to determine whats going to creep out an audience and what might just end up getting giggles. I imagine this is the reason so many current horror films tend towards the comedic or silly. It’s easier to be successful when there are always two given choices for audience response.

The filmmakers who just want to scare you, unnerve you, and send you home a little unsettled–their job is much harder. Eduardo Sanchez happens to be one of those directors. That isn’t to say that his films are always completely successful at what they attempt, or that he doesn’t sprinkle humor throughout his work. However, his approach has been the same since The Blair Witch Project, his film debut with co-director Daniel Myrick; scare the heck out of ’em and send ’em home shaken. His latest, Seventh Moon, sets out on this mission and though it doesn’t arrive at its destination it gives fans of the genre a whole lot to admire on the way.

 Sanchez’ third directorial effort, Seventh Moon follows the unfortunate adventures of Yul and Melissa, newlyweds traveling through China for their honeymoon. Melissa wanted to go someplace tropical but they settled on China because Yul’s relatives live there. On the last leg of the trip, the couples’ guide, Ping, stops their car while they sleep and disappears, leaving them alone in a rural area.In the middle of the night. During the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. 

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Yul and Mel bicker, set out from the car to look for Ping and find a small cluster of homes with animals set outside in cages–offerings made to God only knows what. There are unearthly screeches coming from the woods, and Yul almost runs down something that looks like a pale, naked man darting across the dirt road. On the radio all is static, save for a strange voice reciting incantations. Yul understands a little of it–It’s an invitation of sorts and it’s the same thing that was being spoken at the site with the animal sacrifices.

As the night wears on, Mel and Yul find themselves lost in the coutryside and in the company of someone else also on the run; a man who has been brutally attacked and seems to be in the same situation. And then, THEY come; from out of the shadows in numbers hard to discern because of the dim moonlight. They walk like men, but are not. They claw and tear at the car, slink through the undergrowth and leap from behind darkened corners. They seem bent on the singular purpose of devouring these three people in their path and the locals are intent on helping them.

 Thats the basic hook and once the “ghosts” of the piece show up, the movie becomes a fast-paced jaunt through hell on earth as Yul and Melissa fight against one another and their relentless pursuers in a desperate bid to survive the night. And, as a tightly paced and crisply crafted thriller I think it works really well. Sanchez sidesteps the usual pitfalls of the genre: dopey dialogue, vague, unlikable characters and excessive, meaningless violence. Instead of trying to find out how many organs can be pulled out of the human body through the chest cavity, Seventh Moon is more interested in tearing away the metaphorical skin of it’s protagonists-stripping them of their sense of security, protection, and shattering their delicate understanding of things.

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That isn’t to say, however, that the film is tame or afraid to get graphic when it needs to. There are scenes of mutilated remains, people being yanked brutally through the darkened forest, and in one scene, grasping clawed hands tear and rend victims who have been imprisoned inside of bamboo cages. None of it is gratuitous and the director and his team take great pride in making the most tension filled sequences the ones where characters sit in the dark, trying to talk their way out of their fears and forget the monstrosities lurking only a few feet away. And though we get to see the actual creatures this time around, Seventh Moon shares some very obvious similarities with The Blair Witch Project.

To begin with, Seventh Moon employs that hand-held feel of live footage. It isn’t as amateurish or as stylized as Blair Witch, but that isn’t the point here. In some ways it might be even more frenetic in its movements because of the sheer amount of running , dodging and hiding that occurs. Where Blair Witch documented the breakdown of gentility and western assuredness in the face of the unknown, Seventh Moon does the same and adds a veneer of eastern mystery–suggesting a disconnect between the american Melissa and the asian-american Yul (who has no real sense of his own heritage) and the country they find themselves lost in.

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Sanchez describing some of the pitfalls of filming in rural China, including scorpions

The opening portion of the film is focused on the married couple wandering the streets of China and interacting as consumers amidst old and sacred festivals and customs. The cinematography by Wah-Chuen Lam,who also helmed the Donnie Yen/Sammo Hung action flick Killzone, is very atmospheric and captures plenty of unique cultural details as it roves back and forth over city streets and rural enclaves. The helter skelter nature of the film’s second half is also handled well; Lam who only utlizies his sick-inducing camera work when it is necessary to evoke hysteria, dread and shuffling horrors advancing through the night-shrouded landscape. There is even room for a few, subtle pieces of fx work, including a quite haunting visual that occurs right at the break of dawn.

The film boasts only three major speaking parts, and they are all handled well. Amy Smart and Tim Chiou don’t overdo it as the couple who might be facing their first married scuffle amidst a life threatening event. In the face of possible death, they clambor over 15 years worth of marital strife and get right down to the worse part of “for better or…” Smart is really an unknown for me, though I know she has done other stuff, and I think she manages her role as Melissa quite well. She doesn’t really set it apart as something memorable or iconic but she has the job of carrying the last third of the picture almost completely by herself and she makes it work.

Chiou, as Yul, gets to play the meek husband and clueless foreigner to his own country. To his credit, Yul doesn’t come off as an ugly american or a whipped pansy. He’s just a young man facing unforseen threats in the face of what he probably presumed was the  “beginning of the rest of his life.” Dennis Chan has a thankless role as Ping, the mysterious guide who seems like a friend, and then perhaps an enemy, while the truth is somewhere more in the middle.

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All of the films’ pieces belong to Sanchez’s overarching vision of  human beings placed into no-win scenarios where all boundaries fall away. Thats probably the thing I’ve liked most about his work thus far-it’s horror based off a very simple fear: the fear of being lost.  In Blair Witch, as well as Seventh Moon, part of that “lost” is literal, but in Sanchez’s second feature Altered,where a group of  backwater buddies capture and hold hostage an alien lifeform that murdered their friend, the lost referred to what happens to our dearly held comfort when something unexpected unearths it. Seventh Moon is more immediate and more efffective than Altered, but it never really gets into the psychological headspace of being adrift from civilization that Blair Witch Project captured so beautifully. In that movie we marveled at the idea of a younger generation being collectively lost in the woods. Here, the americans run away from creepy monsters in a foreign land, made all the less frightening by creatures that seem a little too familiar.

I know many didn’t care for The Blair Witch Project, but I find that it is a movie I can still watch to this day. The inventive work on the part of the directors to stage horrors that exist solely in the mind, outside of the camera really worked for me and utilized unspoken dread. Ed has learned a number of useful tricks since that first film, and Seventh Moon is a far more polished and technically accomplished piece than that freshman outing. In fact, I think there will be many out there who really dig this. It has some basic similarities to a film like The Descent, but I find it lacks what both that film and Blair Witch had: a palpable sense of dread. Seventh Moon is always pitched at a shivery but enjoyable level, never going into areas we feel unsafe in; it stays within secure borders and achieves a little less as a result. Still, it’s quite an entertainment and another stepping stone for a director I’ve come to be really intrigued by. Whatever you attempt next Ed, I’m there.

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Ed Sanchez discussing Seventh Moon after the MFF Friday night screening

As of right now Seventh Moon doesn’t have a release date but I believe it’s been picked up and is headed to dvd. Here’s hoping it arrives in time for a Halloween themed movie night.

Public Meeting called to discuss fate of The Senator Theatre

19 May

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May 19th, 2009-

A public meeting has been scheduled at The Senator Theatre off of York Rd in Baltimore to discuss the theater’s current situation and the city’s part in all of this. From The Senator’s own website:

Senator Calls For Meeting @ The Senator!

The media has reported in error that Baltimore
City now owns The Senator Theatre.

It has also been misreported that The Baltimore
Development Corporation [BDC] will soon choose the
new owner or operator of The Senator Theatre and
determine its future entertainment programming
through the RFP process.

It is our understanding that the ownership of the
landmark Senator Theatre will be determined by the
outcome of an upcoming public auction, expected to
take place later this summer. The successful bidder
at the public auction will own The Senator.

In an effort to separate fact from fiction regarding
The Senator Theatre and its uncertain future,
Maryland State Senator Joan Carter Conway,
who represents the 43rd third legislative district,
has called for a public meeting at the theatre
in response to constituent concerns.

The public information session will take
place at The Senator Theatre on
This Wednesday Evening, May 20th at 6pm

Please help to spread the word!

Senator Conway has invited City and State economic
development representatives to attend. Representatives
of Preservation Maryland, Baltimore Heritage, The
Baltimore City Historical Society, The Commission for
Historic and Architectural Preservation [CHAP] and the
media have also been invited, along with North
Baltimore business and community leaders
concerned about The Senator Theatre.

Scheduled government economic
development representatives include:

– Clarence Snuggs, Maryland’s Deputy Director of
Housing and Community Development, representing
Raymond Skinner, Secretary of Housing
& Community Development.

– Kim Clark, Executive Vice President of The Baltimore
Development Corporation, representing 1st Deputy Mayor
Andrew Frank, Neighborhood and Economic Development.

Topics to be discussed include:

– The State of Maryland’s financial investment in The
Senator Theatre. – State of Maryland’s position in
Baltimore City’s upcoming foreclosure proceedings.
– City of Baltimore’s purchase of the 1st Mariner
mortgage note secured by The Senator Theatre.
– Baltimore City’s public auction process intended
to transfer ownership of The Senator Theatre.

The Senator has become known as “The People’s
Theatre”. Apart from the theatre’s inaugural opening
in October of 1939, the upcoming transition from 70
years of continuous family ownership and operation is
a pivotal event in the renowned theatre’s rich history.

Please mark your calendars and encourage your family,
friends and neighbors to attend the upcoming meeting
at The Senator. For further info visit senator.com or

For further information visit www.senator.com
or senatorcommunitytrust.org

The latest details regarding the ongoing saga of Baltimore’s Senator Theatre have been hard to decipher as of late. I’ve been intending to write a piece ever since the York Rd theater, one of Baltimore’s historic landmarks, closed down as a first run attraction back in March. I attended the first Town Hall meeting, which was conducted only a few days after the theater closed its doors. Varying reports have been flying around via the media and local news outlets as well from people close to Tom Kiefaber(still the theater’s current owner) and The Senator.

It was recently reported that Baltimore City had fronted the money to buy the Senator and then ownership would be transferred to someone interested in running it as an entertainment venue. The Senator’s own website  has attested to the fact that this isn’t accurate, and that while the City has stepped forward, currently, the Senator will still go to auction in a few months. So, far, the only thing that has transpired is that the city’s Board of Estimates voted to spend the money to buy-out the loan the Senator has with First Mariner.  To complicate matters, the city’s CHAP(Comission for Historical and Architectural Preservation) recently voted in favor of a legislation that will prevent siginificant changes to the interior of The Senator. Kiefaber and others have been concerned that with these restrictions, The Senator will be a harder sell for someone who wants to keep it running as an entertainment venue.

While it seems that watching The Senator get turned into a thrift store or a laundromat have been evaded, its coming down to the point where we face two scenarios: museum or functioning, flourishing theater. Since the close and the cessation of first-run films, The Senator has been running a series of classic films, concert films and even a mini-horror convention(complete with guests and indie premieres). From Night of the Living Dead to A Star is Born to The Yellow Submarine–currently playing– The Senator has been putting its giant screen and spacious interior to good use. I think it would be ideal to see the theater continue in a similar vein-running classic films, hosting community events and fundraisers, and premiering smaller independent and local movies. Whats the likelihood of this happening?

To be honest, I’m not sure. I’ll be in attendance on Wednesday evening, and will report back on the whole thing. Here’s hoping to many long years of The Senator doing what it was intended for: providing a venue for entertainment and film. Hopefully it won’t all be smoke and mirrors and blame games like the last meeting proved to be.

For a more detailed account of the situations so far, check out astrogirlguides, a blog that in recent months has covered fairly thoroughly the ongoing tale of The Senator’s woes.