Tag Archives: Maryland Film Festival

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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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.

Wrapping up Maryland Film Festival 2009

12 May

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Well, it was a crazy hectic weekend for the Bartleby clan but everyone made it to Monday with all limbs intact and in the end, I had alot of fun; spent some time with our relatives, pseudo-celebrated Jen’s birthday, hosted two picnics at the house and then shoved  as much of the Maryland Film Festival into the corners of the weekend as I could manage. And save for a late night incident on Friday involving a vanishing vehicle, my excursion into the MFF was a great time. This year boasted alot more interesting films and, at least to my eyes, a wider range of directors and recognizable faces than usual.

I arrived a little late to the Fest Friday afternoon with my traveling buddy Chris in tow. Chris, a full blown film fan and just generally entertaining guy, is one of the few friends I know who will talk art-house symbolism and still find some way to extoll the virtues of the latest Sci-Fi Pictures original; in short, he’s alot of fun at stuff like this.

Chris at the MFF, no doubt setting up a three picture deal with Sci-Fi Channel

Chris at the MFF, no doubt setting up a three picture deal with Sci-Fi Channel

So we boogied on over to the MFF tent, across the street from The Charles, and grabbed our tickets, at which point I learned that the three film deal was alot better than I initially thought. For the price of 20 dollars you can buy tickets on the spot to any three movies playing the fest on any of the three days. In the past it was 3 on the day you bought them, and they had to be before 6 p.m. So, that’s a nice surprise and something I hope they keep around for next year.

One of the enigmatic "Deagol Brothers", directors of the dark comedy Make Out With Violence; one of the movies I actually did see at the fest.

One of the enigmatic "Deagol Brothers", directors of the dark comedy Make Out With Violence; one of the movies I actually did see at the fest.

 So, Friday was a whirlwind of three films back to back, no food, and an incident involving me, an empty parking space where my car used to be, my wife heading to an ATM at midnight like something out of a hostage film, and a jaunt through downtown Baltimore and an encounter with the grouchiest towing attendant I’ve ever seen. In between that we saw some great stuff, hung out in the eclectic lobby of The Charles and watched the filmmakers mill in and out.

Bobcat chilling at the concession stand...

Bobcat chilling at the concession stand...

The festival is definitely a great scene for anyone into films, and in particular, into Baltimore. I’m considering a pass to all the films and events next year. Theres so much going on, so much to see, and always someone willing to talk film and just generally hang out that popping in and out sort of robs the experience a little bit. I’ve also got to say that the directors and guests themselves were very friendly and laid back types that slipped in and out of the mileu and chatted up the crowd without drawing attention. Possibly the most mellow was Bobcat Goldthwait, who looked like a kid at Christmas even as he was talking to the guy behind the concession stand. He just looked delighted to be there. Pity to have missed his film on Saturday night. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for it elsewhere.

Bobcat hanging out before a movie on Friday night. Goldthwait's own film, World's Greatest Dad aired at the MFF on Saturday night.

Bobcat hanging out before a movie on Friday night. Goldthwait's own film, World's Greatest Dad aired at the MFF on Saturday night.

I’ll be posting  individual reviews over the next two days for the films I did manage to see. Of the 8, the tally includes no bad films, four solidly good, and three that were excellent. My biggest regret: that The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle didn’t play other than sunday. It sounded so insanely bizarre and up my alley that only something like Mother’s Day could have gotten in it’s way.

Stay tuned for my review of the first movie I saw, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo!

The Maryland Film Festival is underway!

7 May

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Starting tonight, a parade of filmmakers, artists and cinephiles will flood into the Station North Arts District of Baltimore to begin celebrating the Maryland Film Festival. The city’s most exciting movie event has organized three days and four nights of films, speakers and panels chock full of recognizable faces, fresh  talent and engaging and inventive cinema. The likes of Point Break director Kathryn Bigelow, native sons Barry Levinson and John Waters, and comedian/director Bobcat Goldthwait will be among those haunting the Charles Theatre  this weekend and presenting the films.

Things kick off this evening with Opening Night Shorts!, featuring an eclectic and colorful collection of short subject films by  artists both local and national.  Playing at 7 p.m. at MICA’s Brown Center, the annual shorts program opens the festival with a  flurry of marching concertina soldiers, gyrating claymation critters, would-be murderesses and a Korean-American family’s pilgrimage back to Grand Teton National Park.

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All of the compelling content aside, there is a  bittersweet note to the opening program’s presence at the Brown Center; this is the first year it won’t be shown at the historic Senator Theatre on York Road where it has resided for several years previously. The Senator, no longer operating as a first run theater, has been in an uncertain state of flux since First Mariner foreclosed on it back in March.

While the Senator looks for a non-profit to take over and faces an uncertain future, the folks at the MFF make up for the location change by providing the opening night with a special guest host.  Bobcat Goldthwait, who has both an entry in the opening short’s program and a feature film playing in the rest of the festival, is probably best known for his comedic acting work in the 80s and 90s where his wavery voice and hyperactive presence graced such screwball fare as Police Academy, Scrooged and Shakes the Clown(which he also directed). C’mon, who can forget him screaming “Hewwo Wabbit!” as he waved a shotgun at Bill Murray?

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Goldthwait has left the acting behind for a quirky and occasionally controversial film career. His last project to play the fest, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie dealt with the sort of taboo act that usually stops a film dead in it’s tracks. I haven’t seen said movie, but his new one, World’s Greatest Dad looks to tread the similar waters of black comedy.

Besides World’s Greatest Dad, which  stars Robin Williams in the titular role and screens on May 9th @ 7:30 p.m., MFF offers a veritable feast for the hungry filmgoer; blending indie edginess with art-house experimentation, hollywood thriller with foreign drama, and beloved talents with faces completely new to the scene.

John Waters will host another film he hand-picked (but is not associated with creatively) on Friday night with the quirky French comedy Love Songs . In the mood for something  more horrific than the French trying their hand at humor? How bout Seventh Moon(10:00 p.m. on Friday night) where Blair Witch director Eduardo Sanchez  sends two young honeymooners to China and smack-dab in the middle of the Hungry Ghost Festival where, most likely…there are hungry ghosts. Barry Levinson will unveil his latest documentay Poliwood on Sunday afternoon, the Alloy Ochestra will provide musical accompaniment to the silent era wonder Man With A Movie Camera, and action director Kathryn Bigelow will close out the festival on Sunday night with  The Hurt Locker, her tale of a bomb defusing unit in Iraq facing a particularly dangerous assignment. Former Baltimore Sun film critic Ann Hornaday will conduct a live interview with Bigelow directly following the movie. 

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So, if you are looking for something cinema-related this weekend, give the multiplex a break and take a peek over at the MFF website where you can peruse all the panel listings, schedules and film descriptions. One of the best deals going is the daily 3 for 25$ deal, where you can purchase tickets to any three films on the spot(online purchases excluded). I’ve already made my itinerary for the fest, and though there’s a busy weekend of birthdays, Star Trek and taking time to spend with Mom, I’m hoping to get in a full festival experience. The weather looks primed for a soggy hike up and down Charles street, but what better meteorological conditions for enjoying a weekend of watching movies?

I’ll be back later with my festival schedule and the stuff I’m most looking forward to. Anyone else  planning to go? I’d  love to hear back on what you think looks promising, what you plan to see, what you end up seeing, and any other MFF related tidbits! Happy film-watching!