May 20, 2011

Stephen Colbert interviews Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about Harlem Rens documentary, out on Netflix

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is co-writer and executive producer of "On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Team You Never Heard Of," a documentary about the greatest basketball team you've never seen -- the Harlem Rens. Also called the New York Renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance Big Five and, simply, the Rens, they turned the ballroom part of the Harlem Renaissance Casino and Ballroom into their home court.

n their three-decade history (1923-1949) they scored more consecutive wins than any other professional basketball team and also blazed trails as the first all-black team to emerge the victor of a world-championship game. The documentary is available today on demand from Netflix -- I may have to reopen my Netflix membership to see it -- and in this interview with Stephen Colbert on last night's edition of "The Colbert Report," Abdul-Jabbar makes it sound fascinating and exciting.

Abdul-Jabber says the Rens were an indelible part of Harlem's jazz and general cultural explosion in the 1920s and 1930s. After hearing Abdul-Jabbar discuss the links between jazz and basketball, Colbert calls Abdul-Jabbar one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived.

Watch the Colbert segment above, and if you're home Friday night at 7:30, turn on the whole show, which includes, in deference to tomorrow's impending rapture\apocalypse (depending on your interpretation), includes his goodbye history of to the world, culminating with Colbert's invention of the word "truthiness." It will be a jolly start for your movie-going or movie-staying-in weekend.

May 12, 2009

MFF 2009: Parting shots

Kris and Joe SwanbergSome of those who spent their Mother's Day weekend at the 11th annual Maryland Film Festival capped off the festivities at a Sunday evening party across the street from the Charles Theatre. We asked a few to choose the festival's highlight:

Mark R. Smith, freelance writer: I loved the Animated Shorts program. I really liked the one that used the lyrics to the Rolling Stones song (Dandelion Will Make You Wise). The Bill Plympton short, done with the line drawings -- those were terrific. The one based on a music video, by a group called Parson Brown, from the Netherlands someplace, that was really cool, too. I made it here for all four nights for the first time this year. That was pretty cool, too.

Joe Swanberg, director, Alexander the Last: We went to the (Orioles) baseball game with two British filmmakers whom we just met today. Those are always my best moments. I made new friends and had cool experiences with two people from another country. That's why I am so excited to come to festivals after so many of them, and so many movies. I've had so many experiences like that. This festival, every year I meet people who I end-up collaborating with and working with.

Kris Swanberg, director, It was great, but I was ready to come home: I'm just so impressed with how accomodating this festival is, and how great the staff has been. They flew us out and put us up. We get to see great movies and hang out, they have all these wonderful parties. It's just been really, really a nice, small, friendly festival.

Photo: Husband-and-wife filmmakers Kris and Joe Swanberg raise a toast to MFF 2009. Photo by Chris Kaltenbach

Continue reading "MFF 2009: Parting shots" »

May 11, 2009

Barry Levinson on White House Correspondents' dinner

Barry LevinsonOn his way into screening PoliWood for a packed house at MICA's Brown Center, Barry Levinson (right, following the post-film Q&A) answered three more questions, this time about attending the White House Correspondents Association's dinner Saturday night:

Q: Just what was the event like?

A: I was there once before, and it's an interesting night. Everyone tries to make it into a big story, "More celebrities than ever, Hollywood in Washington, who's controlling what." When you're there, it's Washington, and we're just voyeurs. We're not going to be changing policy. We're [saying to ourselves], "Oh, this is nice, this is a big room. This is pretty good."

I couldn't get over the hallways where all these various little parties were being held beforehand. If someone from the Fire Marshal's came, this would be impossible, because you couldn't move -- you could not move.

But it was exciting, fun; after all, this is a potentially interesting time. Obama got some huge laughs, he had some very good jokes, and Wanda Sykes had some great lines. She's getting controversy about her one line about Rush Limbaugh being a drug addict, but no one's saying that he was a drug addict. We're so overly sensitive to lines at time it's ridiculous. They're supposed to be having some fun...some of the reaction was nonsense.

Q: Did pundits always talk about the correspondents and politicians and celebrities all getting too close the way pundits are talking about it this year?

A: Didn't seem to, and now it comes up. Celebrities are always associated with Democrats, so that becomes an issue, even if celebrities were always coming to these things. Now it's part of the cultural wars that have been created, incorrectly. We've tried to turn this into, like football and everything else, something with two teams. And that's unfortunate because we have more in common than we don't and you see it in the polls. 80 per cent say this is where we have to go, there's a hardcore 20 per cent [that resist], and by the nature of the times we're in, those 20 per cent can make a lot of noise.

Q: Were you relaxed to be without your camera, or did you wish you were still shooting PoliWood?

A: I kept thinking, "Gee, I could have added another section with this." 

Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love

This film is everything you want in a music documentary.

Just for starters, it captures a vibrant subject in the midst of a life-defining quest. Ndour, a Senegalese Sufi Muslim with a generous aesthetic and philosophy, spends years bringing the tenets and history of his faith to an epic album; then his own countrymen either ignore it or condemn it for blasphemy until it gains traction abroad.

But what makes this movie so potent is the way the director, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, renders this story with a lyricism, sensitivity and power that matches Ndour's own. Spirituality, musicality and cinematic momentum merge. It's an elating experience.

Ian MacKaye Rocks the Charles

As a guest host at the MFF, Dischord Records' co-owner and operator Ian MacKaye, the veteran of bands including Minor Threat and Fugazi who is currently making music in the Evens, was going to choose a brutal brutal Soviet antiwar film. Then he thought, "How predictable? The punk guy chooses a film with people shooting and cutting each other in half!" Figuring the festival audience, like him, had had enough of war, he tried to find something that would celebrate "humanity, creativity, life!"

So he took a chance on a piece he hadn't seen but desperately wanted to -- a short 1992 French TV documentary called "Nina Simone: La Legende."

Punker MacKaye and jazz-R&B-pop-gospel "Priestess of Soul" Simone? Where does that connection come from? Well, fifteen years ago MacKaye heard a recording of Simone singing "The King of Love is Dead" and considered it "one of the single most heavy pieces of music I'd ever heard." Both in his opening remarks and in his comments afterward, MacKaye made clear he connected to her intensity, purity, and most of all her singularity as an artist.

How you reacted to the film itself depended on whether you were steeped enough in Simone's story, mythology and music to fill in the blanks of a defiantly arty 54-minute piece that concentrated on her black-activist politics, her volatility and her thwarted ambition to be a classical pianist. Even MacKaye said he was "still putting together in my head" a final section labeled "The Dream": Simone at the piano playing Tchaikovsky with a chamber group.

But there were enough sublime performance clips, including Simone imbuing "Little Liza Jane" with a whole new rhythm, to enlist first-time Simone fans in the quest to make her best art available. And MacKaye's own humor, unpredictability, originality and passion helped make the Saturday screening at the Charles an event to savor.

3 Questions With...The Alloy Orchestra

Alloy Orchestra

For the sixth year, Sunday morning at the MFF belonged to the three-piece Alloy Orchestra, as they used their musical talents to breathe delightful new life into a silent classic. This year's lucky movie was Dziga Vertov's 1929 Man With a Movie Camera, a wondrous, almost playful look (in a decidedly Soviet way) at life in the Soviet Union. Streetcars hurtled down the track, orchestra musicians played their instruments, a baby was born...all to the pounding, propulsive beat provided by the keyboard and percussion of the Alloy. If, every year, the festival did no more than bring these guys to Baltimore, it would be enough.

After their performance, percussionist Terry Donahue took a few minutes to answer questions about how three guys, an electronic keyboard, some cymbals, a bass drum and a bunch of unlikely melodic objects -- including a bedpan -- make silent films seem downright cool. (By the way, Donahue prefers the term "junk percussionist." OK by me.)

How do you decide which films to compose scores for?

It's a rather complicated process. For the last 20 years now, we've been working with the Telluride Film Festival. They know so many people that have ideas about what we should do. We collaborate with them, and everybody throws us ideas. But ultimately, it's what will work for audiences. Not just film-festival audiences; it can't be so obscure as to just play film festivals, and it can't be so well-known as to just play general audiences. It's hard to find that line.

And then we want something that has a really good print, either a recently restored or really sharp-looking print. People at film festivals demand that sort of thing.

And then, ultimately, it's access. Can we get ahold of and rent this film and take it on tour and be able to use it for the next five to 10 years? All those things come into play when deciding on what we're going to do.

Photo by Chris Kaltenbach

Continue reading "3 Questions With...The Alloy Orchestra" »

Waters, Goldthwait rule!

John Waters and Bobcat GoldthwaitJohn Waters will always be king of the annual Maryland Film Festival: His Friday-night pick, a tradition since MFF1 in 1999, always brings in the crowds, frequently for a movie no one's ever heard of. This year's Love Songs was no exception.

But this year found Waters happily sharing the spotlight with Bobcat Goldthwait, whose World's Greatest Dad, starring Robin Williams as a put-upon father who exploits his son's infamy in some unusual ways, had the crowd roaring with laughter (some of it uncomfortable laughter, but that's OK) Saturday night.

The movie, which is expected to go into wide release later this year (probably in the fall), was subversive in the proud Waters tradition, wringing laughs out of some pretty non-traditional sources (like suicide and Internet porn).

Atfer the screening, Waters rose to his feet to tell Goldthwait, "This is your best movie, and you're going to have a very big hit."

Goldthwait, who could be seen in the audience at several movies during his three-day festival stay, seemed genuinely touched by both Waters' approval and the audience's warm reception. He told the Charles audience that he broke into tears at their reaction, and he wasn't kidding.

"I love it when people enjoy this movie," he said afterward, "especially when they laugh in places where I want them to laugh."

Photo of John Waters and Bobcat Goldthwait by Chris Kaltenbach

May 10, 2009

3 Questions With...Zachary Levy

Zachary LevyZachary Levy's Strongman is a startlingly, emotionally intimate study of the relationship between Stanley "Stanless Steel" Pleskun, who bills himself as the strongest man in the world and proves it by traveling the auto-show circuit lifting pickups with his legs and bending pennies, and his girlfriend, Barb, who really wants to understand him and his ambitions, but doesn't always succeed.

Equal parts character study, rumination on artistic purity and Greek tragedy, Strongman, which Levy (left, during the post-film Q&A) worked on for nine years, won the Grand Jury Prize as Best Documentary at this year's Slamdance Film Festival. It was partly financed through its director's 2003 creation of "Bush Cards," playing cards featuring members of the George W. Bush administration.

Did you feel, at times, that you were imposing somehow, or that you were not where you should have been? Watching this film, it must have been very uncomfortable for you at times.

No. I came to make a film. I was there, and I wasn't going to go away. I was sort-of staking my place in their world. I don't think there were too many times when I felt I was witnessing something that I shouldn't have been, or that I was exploiting them or their situation in any way.

There were hard things for me to film. I empathized with Stan a lot in different places, so if I saw him going through something, it was not fun necessarily to watch it through the lens, or to watch him in pain through the lens. But at the same time, I'm there to make a film, to sdtay in it and to keep doing it.

Of course, the age-old question in cinema verite, going back to the Maysles, is how much does your presence influence events? How do you deal with that?

I don't think it does. Having been there, and having done a film that is very much of that tradition of 1960s-style verite, I don't think it does. I think what happens with the camera is that it amplifies what's already there. It definitely has an effect, but I think it's basically just to turn up the volume in a way, so that things that are latent on the surface begin to happen. It's not changing it, per se, it's just pushing some of these things to be seen.

What happens to Strongman next?

Ideally, my hope would be that it gets theatrical distribution, to release it like it was a traditional 1975 movie, where you have a theatrical release, and then television, and then a DVD, and then all these other things. Worst-case, I figure if I can't get an outsider or a big company behind it, I'll figure out a way to do it myself.

Photo by Chris Kaltenbach

 

 

May 9, 2009

This year's most optimistic filmmaker...

Lightning SaladNothing like confidence in your product: This year's award for the most optimistic filmmakers goes to the people responsible for Lightning Salad Moving Picture, who put a sign in the Charles Theatre lobby Friday urging people not to start pitching tents, to be sure they'd get into the movie's 6:30 p.m. screening Saturday, before midnight.

Sadly, not a single tent seems to have been pitched.

But festival Membership Manager Lucia Treasure, who's seen the movie, said it's awesome. Which is all the praise any filmmaker should need.

3D thrills with "Inferno"

Rock slides, rattlesnakes, burning embers...this year's 3D classic, Roy Ward Baker's Inferno, had everything necessary to thrill an extra-dimensional audience's heart.

Most of the 1953 movie consists of Robert Ryan trying to crawl his way out of the desert with a broken leg. See, he's been left behind by his two-timing wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her scheming boy toy (William Lundigan).

The desert landscapes proved surprisingly receptive to 3D filmmaking, what with all the solitary cactus and rocks to provide perspective. And even though the traditional 3D trick of throwing things at the audience didn't show up until the climactic fight scene, the experience was all good.

Kudos to festival major domo Jed Dietz, who pulled every available string to get 20th Century Fox to lend the festival its only extant print, and to Charles projectionist John Standiford for making sure the movie shone in all its Technicolor glory. In fact, the only complaint (and make no mistake, the print was gorgeous) is that Fleming's red hair didn't jump off the screen the way I thought it would. Still, that's a small complaint: she spent plenty of the movie smoldering in her classic 1950's way.

Now, the search begins for next year's 3D prize.

Any thoughts on what movie you'd like to see in that extra dimension at MFF 2010?

Barry Levinson on real Hollywood politics

More from a conversation with Levinson about his new picture, PoliWood: 

"What's funny about Hollywood is that it's always considered liberal. But break it down and Hollywood is Republican. It's owned by Republican corporations. GE is Republican; Disney is Republican; Murdoch is Republican; they're all Republicans.

"It's the employees that are the Democrats. Yet when people get angry at the products of Hollywood, they get angry at the employees, not the owners. It's the same as in Detroit!"

Then Levinson brings the analogy home: "The problem with Hollywood is that when it's concentrating only on making X-Men 6 or Spider-Man 16, it's like Detroit only making SUVs!"

 

Barry Levinson looks forward to showing PoliWood

Over the phone from Connecticut, Barry Levinson said the unexpected kick he got from showing his film essay on media, celebrity, and politics, PoliWood, to a responsive crowd at the TriBeCa Film Festival was "how many big laughs are in it -- laughs as big and as frequent as in any of my pictures."

They weren't from the "Gotcha!" moments that arouse cheers and jeers in partisan documentaries. They rose from Levinson's sharp, knowing presentation of bewildering disconnections that make no sense at a human level.

"David Crosby can't believe he was jeered for singing a song about the lies that went into the Iraq War, and he's right. What do people expect? Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were singing 'four dead in Ohio' after Kent State; it is like booing the planes at an air show."

One advantage of seeing this film Sunday at the Maryland Film Festival is that Levinson will be there to answer questions about the movie as well as discuss its issues with Matthew Modine, David Brock and Dan Rodricks. And Levinson's riffs are often as sharp and funny as the material that makes it into his films. "When one woman says there are stars in Hollywood that can't get work because of their conservative beliefs, I don't take her on," Levinson says. "But whenever I watch that I think, 'how does she think they became stars in the first place?"

John Waters, Unlike Sarah Palin, Can List His Papers

Print may be dying, but not at John Waters’ house. He says he gets six newspapers every day — The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

“And I’d get The New York Daily News if they every figured out how to deliver it. I hate reading on-line, especially after I’ve been writing at my computer. And since I live alone I’m reading at all times. I’m always reading when I eat.”

He still savors the tabloid charge of a New York Post headline such as the one that appeared after the demise of Ike Turner: “Ike Beat Tina to Death.” And he loves reading the editorials of people “I don’t agree with.” He enjoys the crime reporting in The Sun and feels the destiny of most newspapers is to become ferociously local. (“It’s really harder for Time or Newsweek: What do they have to become, The New Republic?”)

But he says you can’t resist the new digital age. “It’s like the coming of talkies. You have to re-invent yourself.”

John Waters Keeping Busy In All Media

John Waters lacks the funding to film his most recent script Fruitcake, a Christmas family comedy about meat thieves — those people who rap on your door or accost you at a bar and yell, “You want some meat?” and deliver, say, some blatantly stolen ground beef. He says the market has dried up for mid-range independent movies, even one that could be brought in for $7 million, and he refuses to lower the price tag by recreating Baltimore in another state that, unlike Maryland, boasts substantial moviemaking-incentive programs.

But he has kept busy.

He’s done a story draft for Hairspray 2, and though he’s sworn to secrecy, he will say that it takes place “when the Sixties really hit.”

He’s recently given five lectures in eight days in three countries (Sweden, Denmark and America), presented an art show called Rear Projection in New York and Los Angeles (where it’s still up at the Larry Gogosian Gallery), and completed a book called Role Models for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is, he says, “My memoirs told through the people who inspired me.” The list includes Johnny Mathis, Tennessee Williams, Charles Manson family member Leslie Van Houten (Waters has long championed her parole), and the daughter of Zorro, the lesbian stripper.

Waters may be best known as a filmmaker and movie-TV personality, but he really has become a man of letters and a man of the arts, high, low and middle. He even says that by far the most money he ever made came not from any of his own movies but from the Broadway musical of Hairspray.

Three questions with...Eduardo Sanchez

Maryland's own Eduardo Sanchez (right), co-writer and co-director (with Daniel Myrick) of 1999's The Blair Witch Project, is back with Seventh Moon, which screened at the festival Friday night. The China-set horror thriller stars Amy Smart and Tim Chiou as newlyweds who run afoul of some nasty demons that only get to roam the Earth when there's a full moon during the seventh lunar month. Despite some technical glitches that left ticket buyers watching a promotional DVD (complete with a watermark that ran across the bottom of the frame throughout the entire film), the Charles Theatre audience seemed appropriately chilled when finally let out onto the streets of Baltimore just before midnight. 

What should audiences familiar with Blair Witch expect from Seventh Moon?

It's a little Blair Witch-y, very hand-held and shaky, documentary-looking at times. It's a creepy film, the story's very simple. It's kind-of a chase film, it's got some very creepy moments. I think the creatures look really great, and Amy Smart is unbelievable in it.

Has Blair Witch been a cross that you've had to bear, in some ways?

Absolutely. Every time you make a movie, it's like, 'Hey, these guys did Blair Witch.' Blair Witch was like an explosion, we had no idea what it was. It's very hard to come back and make a normal film that doesn't change (everyone's) life, that doesn't come back and scare the crap out of everyone, like Blair Witch did. It's very difficult to keep the expectations of everybody realistic.

I've done two films now, and both films have been very well received. So now I've just got to keep going and see what happens.

But I wouldn't have a career without Blair Witch, so whatever cross I have to bear, I will gladly bear it.

What's next?

I'm in development of three films right now, and whichever one gets financed first is the one we're going with. There's a huge family film called Freaps, which will actually be the first film I made that I'll be able to show my kid. And then, we just optioned a really good horror script called The Last Inmate, which we're re-writing and already has a lot of interest. And then we are talking about possibly another Blair Witch movie somewhere down the pike.

The Last Inmate will probably be my next film; it's a smaller budget than the family film. But we're really excited about the family film. It's basically Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but with kids.

Photo by Chris Kaltenbach 

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Michael Sragow saw the greatest movie ever made, The Wild Bunch, six times in two weeks in 1969 and has been arguing about it and other movies in print ever since. He has been a movie critic for the Sun since 2001 and a regular contributor to The New Yorker since 1989. He is the author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon, 2008).

Chris Kaltenbach has been writing for The Baltimore Sun since 1982 -- the same year Barry Levinson's Diner was released. For the past 15 years, he has been writing off-and-on about the movies, as both a critic and reporter. He has spent more time watching movies at the last 10 Maryland Film Festivals than probably anyone else.
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