Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Milwaukee Film Festival Day One - Opening Night 9/24/09

This is the fourth year that I am covering the film festival in Milwaukee, but unlike its previous incarnation, The Milwaukee International Film Festival (MIFF) which ran for five years, this is the inaugural year for the Milwaukee Film Festival (MFF). There has been an acrimonious break between the founders of the the MIFF and the current organizers of the MFF, the result being that everyone had to regroup and there was no film festival last year of any sort. Now MFF is back, it's new and though it looks a lot like the MIFF, most of what has been changed has been an improvement.

With over 75 sponsors, the MFF has really picked up where the MIFF left off, and I am excited to experience it. This is truly a festival produced by film lovers for film lovers. The multiple venues are gone, and it seems to be easier, but it is somewhat ironic since my normal perch, other than the opening and closing night films at the Oriental Theater, is the Times Cinema. And... I just moved within two minutes from the Times Cinema less than six months ago. SO... I'm now going to be traveling about 25 minutes north to haunt the Marcus North Shore Cinema, which is the partner location to the Oriental Theater this year. Despite the fact that I will be going through more gas in 3 days than I normally go through in two weeks, and I have to deal with a bunch of kids running the halls thanks to a couple of the other screens at the theater showing "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" I am really looking forward to this experience.

So, with my press pass in hand (and then around my neck when I realized I couldn't hide it and get into the theater without it) I headed to the North Shore theater on Thursday, Sept. 24th for the opening film, Racing Dreams. I got there a bit before the recommended 30 minutes prior to show time, and was surprised (and initially terrified) to see a line of about 300 people stretching into the lobby from the Ultrascreen all the way down the hall. After kind of crab walking my way past the people in line (I still hadn't gained my "I have a pass!" confidence yet, which would arrive as soon as the next night) I kind of milled around a small group of people who were wearing passes near the front of the line, trying to look like I was part of them, but actually just shuffling my feet, when someone from the staff noticed me and ushered me into the theater. Turns out, I was dancing a jig and trying to belong with a bunch of the MFF staff all wearing staff passes. I stopped rolling my eyes at myself as soon as I walked into the theater and saw...nothing. I was the first person in the theater. After settling in to a two-seat aisle and selfishly taking up the second seat with my bag, etc. (a theme that will continue throughout the festival) I was so giddy with power that I spent five minutes firing up the e-mail client on my iPod (the wireless Internet is negligible at best at the North Shore theater) before realizing - I could just do what I do about 35 times a day - TEXT! So I sent my guy Chris a text about how unbelievably cool I am, and like the good boyfriend he is, he completely placated me and acted impressed.

However, settling in to my squishy seat that is much better than I've sat in at a festival before (sorry Times Cinema) I noted that the next time I decide to choose a seat where I'm going to have a railing copping a feel with the left side of my body the entire film, I'll make sure it's a dinnertime film so it can buy me dinner first. First mistake - duly noted.

It was amusing to watch 60% of the people walk in to the Ultrascreen auditorium, thoroughly confused by the whole concept, and look around and then realize, dejectedly, that they have to walk out of the theater and go up the stairs to sit in the primo seats.

The first speaker, unfortunately on a dead microphone, was Jonathan Jackson, the program director. Jackson was with the MIFF before the blowout and was one of the integral players in the reincarnation as the MFF and has always struck me as a nice guy, even though he called me "popcorn" starting my first year covering the event. (I was writing for a website called Smart-Popcorn at the time) When Chris Abele, philanthropist and head of the Argosy Foundation spoke next, he noted how he had to have Jackson as the program director and then dropped a pretty impressive fact: That after 5 years, the MIFF had a larger attendance than the 40 year old Chicago Film Festival. I found that to be a pretty nifty fact.

The film was really well attended, with nearly all but the "crummy" seats filled, so after announcing that the film's director, Marshall Curry, was in attendance along with the cast members, the movie began.

Director: Marshall Curry
USA 2009 - 94 min - English
Previous Screenings:
Tribeca Film Festival 2009 - Award Winner
Indianapolis Film Festival 2009 - Award Winner

Walking into the film Racing Dreams, I had no interest in Extreme Kart Racing (or any racing for that matter). Walking out of Racing Dreams I still have no interest in it, but I had witnessed a great snapshot in the lives of three young racers, whose lives take center stage in this gripping documentary. Annabeth, a rare female presence on the track is 11, Josh is 12 and Brandon is 13. All three of them compete in different levels of the same championship racing circuit and though all have different backgrounds they have the same ambitions for their futures - to race NASCAR.

The stars of the film could easily be marginalized into the labels they fall into: Annabeth is "The Girl", Josh is "The Nice Kid" and Brandon is "The Wild Kid", but even at, (and possibly because of) their tender ages, they exhibit a depth that is unexpected. Annabeth has a supportive and racing-obsessed family whose members work hard so Annabeth can have her shot. Josh is a politician in the making, self-confident and aware; an overachiever whose success transfers to the track as well. Brandon could easily be written off as a hot head, but his supportive grandparents, who are so good to him and treat him like an adult, something he never received from his own parents. By living in this supportive household, he is able to work through his issues, but not without a significant amount of pain.

This stage of their lives is their most awkward, and I'm sure that though they probably were self-conscious about it, it was enjoyable to see them talk about girls in an aw, shucks manner, cracking voices, and the budding "romance" between Annabeth and Brandon. Their brutal honesty in front of the camera was refreshing, scenes like Josh putting his trophy in the window of his trailer and then running outside to see how it looks from the outside through the window are hilarious to watch, but also sweet. Even in the course of a couple of months, the evolution of the kids is clear, for example, Annabeth begins to question her commitment to racing when she finds that her friends are all having parties on the weekends and she feels left out.

Racing Dreams is a stylish documentary, employing techniques such as starting a race in black and white, and only putting the person we're supposed to watch in color, and using bold graphics to show the childrens' progress on the circuit. With the help of editing, Racing Dreams plays out like another wonderful documentary about early adolescents, Spellbound, in that, though this is a straight documentary piece, there is still a lot of tension and emotion involved. I've often said that I could watch a documentary about paint drying, but the amount I found I had invested in this film, when I have absolutely no interest in the general topic was impressive, and it says a lot. I would highly recommend the film Racing Dreams to any audience.

4 stars out of 5

After the film, the director brought the three stars of the film down to the front for a talk back session, and, unlike a lot of screenings I've been to in my life, most people stuck around to hear what they had to say. It was kind of fun to turn around and see their family members, who we had just seen onscreen, sitting a couple of rows behind me. It struck me funny that I watched them all walk in and didn't think anything of it, but I saw them in a different light just an hour and a half later. The kids were as poised in front of the audience as they were onscreen. When asked if it was hard watching themselves, Annabeth answered that now she just pretends that it's someone else on the screen, but at first felt like it was like watching a home movie. Josh and Brandon both acknowledged that they were awkward with their changing voices and Brandon added that he'd check himself out and compare himself physically to his younger self on film, which got a huge laugh from the audience. None of them thought that the movie would take off the way it did, and have enjoyed traveling to various festivals with it (this was their 4th appearance, and the 10th for the film). I really enjoyed the director, Marshall Curry, as well. Documentary filmmakers are obviously in it for the product and the process and not the money, and he seemed to exude dedication to his craft, shooting 400 hours of footage for this film alone and producing a first cut that was four hours long ("And I loved every second of that footage"). Finally, when asked if any of them were going to fall back on film making, Brandon immediately responded, "No, there's too much drama!"

Over all, this opening night experience was fantastic, and clearly a success because it really left the audience wanting more, with at least 30 hands still up for questions after over 25 minutes of discussion. The first day of the Milwaukee Film Festival was a success and it makes me look forward to the coming week and a half.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Milwaukee Film Festival Days 1-5

Following is a list of the films I've seen so far at the inaugural Milwaukee Film Festival. (Reviews and commentary to follow soon)

Thursday, September 24th - Day One

Racing Dreams

Friday, September 25th - Day Two


Herb & Dorothy

We Live in Public

Saturday, September 26th - Day Three

The Beaches of Agnes

Art & Copy

Sunday, September 27th - Day Four

Theater of War


The Best of Shorts

The Yes Men Fix the World

Chef's Special

Monday, September 28th - Day Five

No films

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Milwaukee Film Festival

I am delighted to be covering the 2009 Milwaukee Film Festival again this year - it was definitely missed last year while everyone ironed out their differences and moved on in other directions.

I look forward to blogging about my experiences and posting some reviews. I have a big checklist of things to accomplish before tomorrow's opening night screening, (including foraging for not completely deadly snacks to sustain myself during 10 hour (or longer) film jaunts) and finding out if I'm going to be able to do mobile uploads from the theater, but everything will come together, I'm confident.