The Maryland Film Festival 2019 takes place at the Station North Arts and Entertainment District (including the Parkway Theatre) from May 8-12. The festival features more than 100 screenings of feature films, shorts and documentaries, as well as special guest hosts, discussions and more filmtastic fun.
There are also several movies on the schedule with Baltimore or Jewish themes (or cast members), including John Waters’ annual selection. This year, the director picked “Mom and Dad,” the 2017 black horror-comedy starring Selma Blair and Nicolas Cage.
One of the most exciting features on the schedule is “Fig Tree.” Set in Addis Ababa during the civil war in Ethiopia in 1989, it follows a Jewish teenage girl’s coming-of-age story.
Among the documentaries is “Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine,” about the now-defunct rock publication’s humble beginnings in post-riot Detroit and its visionary publisher, Barry Kramer. Director Scott Crawford and editor Patrick Wright host that screening. Speaking of music history, “Other Music” looks at the beloved and influential New York music hub and features Vampire Weekend, Animal Collective and Interpol. That screening is hosted by directors Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller.
“Mike Wallace is Here,” directed by Avi Belkin, takes an unflinching look at the late iconic TV reporter. The film includes decades of never-before-seen footage from “60 Minutes.”
For a local connection, there’s “Well Groomed,” composed by Dan Deacon and directed by Rebecca Stern. The film follows four champion dog groomers on the competition circuit. Deacon and Stern will host the screening.
The festival closes on May 12 with a screening of “Luce,” starring Tim Roth, Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer, followed by a closing night party.
Can’t decide what to see? Here are our capsule reviews of some of the movies on this year’s schedule.
It’s 1989 during the civil war in Addis Ababa and Ethiopian Jews are trying to escape to Israel. At the same time, Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe) is 16, Jewish, Ethiopian, willful, rebellious and in love with her Christian boyfriend, Eli. As she works on growing into an adult, she also must make sense of this chaotic, tragic world around her.
Based on director/writer Aalam-Warqe Davidian’s own story, “Fig Tree” provides a realistic glimpse into a culture and moment in history rarely portrayed in film. And it’s a heartbreaking one.
Asmamawe’s fantastic performance and the movie’s suspenseful pacing compel the viewer to stay alert and wait in miserable anticipation for what fate is going to befall these people.
Throughout the film, Mina and her family grapple with concepts of Heaven and Hell, announcing at various times, “Life is tough, but we all go through it” or “Life here is hell, but we have to beat it.” These characters — in their idyllic, lush setting slowly being infiltrated by outside conflicts — straddle both. It’s simultaneously a beautiful and terrible struggle to watch.
If the harrowing message in “Fig Tree” and its blunt ending don’t make you feel for today’s immigrant plight, nothing will. This is one of those movies that you’ll need to take a moment to recover from when the credits roll.
Screens May 10 at 1:45 p.m. and May 12 at 11:45 a.m.
“This is the story of a woman cast adrift in the Midwest,” says “Frances Ferguson” narrator Nick Offerman. And we’ve all been there, right?
Directed by Bob Byington and written by Byington and Kaley Wheless (who stars as Ferguson, an aimless malcontent bearing more than a passing resemblance to Taylor Schilling in “Orange is the New Black”), this is a quiet, subtle dark comedy that’s not going for laugh-out-loud zingers.
The takeaway, as Ferguson slinks through a lackluster existence, is: Adulting is hard. We all have mommy issues. Actions really do have consequences and sometimes, if you’re really lucky, Nick Offerman is there to narrate the mundane moments of your life.
If miserable, flawed characters with an epic inability to communicate or show remorse test your nerves, “Frances Ferguson” is not for you. For fans of Offerman, his manly, comforting voice-over narration will be the best part of this little morality tale. He also has all the best lines. At one point, he says, “If I can interject a personal narrator note,” and the viewer thinks, “Yes, yes you can.”
Offerman is there to help humanize what could just be another bored housewife in crisis story with chuckle-worthy quips like, “Frances knew she was supposed to feel something, but couldn’t think what.”
Another nice surprise in the film is David Krumholz as Ferguson’s group therapy leader. His shlubby-but-welcome presence might soothe the viewer as much as it helps Ferguson.
If you have the patience for it, there is some catharsis for the main character and the film — unapologetic throughout — ends on what can be interpreted as a hopeful note.
Screens May 9, 7:30 p.m. and May 10, 4:45 p.m.
“Mike Wallace is Here”
Israeli filmmaker Avi Belkin’s fascinating new documentary is must-viewing for anyone who still cares about the truth, thinks “alternative facts” is a purely oxymoronic notion and remembers the era of hard-hitting TV news.
While exploring the 50-year career of the “60 Minutes” journalist, “Mike Wallace is Here” also chronicles the changing media landscape and asks at what point the business aspect of reporting became more important than getting the story. Additionally, as the interviewer becomes the interviewee, some previously unknown personal details are revealed about Wallace himself.
The film sets the tone in the opening scene in which Bill O’Reilly calls Wallace a dinosaur during an interview. At another point, we see Barbra Streisand call him a “son of a bitch.” And so it goes. Wallace barely blinks at the name-calling and even admits to being pretty tough on many of his subjects. “I’m nosy and insistent and not to be pushed aside,” Wallace explains.
We’re talking about a broadcasting legend who managed to interview all the big newsmakers from the 1950s to the early 21st century.
There’s incredible archival footage here of very intimate conversations with Kirk Douglas, Eldon Edwards of the KKK, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X predicting his own death, Richard Nixon, a smirky Vladimir Putin and even a pompous, late-30s Donald Trump.
Wallace asks Trump if he’d consider politics and his response is, “No. Not politics.” Then, he declares himself a “major dealmaker” and says, “Somebody has to help this country and if they don’t, the country and the world are in big trouble.”
Watching moments like that captured on film, the viewer doesn’t mind so much if Wallace could be a “real prick” because he was also a much-needed champion of truth.
As you watch this documentary, you’ll wish he was still around today.
The film screens May 10 at 11:45 a.m. and May 11 at 7:15 p.m.
There’s a lot going on in Rick Alverson’s “The Mountain” for such a quiet, moody, claustrophobic film. An imposing Jeff Goldblum (he could almost be the titular mountain) stars as Dr. Wallace Fiennes, who tours the country performing controversial lobotomies in the 1950s. Along the way, he drafts an almost catatonic – or maybe just middle-class bored — sidekick (Tye Sheridan) who is grappling with his own internal conflicts regarding the so-called medical practice.
The film becomes a sort of existential road movie that blurs the lines between sanity and insanity, acceptable societal behavior and its inverse, doctor and patient. As the viewer is taken inside archaic mental institutions of that era, the question becomes: Is there really much of a difference between being crazy, artistic, alcoholic or lobotomized? And, as the movie suggests, who really gets to decide?
Along the way, there are nods to the occult (a planchette, for instance, like a Ouija board without the board), a figure skating father, some inter-sexed nudity and a rare upbeat moment when Goldblum’s character tap-dances in a bowling alley. It’s almost Lynchian. Almost.
“The Mountain” is very light on dialogue and heavy on score. The haunting and distracting sound effects seem intent on inciting discomfort in the viewer, at times creating a horror film vibe. In this age of over-prescribed medications, you should feel uncomfortable. Is there really a difference between having your brain poked at, being numbed by pills, or living the suburban American dream?
This movie isn’t easy, escapist viewing (I, for one, was reminded of how it felt to watch Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi” — clenched jaw, ringing ears), but that’s probably the point. You can decide if that’s a good thing.
Screens May 10 at 4 p.m. and May 11 at 4:45 p.m.
For full schedule, go to mdfilmfest.com