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Here are a few highlights. By Tanya Pai
Hal Holbrook in Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey. Photograph by Rodney Taylor.

On Wednesday, the AFI Docs film festival announced its full slate of 84 films, screening June 18 through 22 at AFI Silver Theatre and various locations around DC. The selection includes four world premieres (including the opening-night film Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey), as well as four Catalyst Screenings, featuring post-film panel discussions with filmmakers, experts, and policymakers.

Several of this year’s films have local connections. The world premiere How I Got Over tells the story of 15 formerly homeless women from DC’s N Street Village center for addiction recovery who together create an original play based on their stories to be performed onstage at the Kennedy Center. Bronx Obama follows Louis Ortiz, an unemployed single father from the Bronx who began to get noticed in 2008 for his resemblance to then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama and launched a career as a professional look-alike. Art and Craft looks at the case of Norfolk, Virginia, native and diagnosed schizophrenic Mark Landis, who is one of the most skilled and prolific art forgers in American history—but doesn’t do it for the money. Marshall Curry’s Point and Shoot, which took home the award for Best Documentary Feature from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, tells the story of a young man from a Baltimore suburb whose quest for adventure leads him to join the 2011 revolutionary efforts in Libya. And What’s an Epi is a short film by 18-year-old Shelly Ortiz about the troubled upbringing of her father, Epi Ortiz, that appeared alongside that of 15 other young artists in the first White House Student Film Festival, held this April.

Featured as Catalyst Screenings are The Internet’s Own Boy (in its East Coast premiere), the story of internet wunderkind Aaron Swartz; Ivory Tower, which explores the mounting cost and burden of student loan debt; The Homestretch, a look at three homeless teens’ journeys through the Chicago public school system; and The Newburgh Sting, which delves into FBI anti-terror investigations and post-9/11 mistrust of the government. Other films cover topics ranging from a look at the trial of infamous Boston mobster Whitey Bulger ( Whitey: United States V. James J. Bulger); to Cary Bell’s Butterfly Girl, about a teenage girl dealing with an incurable skin disease; to Dinosaur 13, about the struggle between landowners and the federal government for custody of “Sue,” the largest and most complete T. rex skeleton ever found.

For the complete list of films, showtimes, and events, visit the AFI Docs website, and check back in with us for more coverage.

Posted at 12:00 PM/ET, 05/21/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The coming-of-age story features a boozy Susan Sarandon and plenty of ’80s nostalgia. By Chris Campbell
Marcello Conte and Myles Massey star in Ping Pong Summer. Photograph courtesy of Frank PR.

While Washington-set TV shows focus on the drama-laden machinations of Washington politicians and spies, the nearby tourist haven of Ocean City gets a decidedly lighter treatment from Hollywood in the form of a summer coming-of-age film.

Ocean City native Michael Tully’s Ping Pong Summer was a Sundance Film Festival selection this year, and it tells a familiar story: Boy goes on vacation with family (his mom is played by Lea Thompson). Boy meets girl. Boy gets bullied by girl’s Billy Zabka-esque boyfriend. Boy meets boozed-up town black sheep (Susan Sarandon), who teaches him courage. Boy earns admiration and potential love by defeating said bully in some form of activity (in this case, table tennis). Life lessons abound for all.

Here are a few things we gleaned about Ping Pong Summer from a look at the trailer and a bit of internet digging:

• Requisite time stamps from the decade abound, including but not limited to: arcade halls, cassette-tape boomboxes, failed attempts at breakdancing, short shorts, and unrequited teenage love.

• The characters seem to have sprung from the greatest name generator ever—think monikers such as Rad Miracle, Lyle Ace, Randi Jammer, Stacy Summers, and Teddy Fryy.

• A character dramatically unfolds a table-tennis board as if uncovering a 1970 Dodge Challenger.

• Judah Friedlander and Amy Sedaris are featured in the cast, so prepare yourself for the funny.

• Characters threaten teens with a dead fish and spout comebacks such as, “Inseminate him.”

• The movie is set in 1985—the same year Thompson played another mother, Back to the Future’s Lorraine McFly.

• The soundtrack sounds heavy on power ballads and hip-hop. Don’t be ashamed to do the robot in your theater chair.

Ping Pong Summer will be in theaters June 6. Check out the trailer below.

Posted at 12:39 PM/ET, 04/23/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
It took six months of planning and ten hours of filming to produce a few seconds of footage for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” By Vicky Gan
Photograph via Marvel Entertainment.

Washington has something of a starring role in the latest comic-book blockbuster to hit the big screen, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Most of the action takes place in the nation’s capital, where S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters is located. Metro police officers engage in a shootout, Metrobuses turn up as collateral damage, and the Mall provides the backdrop for the film’s opening scene, in which Natasha Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) pulls up beside the cryogenically preserved super-soldier and quips, “Anyone know where I can find the Smithsonian? I’m looking for a fossil.”

Thanks in part to the challenges of shooting in DC—a maze of security regulations and no tax incentives—most of the exteriors in the movie were actually shot in Cleveland. But the real National Air and Space Museum appears in the film as the site of a Captain America exhibit: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) checks out a gallery containing uniforms from his service during World War II. Though the exhibit was built elsewhere on a soundstage, the establishing shots of the Air and Space Museum were filmed on location last May—less than a minute of screentime that took months of planning. NASM communications director Claire Brown and pop-culture curator Margaret Weitekamp explain how the museum’s big-screen moment came together.

According to Brown, the process of coordinating the film shoot began in January 2013, when a location scout for Captain America sent a proposal to the museum’s communications office. Requests to film at the museum come in as much as six months in advance, she says. Staff members then review the proposal to determine whether the shoot is technically feasible and whether the project is consistent with the museum’s mission. NASM only considers films that are appropriate for family audiences, with MPAA ratings up to PG-13. (The last feature film to shoot in the space was 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Before that, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen filmed at the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.) A curator checks the script for factual inaccuracies or concerns about the museum’s depiction, which can be grounds for denying a filming request. For Captain America, one of the year’s most highly anticipated films, NASM staffers were only permitted to see three pages of the script—the parts that involved the museum—and were required to sign confidentiality agreements. Once the museum signed off on the project, the filmmakers were cleared to shoot on May 16.

The film crew loaded some of their equipment into the space the night before and finished setting up on the afternoon of the 16th, a few hours before the museum closed at 5:30 PM. Parts of the central gallery, Milestones of Flight, closed early, while extras prepared in hair and makeup outside. A collections staffer and a curator were there to walk the film crew through the space, help them set up the shot, and—most important—make sure they didn’t bump into any artifacts.

The filmmakers wanted a shot that swooped across the entire gallery space, establishing that Steve Rogers was visiting the National Air and Space Museum. A camera, mounted on a crane in the museum’s main concourse, would make an arc from the Spirit of St. Louis to the center of the space. Weitekamp was with the camera operator the whole time to keep an eye on where the crane was swinging. “They were very cautious,” she says. “They made a point of saying [that] the camera itself is tremendously expensive, so they were equally invested in not banging it into anything.”

The scene was set during the day, so the crew had only a few hours of sunlight to get the shot. Once it was set up, Weitekamp recalls, “they were able to do the same arc over and over and over as they reset the extras to get different flavors of the shot that they wanted.” After less than three hours of filming, the crew wrapped around 8 PM and packed up for the next shoot of the night, in Dupont Circle. All told, the Smithsonian shoot took ten hours to produce a couple seconds of film.

Weitekamp didn’t get to meet any of the stars of the movie, but she did get a sneak peek at the fake Captain America exhibit. It contained approximately 35 objects, mostly memorabilia of Captain America’s World War II unit, and covered 12,000 square feet—more than double the size of NASM’s largest gallery. “The designer had the luxury of not being constrained by any of our physical space,” says Weitekamp.

Though the museum has curated pop-culture exhibits in the past, Weitekamp says it has no plans to produce any tie-in programs with the Avengers series. “Our focus is on spaceflight, and this is a very earthbound film,” she says.

Posted at 11:35 AM/ET, 04/21/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A series of four films pays tribute to the acting giant. By Sophie Gilbert

See the films of Bill Murray all month at the Angelika. Photograph via Everett Collection/Shutterstock.

Didn’t get enough Bill Murray at the Oscars this year? Never fear: The incomparable actor and all-around exemplar of awesome is the subject of a film series at the Angelika Mosaic this month. Every Friday and Saturday night at 11:45, the Fairfax cinema screens classic Murray movies: Stripes March 7 and 8, Groundhog Day March 14 and 15, Lost in Translation March 21 and 22, and Caddyshack March 28 and 29.

By chance (the series has been planned for months, according to the theater) three out of the four pictures also offer a chance to appreciate the work of the recently departed and greatly missed Harold Ramis, who appears in each of the films except Lost in Translation. Tickets ($7) and more information are available through the Angelika’s website.

Posted at 03:43 PM/ET, 03/05/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The documentary about the Supreme Court case defending marriage equality finds a compelling character in Gibson Dunn lawyer Ted Olson. By Sophie Gilbert
Ted Olson addresses press outside the Supreme Court, with David Boies on his left. Photograph by Diana Walker.

At a movie-star mecca like the Sundance Film Festival, where celebrities strolling up and down Main Street or clogging up traffic in Lincoln Navigators are ten a penny, you wouldn’t necessarily expect Washington lawyer Ted Olson to be fending off requests for selfies. And yet, thanks to a new documentary by Ben Cotner and Ryan White, Olson spent much of his sojourn in Park City, Utah, surrounded by fans eager to take pictures with him and thank him for his work.

Olson is one of the stars of The Case Against 8, which won the Directing Award for US Documentary at Sundance Saturday night and has garnered enormously positive reviews since it premiered January 18. The film focuses on how the formidable (if unlikely) same-sex partnership of Olson, a conservative, and David Boies, a liberal, fought for marriage equality by working to overturn California’s Prop 8, the state amendment banning recognition of same-sex marriages. Washingtonians might remember the pair from their adversarial roles in Bush v. Gore; it was then, Boies tells the camera, that they first became friends, because everyone else was sick to death of discussing that case with them.

Over the course of five years spent filming the lawyers, the four plaintiffs, and the case’s many developments, Cotner and White capture scenes of wrenching pathos, including one in which plaintiff Kris Perry breaks down in a conference room as she tells Olson about having felt all her life like a second-class citizen. While we know the film has a happy ending for all involved, the suspense leading up to the Supreme Court hearing is still remarkably taut. Olson, by contrast, often makes for exceptional comic relief, whether he’s staring confusedly at a catered lunch of tacos or reading e-mails out loud in which strangers declare him “an honorary lesbian.”

Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin channels some of the general sense of skepticism about Olson’s involvement in the fight for marriage equality when he states that Olson “has been on the other side of everything I’d ever done in my life.” And yet Olson’s reasoning for same-sex marriage—that it strengthens families and defends all American citizens’ fundamental right to happiness—becomes the key argument Boies and Olson take to the Supreme Court. “Marriage is a conservative value,” says Olson. “We should want people to come together in marriage.”

This argument might not fly with Rush Limbaugh, who’s shown bemoaning on-air the fact that Olson “used to be one of us,” but it wins him a whole new fan base nonetheless. At one point in the film Griffin tells Olson to get ready because he’s going to be in parades in Dupont Circle and West Hollywood. Judging by the scores of people eager to meet the Gibson Dunn partner at HRC’s party for the film, they’re going to need a bigger float.

The Case Against 8 screens on HBO in June. For more information, visit the movie’s website.

Posted at 04:37 PM/ET, 01/27/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Michael Stevens’s documentary pays tribute to the dogged and fearless “Washington Post” cartoonist. By Jessica Voelker
Image courtesy of AFI.

For anyone born post-internet, it must be tough to imagine: all of Washington living in fear of a guy who doodled for a living and liked to ride a yellow tricycle on weekends. But in the decades that Herbert Block—known to all as Herblock—captured global events in his Washington Post cartoons, Beltway powerfuls knew on any given weekday they could open the paper to find a skewering sketch revealing their hypocrisies to the world.

Through more than 40 interviews with reporters, writers, and pundits, Michael Stevens’s documentary Herblock: The Black & the Whitescreening tonight on HBO at 9—paints the picture of a journalistic era that’s come and gone. Arriving to the Post each day at noon and working into the wee hours, Block contributed five cartoons a week to the paper (in his late years, that number shrunk to four). His early Republican leanings slipped to the left during the Depression, when he became aware of the corrupt forces that bailed out the rich while the circumstances of the poorest deteriorated. He was widely considered a liberal, but Herblock saw his deepest belief—that a free press must keep a close check on power—to be essentially conservative, harking back to the founding fathers.

In the 1940s, Block depicted the atom bomb not as a protective force, as most Americans dutifully accepted it was, but as a nefarious sausage-shaped character that loomed dangerously over the planet. His early mistrust of Richard Nixon proved prescient during the Watergate scandal; Block published a cartoon of dirty footprints leading up to the White House before Woodward and Bernstein confirmed the President’s involvement. His positions were sure-footed and fearless, and in an era in which everyone read the papers and watched the evening news, he was impossible to ignore. By the time he died in 2001, Herblock had earned three Pulitzers and the Presidential Medal of Honor. The latter he received from Bill Clinton—a man he once drew with his pants around his ankles, hearts dotting his drooping boxer shorts.

Actor Alan Mandell stands in for Block in the film. Stevens cuts between scenes of Mandell sketching at what’s mean to be Block’s desk—cluttered with pencils, wind-up toys, and presidential biographies—and interviews with media luminaries such as Tom Brokaw and Gwen Ifill (plus Woodward and Bernstein themselves), and comedians Jon Stewart and Lewis Black. The Daily Show guys, we are meant to understand, are the Herblocks of our era, able to tackle dangerous topics through the smoke screen of sharp-edged comedy. But Stewart lays bare the difference, pointing out that Block worked at a time when informed, reflective, deeply sourced journalism was the norm. His colleagues’ beat work was as essential to Herblock’s work as paper and pencil. Satire can put a fine point on essential truths, but only dogged reporting can expose those truths in the first place.

Herblock screens on HBO Monday at 9 PM. 

Posted at 12:10 PM/ET, 01/27/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Netflix and HBO scored big at this morning’s announcement but “Homeland” failed to pick up a single nomination. By Sophie Gilbert
No luck for Carrie this year. Photo courtesy of Showtime.

Homeland, which won Golden Globe Awards for best actress in a television drama, best actor in a television drama, and best drama less than a year ago, failed to pick up a single nomination at this morning’s announcement. Not even Mandy Patinkin (or his resplendent facial hair) made the cut.

It was bad news for one Washington-set TV drama, but House of Cards and Veep both scored big, with House of Cards gaining nominations for best TV drama, best actor in a drama (Kevin Spacey), and best actress (Robin Wright). Julia-Louis Dreyfus, who’s won two Emmys so far for her performance as Selina Meyer in Veep, got her second Golden Globe nomination for the role.

Posted at 09:01 AM/ET, 12/12/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
November 15 through 18, catch four free screenings of the filmmaker’s greatest hits. By Sophie Gilbert

Catch some of Steven Spielberg’s greatest hits for free in the next few days. Image via Featureflash/Shutterstock.

To pay tribute to its 2013 Records of Achievement honoree, Steven Spielberg, the National Archives is screening four of the blockbuster filmmaker’s biggest hits for free this weekend.

The Steven Spielberg Film Festival will host public screenings of Saving Private Ryan (Friday, November 15), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Saturday, November 16), Amistad (Saturday, November 16), and Lincoln (Monday, November 18) in the National Archives’ William G. McGowan Theater, with tickets distributed on a first-come, first-served basis an hour before showtime.

Spielberg is being honored by the National Archives Foundation for his achievements in fostering “a broader national awareness of the history and identity of the United States through the use of original records,” as well as for his efforts in creating the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, which captures first-person stories and accounts from Holocaust survivors.

Spielberg will be in Washington next Tuesday night to accept the award. For more information, visit the National Archives’ website.

Posted at 01:30 PM/ET, 11/14/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, and Morgan Freeman return for “London Has Fallen.” By Sophie Gilbert
Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart pair up again for London Has Fallen. Image via FilmDistrict.

If 2013 taught us anything about movies, it’s that if you’re going to make the same exact movie as someone else, for pete’s sake make sure yours comes out first. The epic, nauseatingly bloodthirsty battle for supremacy between Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, both of which depicted terrorists destroying Washington in ridiculous and explosive ways, ended the summer with fictional Secret Service agent/President duo Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart defeating their counterparts, Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Was Olympus better? God, no. But it benefited from being released four months earlier, and was cheaper to make (and therefore much more profitable).

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Posted at 12:13 PM/ET, 10/30/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Al fresco screenings are everywhere this year—here’s a comprehensive list of where to find them. By Stanley Kay
Catch free outdoor movies at the Mall and myriad other spots this summer. Photograph by Flickr user brunosan.

Seeing a movie in the summer usually means forgoing a warm evening outside for the refrigerated darkness of a theater. But not this year, thanks to the ever-growing array of outdoor film festivals and movie screenings in the Washington area. Throughout the summer, catch outdoor movies everywhere from your local town square or park to the Mall and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.


Screen on the Green
When: July 22 and 29, and August 5 and 12
Where: The Mall between Seventh and 12th sts., NW
Theme: See titles online, including E.T. and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Follow @SOTGinDC for updates.

NoMa Summer Screen 2013
When: Wednesdays, July 3 through August 21
Where: Loree Grand Field, Second and L sts., NE
Theme: “Outlaw heroes,” including titles such as The Hunger Games and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Follow @NoMaBID for updates.

Family Film Night at Sursum Corda
When: July 9 and 23, and August 6
Where: Sursum Corda at L and First sts., NW
Theme: “Family-friendly movies,” including Despicable Me and Toy Story 3.

Canal Park Thursday Movies
When: Thursdays, July 11 through August 29
Where: Canal Park at M and Second sts., SE
Theme: “DC Versus Marvel Comics,” including flicks such as The Dark Knight and The Avengers. Follow @CanalParkDC for updates.

The DC Drive-In
When: July 12, 19, and 26, and August 2
Where: Union Market at 1309 5th St., NE
Theme: “Movies about Washington,” including Dr. Strangelove and The American President. A car isn’t required. Follow @UnionMarketDC for updates.

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Posted at 02:45 PM/ET, 07/02/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()