Sunday, October 3, 2010

MFF Film Review - The Art of the Steal


Director: Don Argott

The Art of the Steal documents the drama behind the struggle for control of the Barnes Foundation, a foundation and institution established in the 1920's by Dr. Albert Barnes just outside of Philadelphia. The reason this has become a hot-button issue is because Barnes, who made his fortune in pharmaceutical sales, assembled the world's greatest private collection of Post-Impressionistic art valued at more than 25 billion dollars. Barnes, a New Deal-era liberal democrat, was protective of his foundation and made some powerful enemies, including philanthropist and Philadelphia newspaper mogul Walter Annenberg, and despite a seemingly iron-clad trust that strictly forbade the art to be sold or moved to another location, soon after his death in 1951, the battle for his foundation began.

The Art of the Steal is an amazing and breathtaking, and succeeds in performing the rare feat of being a suspenseful documentary. Director Don Argott does an incredible job telling the history of the foundation and interviews many of the people who worked closely with Barnes or were students at his foundation. The breadth and scope of the art collection is unfathomable, and the more that is revealed about Barnes' intentions, the more heartbreaking the mismanagement of the foundation is, and the passion of the supporters of the foundation is infectious.

I grew up among art and have a passion for art history so The Art of the Steal was not a hard sell for me, but it is accessible and intriguing for those who may only have a peripheral interest as well. The Art of the Steal also proves that it is important to look beyond the headlines to see the real motivations behind a story; Argott shows several newspaper headlines announcing stories like, "Pew Foundation to infuse 100 million in Barnes Foundation" which on the surface looks great, but knowing the story behind it is what is important and changes the tone completely. The amount of politics, back room deals and even bribery is astounding, especially in light of the fact that what we are discussing is a beautiful collection of art that was always supposed to be private and for education. The beginning of the film shows a press conference with the mayor of Philadelphia announcing the acquisition of the Barnes Foundation's art, which takes on a completely tone by the end of the film. In my mind, there is no doubt this is a sign of a compelling and thought-provoking film.

The Art of the Steal is truly one of the best documentaries I have ever seen and feel that it is important to see for a number of reasons, regardless of the viewer's degree of interest in art history and politics. After seeing this film, opinions may change about how some non-profit agencies work and you will be educated.

My Scale: 4 1/2

MFF Film Review - Lemmy


Directors: Greg Olliver, Wes Orshoski

Lemmy is a documentary about hard rock icon and genuine character Lemmy Kilmister, lead singer and bassist for Motorhead. Directors Olliver and Orshoski follow Kilmister around in his day-to-day life in Los Angeles, where he is an institution, and also on tour with Motorhead and the Head Cats.

I criticized the film I saw I before this, Who is Harry Nilsson? because I thought that it wasn't full-bodied enough for non-fans of the subject. I'm not a Lemmy Kilmister fan, nor did I really know a lot about him, yet I was enthralled with this documentary from start to finish. Kilmister is one hell of an original and lives his life balls to the wall. What makes him refreshing is that he is also completely down to earth and, despite his hordes of fans, still seems kind of surprised at his fame and success.

Lemmy is Olliver and Orshoski's feature debut which I find jaw-dropping, based on the quality of this film. Not only did they gather an amazing amount of interviews from nearly every hard rock singer I can think of, from Scott Ian to Joan Jett, to Ozzy Osbourne, but what they were able to film and the quality with which they filmed it was outstanding. The audience gets to see recording sessions between Kilmister and Dave Grohl, and a practice session where Kilmister sat in with Metallica. There are also full-scale concert footage at performances from around the world that are so high quality that it's really hard to believe this is their first film.

Though I thought the film was a bit long, perhaps by about 20 minutes (though the concert footage was well done, after a while it hit a saturation point, particularly since I actually am not crazy about this kind of music) I thoroughly enjoyed Lemmy and feel that I saw a first-rate documentary about a true character and musical icon.

MFF Ballot Vote: 4
My Scale: 4

MFF Film Review - Who is Harry Nilsson?


Director: John Scheinfeld

Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? is a film by director John Scheinfeld that examines the life and influence of singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson, who is one of famous unknown singers of the second half of the 20th century. Though he began his professional life as a banker, he went on to write and perform some of the best known songs of the 60's and 70's, including "Everybody's Talkin'" and "Without You". His influence was so great that he was The Beatles' favorite singer, and eventually became close friends with Ringo Starr and John Lennon.

Scheinfeld presents Nilsson's story through photographs and television clips, and there is a running narration by Nilsson himself, who died in the 1990's. A number of musicians, colleagues and what seems to be a million attorneys are also interviewed, filling in the gaps of the story of an elusive life, though he was in the public eye for a couple of decades. I spent a lot of the film going, "Oh, he did that song"; he was really talented and it's easy to see why he was so influential.

Though I admittedly really had no interest in the subject matter, I'm a sucker for a good documentary, so I had an open mind going into this film. Scheinfeld did a decent job using the materials he had, and there were certainly a plethora of people who wanted to step up and talk about him, but there was just too much. There were also pacing problems, and it seemed like I was sitting there for well over two and a half hours, so I was pretty surprised when I discovered that the film was just under two hours. Though I can certainly enjoy and become enthralled with a film when I don't know about or have an interest in the subject matter, I think that I would have had a little more patience with Who Is Harry Nilsson? if I cared, even just a little. It was just a bit too niche for full mainstream appeal, I think.

MFF Ballot Vote: 2
My Scale: 2

The 2nd Annual Milwaukee Film Festival Days 10 & 11

The MFF ended early for me because of time constraints and an aching back, but I'm still really thrilled with the films I did see, more than 20 in all. As always, I plan to keep a list of the films I wasn't able to see that looked interesting and look them up on Netflix when they are released, and will review them at a later date.

Once again, I had a fabulous time, and even though the experience was pretty tiring (and I get to go back to work after 11 days away tomorrow!) I'm sure I will have completely forgotten the work involved and will look forward to covering next year's festival again. Overall, I had some fantastic experiences and saw some great movies. The MFF crew and the volunteers all did a great job and should be thrilled with the results.

Until next year...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The 2nd Annual Milwaukee Film Festival Day 9

A new day and a new venue - today is the first day I'm going to the Ridge in New Berlin to see a couple of movies, and I wasn't sure what to expect. I'm not sure why I have a dislike for this theater, but I try to avoid it in favor of seeing films at other theaters if possible. When I got there I discovered that the film festival was relegated to the back theaters which are kind of small. Perhaps they were looking at crowd control, and that putting the two screens at the back of the theater would solve that, but then why is the North Shore so much more successful and their MFF theaters are in the front?

Turns out that for all of my grousing about the venue changes since the reincarnation of the MFF, going to the Ridge made me yearn for the comfort of the North Shore, even with the crowds and travel time investment. While the number of people there was really great for the festival and was very encouraging, the lines were interminable and I could tell people were starting to get annoyed. With several older people in line who looked like they needed a place to sit, there was one small bench in the entire wing, and for a time it was taken up by MFF volunteers. Seating didn't occur until about 10 minutes before the start of the show, and once in there, the auditorium was kind of small. This was fine for the first film I saw, Who is Harry Nilsson? because it was at 4:30 and there weren't more than 2/3 of the theater's capacity there, but the subsequent film I saw, Lemmy, had a really good crowd. Even larger was when we got out of Lemmy and saw the line for the Date Night shorts that almost reached from one end of the hallway to the doors on the other end. It was pretty nuts, and while I was on the fence about staying for a third movie that night, knowing the size of the crowd and the discomfort of the seats after a while I decided to head out early. I have three films to see there Sunday so that should be kind of interesting, particularly Metropolis, since it's 2 1/2 hours long. I'm finding myself actually dreading it. I wish I were spending my last day at the North Shore instead, but I promised my boyfriend, Chris and one of my close friends, Jay, I'd see it with them.

Speaking of Jay, it was because of him that I went to see Lemmy tonight, and it was so much fun experiencing a MFF film with a friend. Though surrounded by an audience, so much of the MFF feels solitary to me since I see all of the films by myself, then come home and type about it on my laptop. When I get home every night, Chris asks me how the movies are and I can pretty much only give him a one word answer because I just don't feel like talking about it, frankly. Eventually, after mellowing out at home a bit, I sometimes disclose a little more information, but not much. So it was fun to sit with Jay in the theater and hang out, especially since he and I egg each other on with laughter, which there was plenty of during Lemmy.

Two more days to go. I think I'm going to be watching the other Netflix movies tomorrow in lieu of going to the theater, and I'm done obsessing over the number of films I see this year. To evoke one of my least favorite sayings of all time: "It is what it is."

MFF Film Review - Winnebago Man


Director: Ben Steinbauer

Jack Rebney has been called "The Angriest RV Salesman in the World" and "Winnebago Man" ever since outtakes of a Winnebago industrial sales movie he filmed in 1989 went viral. It started as blurry VHS tapes that people copied and passed around to others, until the advent of You Tube turned them viral, seen by millions of people worldwide. What makes the videos so infectious is that Rebney, when he messes up, lets out foul-mouthed diatribes and throws his body around so much that one can't help but laugh at this middle aged guy who is just plain pissed off. Winnebago Man seeks to track this Internet legend down and get the story behind the more than 20 year old footage and find out if Rebney is, indeed, the angriest man in the world.

Winnebago Man is an interesting documentary that provides a lot of laughs, but some of them are a little uncomfortable. Director Ben Steinbauer, who conceived of this project as a long-time fan of Rebney's videos, perhaps gets a little more than he bargains for in the more than two years he spent making the film. The beginning of the film is hilarious, depicting the history of the spread of the videos, showing (hilarious to the point of tears) response videos and interviews with Rebney fans who are in the entertainment industry. Steinbauer conducts an exhaustive and admirably ambitious search to find Rebney, who had seemingly dropped off the face of the earth, but in actuality, was actually living on top of a mountain. At first, Rebney's behavior and plain talk are really funny, but after a while, the more that becomes apparent about his life, the more dark the tone seems to become. Steinbauer and Rebney have two completely different agendas: Steinbauer seems conflicted with whether he wants to exploit Rebney or honor him (or a little of both) and Rebney feels like he's doing Steinbauer a favor and therefore only wants to talk about his political views and how much he hates Dick Cheney and big business.

The film starts out strong, perhaps because it is entertaining and fast paced, but it kind of loses its way in the middle, where it was difficult to see what direction it was going to take, and as a result, seemed to stall for a while. The end of the film, which takes place at the Found Footage Film Festival in San Francisco, brings the film back on track for the most part, and Steinbauer seems to achieve his thesis, (though it would have been nice to have been informed of what it was earlier) that people may laugh at him, but it's not out of malevolence, it's because they are fans, and I think that his ultimate accomplishment was being able to show this to Rebney himself.

Winnebago Man is a far from perfect film, but it is more thought-provoking than I thought it was going to be. During the film, I found myself reflecting on why I was laughing at this foul-mouthed 76 year old and if it was okay or just kind of sad and immature. That is for the viewer to decide, but if nothing else, Winnebago Man is a fairly entertaining reflection and investigation on modern pop culture history.

MFF Ballot Vote: 3
My Scale: 3

MFF Film Review - Feed the Fish


Director: Michael Matzdorff
Screenwriter: Michael Matzdorff
Starring: Ross Partridge, Tony Shalhoub

Joe Peterson (Ross Partridge), a "tough love" children's' book author who is suffering from writer's block leaves his Venice, California home to vacation in Sturgeon Bay, WI with his girlfriend's brother JP. (Michael Chernus) JP's agenda is to train for and participate in the annual Christmas day Polar Bear Plunge, and Joe is hoping to gain creative inspiration. When an accident lands JP in the hospital, Joe is forced to fend for himself and begins to befriend some of the locals, including the sheriff (Tony Shalhoub) and his daughter Sif (Katie Aselton) who quickly becomes a love interest.

Feed the Fish is a charming little film that celebrates the beauty of northern Wisconsin while maintaining a sense of humor about how freakin' cold it can get in December. Director/writer Michael Matzdorff presents funny characters who are heavy on the charm and light on small town "crazy local" stereotypes. Patridge is appealing, and conveys "fish out of water" without stooping to a gawking figure who just looks amazed at everything. Shalhoub is awesome as a cranky sheriff who is overprotective of his daughter, and seems to have fun with the role. The plot is simple, sometimes almost too simple, with unanswered questions at the end that, while normally appealing in other kinds of films, just seemed like an oversight in this one. I think that there is a desire to see romantic comedies wrapped up in a little package, and this one didn't quite get the ribbon right.

Feed the Fish isn't rocket science, and I didn't walk out of it with a revelatory feeling as if I had seen an amazing and important film, but overall, it was well done and enjoyable. Sometimes that's all we really need in a film.

MFF Ballot Vote: 3
My Scale: 3

Friday, October 1, 2010

The 2nd Annual Milwaukee Film Festival Day 8

I do feel pretty recharged, so I think that despite the fact that I feel I missed out on some movies the last two days, it was a good decision to catch up on my writing, etc. Past years, it sometimes took weeks after the festival to get caught up on everything, so I feel like I'm in a really good place. After counting the remaining movies I have scheduled to attend, I'm going to be less than 30 (28 to be exact) but I'm not going to beat myself up about that since that's still the most films I've ever seen at a film festival.

In an effort to ensure that I get a seat at Feed the Fish, I decided to skip the early show and come to the theater early, which turned out to be a great idea since it is packed. I was in the ladies' room before I saw the line and overheard two teenage girls saying, "What the hell is Feed the Fish?!" I knew it was going to be a sold out show, but didn't know it was going to be insanity.

I'm normally one of a few pass holders in most screenings, but this time I was in line with about 40 other pass holders. Craziness. I still got the seat I was gunning for though, since it wasn't in the stadium seating part. Of course, I not only had to share the seat next to me, but they apparently had to bring some chairs in as well.

Yikes, I was just inadvertently in a picture that three old ladies in front of me had taken. (Who does that?!) Though it wasn't my choice to be in the picture, my Dad, The Mad Photo Bomber would be proud.

Thank god for roomy seats, because I am officially a sardine at this point. Unfortunately, the guy next to me is maniacally rocking back and forth so it's shaking my seat as well, and I don't think the list of symptoms on the bottle of Alleve I just dug out of my messenger bag is "motion sickness". I'd tell the guy to knock it off but I guess that's what rocking seats are for - working out your aggression and making the person next to you seasick.

Waiting for the film to start, I have to wonder what the draw is for this film, since it was sold out before the festival even began. Maybe because of the Wisconsin connection? I also spotted Ruth Schudson, Bernice from the film Baraboo, in the audience.

Woohoo! Tony Shalhoub is here. I'll admit to getting a little giddy about it, and even more giddy after the film when our paths crossed and I introduced myself and shook his hand. Tremendous. Really nice guy - so "normal". The talkback with he and the film's director, Michael Matzdorff was great - Shalhoub kept taking more and more questions. Too bad the Marcus theater couldn't figure out how to get the house lights up because it was just unprofessional and lame to look at shadowy figures in front of us instead of their faces. I couldn't even take a picture with the flash going.

The late show of the evening was Winnebago Man and I was immediately put on notice by the entry of two douchebags who were so drunk that I could smell the alcohol all the way across the theater the instant they stumbled in. Of course, the warbled, "I'm too drunk to watch this HAHAHAHA!" would have been an additional clue. The theater filled up pretty fast, and the audience was a mixture of some people who were juvenile enough to find yelling, "Winnebago!!" 45 times really funny, and regular schmucks like me who just thought it was an interesting subject. The movie was short, but it was late, so when they announced there was a short beforehand I almost fell out of my seat. Oh well, I still got out of there just before midnight.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

MFF Film Review - Ajami


(Hebrew & Arabic with English subtitles)

Directors: Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani
Screenwriters: Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani
Starring: Shahir Kabaha, Fouad Habash

Ajami is a film in five chapters set in the West Bank on both the Israel and Palestinian sides. (The title refers to the neighborhood a couple of the stories are set in.) The five stories are all interwoven, with shared characters that, with each progressive chapter, become more fleshed out and motivations become apparent. The stories include two brothers who strive for survival after their uncle injures a member of a powerful clan, an Israeli policeman looking for his missing brother who is a soldier in the Israeli army, and a love story between a man of Muslim faith and a Christian woman, which is forbidden (or at the very least, frowned upon) in the West Bank.

Ajami is non-linear, with characters returning when you least expect them to, and the stories and actors weave seamlessly among one another. No real actors were used, only local residents, which is quite shocking based on the depth and strength of all of the performances. Every story, though approximately 20 minutes long each, were rich and full-bodied due to the excellent screenplay by writer/directors Copti & Shani. Though the subject matter was very heavy and involved some politics and nuances that may have gone past me a bit, Ajami was riveting from start to finish, a real accomplishment for a film so dense and complicated.

The winner of several Israel Academy Awards, and nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Ajami is like the 2004 film Crash, only good. It gets its point(s) across without heavy-handedness and literally had me holding my breath at the end, so intense and impactful the entire experience was. Ajami is not for anyone looking for levity in a film, but the film is so good, it really should be experienced.

My Scale: 4

MFF Film Review - Soundtrack for a Revolution


Directors: Dan Sturman, William Guttentag

Soundtrack for a Revolution examines the impact of protest music on the Civil Rights Movement. Interviews with student movement leaders and activists including Julian Bond and Coretta Scott King provide personal accounts of the non-violent protests and the evolution of the rise of Martin Luther King as the leader of the movement. News stories, photographs and archival footage show evidence of the stories being told. Also featured are current artists, including Joss Stone, John Legend and The Roots, who perform some of the songs sung by the hundreds of protesters more than forty years ago.

Like another film I recently screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival, Freedom Riders, Soundtrack for a Revolution is a powerful documentary about a turbulent and important piece of 20th century history; in fact, the broad series of events covered include the subject of the freedom rides. If anything, the photographs documenting those events were more effective than some of those used in the former film, which is an impressive achievement.

The modern-day performances were handled well; they could have brought the documentary to a screaming halt each time. Rather, it was a nice marriage of contemporary soulful singers and the past, with very little time spent showing the singer(s), instead just listening to the song with accompanying historical footage.

One of the things that hit me hardest about Soundtrack for a Revolution is that it both educates and shows the struggle people made to make the United States a better place. However, it also is self-aware enough to show that some of the principle figures learned that through music, their forefathers could provide tools for them to survive. One of the interviewees pointed out that the majority of the protest songs were derived from old negro slave spirituals and his generation had completely discounted them until they were embroiled in the Civil Rights Movement. It was only then that they truly grasped the strength the words and music provided. I love that the film, as a documentary, strives to serve as a historical educational tool, yet also shows that its subjects turned to history as well.

Soundtrack for a Revolution is a first-rate documentary that documents one of the most important eras in American history, and shows ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Rather than simply documenting the horrifying struggle, Soundtrack for a Revolution is incredibly inspirational and ultimately, sublimely triumphant.

My Scale: 4

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The 2nd Annual Milwaukee Film Festival Days 6&7

Nothing really to see here! I decided that it would be best to spend a day or two getting caught up with all of my writing and reviews, plus get a few things done around the house as well, so I took Tues. & Wed. off to write, write some more and recharge. I also found a couple of the films on Netflix instant so I am lucky enough to watch about 3 of them here and experience other films in the theater instead. All told, I think I'll still hit my goal of seeing 30 films during the festival.

MFF Film Review - Breathless (1960)

2010 Restoration

(French with English subtitles)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard (Story by Francois Truffaut)
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg

(Note: this is not so much a review as just a few thoughts about the film, since there have been about 3 million reviews written about this film in the past 50 years)

Michel (Belmondo) is a car thief who, while joyriding in his latest acquisition, shoots and kills a policeman. When he returns to Paris, he tries to secure money owed to him, avoid the law and convince one of his former lovers, Patricia (Seberg) an American journalist and student, to join him in Italy so he can hide out.

Breathless is absolutely exquisite, and a gleaming example of the French New Wave film movement, by its leading director, Jean-Luc Godard. In crisp black and white, beautifully photographed with quick, jarring edits, Breathless is contradictory with its pacing. Some scenes are fast-paced and set on the busy streets of Paris, with an incredible jazz soundtrack screaming over the action, while others are quiet and intimate between Michel and Patricia in her room. It's really amazing to realize that Breathless is 50 years old because it seems absolutely timeless; everything about the film is hipster-cool and barely dated.

The French New Wave is not a movement for everyone, but those, like me, who are devoted to it as an art form should not miss this beautiful restoration; it is absolutely breathtaking and it makes me want to crack open my vintage French New Wave film books again.

MFF Ballot Vote: 5
My Scale: 5

MFF Film Review - Only When I Dance


(English/Portuguese with English subtitles)

Director: Beadie Finzie

Only When I Dance is a documentary focusing on two Brazilian teens; one boy, Irlan, and one girl, Isabella who are transcending the "white, wealthy" stereotype of ballet students and vying for positions with international dance companies in order to escape the favelas they live in. Irlan is a breathtaking dancer and has opportunities lined up for him, whereas Isabella struggles with having her talent overshadowed by racism (she's black) and body issues; despite her talent and strong body, everyone is telling her she needs to lose weight (whereas in real life, she would be perceived as thin.) What Irlan and Isabella have in common, however, are their poor financial backgrounds and the unwavering support of their parents, who sacrifice everything so their children can dance.

The film is a good documentary that really gives the audience a taste of where the subjects come from and the environmental challenges they are forced to overcome. Overcrowded schools filled with rowdy kids that spill into streets where many male youth end up on the wrong side of the law or dead is difficult for those who are disciplined and focused enough to thrive in their chosen field. By contrast, the dance school acts as a sanctuary, where the students can concentrate on their craft and be mentored by their instructors.

Only When I Dance succeeds in not being afraid to show every side to the principle subjects; the headmistress mentions the fact that she's "nouveau riche" more than once and alludes to money throughout the film, Irlan, with all of his sweetness, seems to have a bit of an ego, and Isabella, suffering a loss, is shown feeling really sorry for herself, much to the irritation of her fellow dancers. This makes the film and its subjects multidimensional and interesting, and I think is an improvement over sentimentality, which is infectious, but should not be the overwhelming conceit of a documentary film. Only When I Dance is uplifting, nonetheless and very enjoyable.

MFF Ballot Vote: 4
My Scale: 3 1/2

MFF Film Review - Monica & David


Director: Alexandra Codina

Side note - if anyone is interested in seeing this film, it will be aired on HBO on October 14, 2010

Monica & David is a documentary about a great love story. What makes it different is that Monica and David both have Down syndrome and while they are unable to live on their own as a couple, decide to marry. An examination of the lives of two very special people who are very much in love, Monica & David is a film that shows love can transcend most barriers.

Director Alexandra Codina, Monica's first cousin, noted in a talk back following the screening I attended that she made the film to show those who are against marriage among the intellectual disabled that these relationships, with the right support, can not only work, but flourish. The key factor, however, is support, and though there are many challenges, the environment that Monica and David live in is nearly ideal. Monica's mother, foreseeing the challenges her daughter would face, both emotionally and financially, created a solid and protective world for Monica that affords her comfort and security. She and David are able to live with Monica's parents, and even have their own wing at their apartment at the beach. The family does face challenges and concern while caring for Monica and David and I don't want to downplay the difficulties they face, but it's absolutely wonderful that the two are able to flourish in their world, but it appears to be more ideal than the norm.

Having said that, I really enjoyed Monica & David. The film also shines a light on the issue of dignity and the desire the disabled have to be productive members of society and the need for jobs for this demographic. Monica & David is a delightful film, and it's clear why it has been a festival circuit hit, including at its Tribeca premiere where it had 9 sold out screenings. Monica & David is sweet and charming, which are perfect adjectives to describe the film's couple. The love they have for another is very beautiful and I'm sure a lot of preconceptions about people with Down syndrome will be shattered once people see it.

MFF Ballot Vote: 4
My Scale: 3

The 2nd Annual Milwaukee Film Festival Day 5

Three promising films on tap today, including the film that I've been waiting the most to see since the films were announced, Breathless. Fatigue is really setting in, and I think I'm going to need to take some time off soon in order to catch up with writing and just generally recharge. I think it probably sounds funny to someone that attending a film festival is exhausting work; you're sitting in a theater after all, but it genuinely is.

The first film of the day is Monica & David, which is a documentary about a couple with Down's Syndrome who get married. The film's subjects are here, as is the director, and I actually found this out because I saw them walking to the theater in the parking lot. They looked really sweet, chatting and holding hands. The talk back following the film was very interesting - I know that I miss out on a lot of director/actor talk backs by staying at the North Shore theater because I think there are a bunch of them that attend screenings at the Oriental, but I have appreciated the ones I've been able to see and hope that the festival continues to offer those. I still regret not being able to see Susan Sarandon, but it was announced too late for me to be able to change my film schedule without blowing out the whole day, so I had to weigh what was most important to me - seeing films or listening to Sarandon and screening one of my least favorite of her films.

Then there's a documentary about two ballet dancers in Brazil that I'm only seeing because it's between two films I scheduled, but if history has told me anything, I'll probably end up loving it because I started out lukewarm on it. It seems that I've encountered at least a dozen or two of films in the six years I've covered the festival where some of the best movies came out of nowhere and were originally time fillers.

Finally, there's Breathless, that I'm really glad isn't going to be in the Ultrascreen since the aspect ratio would be all weird on that big screen. I'm a huge French New Wave fan, and Breathless has been on my "must watch" list forever, so when I saw that the festival was going to offer the newly restored version it quickly shot up to being the #1 film I wanted to see. There was a great crowd for it, which was really encouraging since I immediately felt a common bond with everyone there, because they not only came out to a 9pm show on a school night for a classic movie, but a classic French movie to boot, which is all good in my opinion.

By the end of the night I was Fidgety McSquirmsalot and while I was loving the movie, was wanting to get the hell out of there, so I can tell it's definitely time for a break and regroup day.

MFF Film Review - The Revenant


Director: Kerry Prior
Screenwriter: Kerry Prior
Starring: David Anders, Chris Wylde

A revenant is a living dead creature, not quite a zombie, and not quite a vampire, but it needs blood to survive or its body will continue to rapidly decompose. Though the rules are not completely clear, the way to kill one is to drive a stake through its chest and cut off its head. In the film The Revenant, David Anders plays Bart, a soldier killed in Iraq who wakes up in a grave and has no idea what's happened to him. It's only after he visits his best friend Joey (Chris Wylde) that he realizes he's actually dead, despite the fact that he's walking around and interacting with people (though his smell isn't so great). After the initial shock over the situation, Bart and Joey figure out how to keep Bart going, which involves draining humans of their blood, so they set off on a killing spree, but kill two birds with one stone, killing druggies, thieves and murderers, attracting the attention of the police and media who dub them, "The Vigilante Gunslingers."

The Revenant is a buddy movie of a completely different order, and there are things to like about it and things that left me cold. (Pun intended) Director Kerry Prior, who also attended the screening I went to makes a decent directorial debut. The film's attributes are not its superior acting, (though the acting was decent) but its premise of zombie/vampire guy as rogue superhero. I think that is a fun premise and it made for a lot of entertaining and funny scenes, but the most honest word I can think of to describe most of the film is "juvenile", which isn't always a bad thing but can get tiresome after a while.

The Revenant is certainly a genre film, and will be enjoyed by lovers of horror-comedy fare. While not as clever as another horror-comedy film, Shaun of the Dead, The Revenant is a solid contribution. There are major gross-out moments and it's certainly not for the squeamish, particularly those who have disgusting bodily fluid or dismemberment issues.

I love great monster movies, particularly zombie films, but I wouldn't call myself a big fan of the horror genre as a whole. I think The Revenant lacks enough general appeal for a mainstream audience, but that it will be wildly successful with horror-comedy fans and may even become a cult classic.

MFF Ballot Vote: 3
My Scale: 2 1/2

MFF Film Review - My Dog Tulip


Directors: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger
Screenwriters: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger, based on the novel by J.R. Ackerley
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave, Isabella Rossellini

"Unable to love each other, the English turn to dogs." Thus begins the animated film My Dog Tulip, based on the novel of the same name by J.R. Ackerley. The film covers the beginning of Ackerley's relationship with Tulip, an 18 month old female German shepherd he rescues. Ackerley, voiced by Christopher Plummer, is an older man with few friends who is admittedly lonely, and his relationship with Tulip quickly becomes solid, loving and full of awe at her ability to express her love and loyalty. Told with eloquence, irreverence, humor and profound sentimentality, My Dog Tulip can definitely be categorized as a love story.

My Dog Tulip is brilliant in all aspects. The animation is simple and minimalistic, but fully fleshed out at the same time and fully cognizant of the mood of the current scene. It is used to great humorous effect, switching from full color to ridiculous stick-figure drawing on notebook paper depending on the story being told. Clearly, directors Paul and Sandra Fierlinger have a great amount of respect for the source material because the animation is a perfect complement for Ackerley's beautiful words. I was often reminded of one of my favorite authors, James Thurber, who also wrote about his own sometimes difficult family and pets with the same amount of tenderness and love. Ackerley takes it up a notch, however, and his intelligent and eloquent, yet conversational and approachable writing style was as enjoyable as the accompanying animation. And who better to give voice to Ackerley's words than Christopher Plummer, who gives an outstanding narrative performance, backed by Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini as minor characters. His lilting, elegant voice was perfect casting.

My Dog Tulip is an animated film for adults - unless parents want to explain the concept of dogs going into heat and the subsequent actions - but more than just beyond the sex lives of dogs, the film transcends the normal expectations of an animated film and explores themes that would probably go over most childrens' heads. My Dog Tulip is a wonderful film with the challenge of asking adults to look beyond the traditional thought that animation is for children. I sat in a theater full of adults who were clearly enamored with the film, which proves the challenge was met and that the film met or exceeded all expectations, including my own.

MFF Ballot Vote: 4
My Scale: 4

MFF Film Review - Baraboo


Director: Mary Sweeney
Screenwriter: Mary Sweeney
Starring: Brenda DeVita, Ruth Schudson

Baraboo is a slice of small town life, set in the Wisconsin town of Baraboo, best known as the home of the Circus Museum. The residents we meet are Jane (DeVita), who runs a small local motel. Living there with her are her teenage son Chris, and permanent residents include Bob, a fisherman and veteran who suffers from Gulf War Syndrome, Bernice (Schudson), an elderly woman who moves in as a result of losing her farm and most of her possessions, and Ludell and her mentally disabled son Ben, who serve as caretakers of the property. When Bernice moves in, she brings the group together and they slowly become a kind of family unit, socializing with and look after one another.

Baraboo is an inconsistent film that lacks some meat. While the story is mostly pleasant, there isn't a lot there, which may be writer/director Sweeney's intent. Unfortunately, that doesn't make for compelling cinema and less doesn't always make more. Conflicts such as the death of a soldier and even the constant strife between Jane and her son seem hackneyed and forced after a while.

Sweeney has worked with David Lynch in the past, and his influence is obvious in her film making. Similarities to his film The Straight Story are obvious, but I kept seeing strong comparisons to Blue Velvet, from minor elements such as the bright primary colors in the film to its dissolve transitions featuring scenes of nature. These go really overboard for me, however, and after a while I started to mentally say, "Wait for it..." at the beginning of a scene because I knew that 9 out of 10 times it was going to involve a 10 second shot of some tree branches.

Another thing one must look past are the amateur performances of the actors. It took a while for me to get over the wooden acting by what I suspected were probably local actors (they are) but by the end of the film I had either gotten used to it or they had actually gotten better, (since scenes aren't shot in order that's probably not it, but I'll give the benefit of the doubt) or maybe I simply had lightened up a bit.

To her credit, Sweeney, a Madison native, shot a beautiful film with cinematography showing lush farms, lots (and lots) of foliage and grass lined rural roads. Rather than poke fun at small town America, she celebrates it with feisty, hard working salt of the earth characters. As if to showcase the goodness of her characters more, the obvious "out of towners" who pass through the town to stop and get gas at the store Jane works at are all horrible - morons, abusers or just plain mean, and not given the chance for redemption that she affords her Baraboo residents.

I didn't dislike Baraboo, but I wasn't really drawn into it either. While Sweeney makes the town a character on its own through her myriad scenery shots, and even for a slice-of-life film, I needed a little more story and character development to really enjoy the film. Baraboo can be appreciated for its heart and its beauty, but its lack of substance is its ultimate detriment.

MFF Ballot Vote: 3
My Scale: 2 1/2

The 2nd Annual Milwaukee Festival Day 4

A full day ahead - I have scheduled at least three, maybe four movies for today. Unfortunately the last movie scheduled is one that I really want to see, so there's no going home early to write and I'm not going to get out of here until after 11:30 pm.

My first movie today is Baraboo, and apparently the demographic for the film is old because I would say about 90% of the audience is over the age of 65. I'm not sure what's up with that, considering the driving force behind seeing the film, for me at least, is the fact that the director worked with David Lynch, one of my cinematic gods. Anyway, I'm not the fastest person in the world, but when I'm here, I have an agenda, so my triangular work space of Theater 1 - Potty - Theater 2 is sacrosanct and today it's been obliterated by swerving around kids from the children's film festival and old people seeing Baraboo. Oh well.

Oh, scrap that - I'm surrounded by old people and an infant who is sitting with his mom in front of me. I'm not sure what's more annoying, the threatening little cries coming from the kid or the old ladies behind me clucking about it.

Apparently one of the people in the movie was in the audience (she's old too) who joined Baraboo's director, Mary Sweeney for a talk back after the movie. It was a really good sized crowd - about 250 people and 35 walkers. I think that Wisconsinites really have pride in their home-grown movies. (Note that Feed the Fish, another Wisconsin film, was apparently sold out within the first day of the festival.) On a personal note, I was delighted to finally see Anna Krutzik, who introduced the film, as I have worked with her via e-mail on getting my press credentials the last two years and she has been an absolute delight to work with.

Next was My Dog Tulip, an animated film for adults that caught my eye in the program book immediately and was a must-see in my schedule. Apparently it's one of Program Manager T.J. Fackelman's favorite films of the festival, as he introduced it as such. Another great crowd of about 200 - other than one or two sparsely attended films, there have been some really great audiences at the screenings I've been to, regardless of day, time or subject matter. And truthfully, there are probably better numbers at the ones at the screenings I haven't been to since I always seem to miss the films that win the audience awards every year. I'm not sure if that's a particular talent of mine or if I just choose the "different" movies, (neither explanation would surprise me) but there we are.

Against my personal wishes, as I always want to see as many films as I possibly can, I decided to skip the screenings after My Dog Tulip in favor of dedicating some time to catch up on reviews. I made the final decision when I left the auditorium and saw mayhem outside of Bhutto, the one I had planned on seeing (apparently it was another sold out show) and after looking at the other film choice, I reluctantly decided it would be best to just bite the bullet and sit down in the lobby with my steno and write some reviews.

Unfortunately, that was short-lived because it seems that when one wears a press badge, it invites questions: "Who do you work for? Is it the Journal?" "How many movies are you seeing?" Normally I wouldn't mind questions, but A) I'm pretty antisocial and B) I had a job to do. So after getting up to go to the ladies' room and getting assaulted in there by an old lady in her walker who didn't understand the concept of "I have a web site." I decided to go out to my car and catch some chilly, chilly air.

But I was chilly and alone, and listening to classic alternative on XM satellite radio and by some miracle, had parked close enough to the neon marquee where I could actually see what I was writing, so all was good in the world. Two hours later I was caught up with at least well-thought out outlines that I can fully flesh out later, and since I've resolved myself to write nothing more than mostly capsule reviews (or I would probably go insane with the volume of films I am seeing) it shouldn't be too bad to catch up in front of the laptop.

I don't regret missing a film to see it, but I really hope The Revenant is worth sticking around a few hours for. I have old tired eyes and a newly DVR'd Mad Men waiting for me at home.

I'm not really sure what the deal is with The Revenant, but it looks like it's kind of a zombie movie, and I'm all about zombie movies. However, I'm also a complete wuss when it comes to horror films and make it a practice not to see them by myself (if at all) so I definitely had some trepidation going on. (It turned out to be completely unfounded.) Meanwhile, true to form, while I'm sitting in the theater a little nervous (especially since thus far I was the only person sitting in the lower section, with about 30 people sitting in the stadium seating behind me) and despite the plentiful number of actual "good" seats available above me, someone sits down in the weird single seat directly behind me. WTF?! My first thought was to move, and then I thought screw that, I was here first. At least if I get killed during the movie my reviews are caught up.

Following The Revenant, there was a talk back with director Kerry Prior, who seemed like a nice guy, but the whole thing was just awkward. The weird person behind me had left by that point and I was the only person left in the lower row, and he decided to stand in the middle of the theater, so he was essentially behind me during the talk back, so I wasn't really sure where I should be looking or how I should position my body, so I just kind of decided to give my nails a really thorough examination. Then there were the hopelessly awkward questions asked by the audience: "Do you have kids?" What the hell? Even Prior couldn't mask his surprise at that one. He was like, "...why?" Then there was one question by a guy who, if you can sound like a presidential assassin, he was one, that was so unintelligible that I'm pretty sure Prior just skipped over it and moved on. Meanwhile, it was the longest talk back ever and when I finally got out to my car I was once again one of the last people there.

To home, to bed 3 hours past normal time...

MFF Film Review - Jack Goes Boating


Director: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Screenwriter: Bob Glaudini
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan

The directorial debut of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Goes Boating stars Hoffman as Jack, a socially awkward and simple man whose small world expands a little when his best friends Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) set him up on a blind date with Lucy's co-worker Connie (Amy Ryan). Connie has her own issues: dealing with the loss of her parents, foundering at her job as a salesperson for grief seminars and struggling with near-crippling insecurity issues. The two timidly begin a life together, but as they get closer, cracks appear between Clyde and Lucy's own relationship, causing Jack to both question what he has always thought about them, and reaffirm what he wants in his own life.

It's worrisome to me when I'm watching a film and questioning if I didn't particularly care for a movie due to heightened expectations, or because it really wasn't that good. Unfortunately with the volume of films I try to ingest, this happens more often than I like, and it happened with Jack Goes Boating. It is exactly the kind of film I expect Hoffman to direct, because he is the guy for getting a great performance out of small story and character-driven independent films. And indeed, he portrayed Jack not unlike other awkward past roles like Scotty in Boogie Nights or Allen in Happiness. (Probably one of the most awkward characters in recent movie history.) But while watching him grimace, mumble his lines and take too long to answer questions, I couldn't help but realize I've seen this before - a lot - and early on, the awful feeling that the entire film was going to be this way was a little unsettling. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of the performances in the film; in fact, they were the best actors to bring these roles to the screen.

Jack Goes Boating poses the question of whether it's better to lay it all out there, be who you are, warts and all, and revel in the stability of simplicity or to be more concerned about appearances and "keeping sparks flying" when the relationship may not be as solid as it seems. One can apply this idea to the film in general as well and weigh simplicity versus complexity, but I think the word that comes to mind for Jack Goes Boating is "derivative." Jack Goes Boating isn't a terrible film, but it's also not very good either.

MFF Ballot Vote: 2
My Scale: 2 1/2

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

MFF Film Review - Cell 211

CELL 211

(Spanish/Basque with English subtitles)

Director: Daniel Monzon
Screenwriters: Daniel Monzon, Jorge Guerricaechevarria
Starring: Alberto Ammann, Luis Tosar

Juan Oliver is about to start his first day as a guard at a prison, and decides, against his pregnant wife's wishes, to go in a day early to meet the staff, get the lay of the land and more importantly, make a good impression. When he suffers a slight injury that precedes a planned prison riot, his fellow guards put him in a cell until they can investigate. Unfortunately, the prison goes into lock down and he wakes up to find himself in the middle of the general population, where he must pretend to be a new inmate in order to survive.

Cell 211 is exciting, dramatic and really dark. One thing that European cinema does not have a problem with is being darker than dark, unsettling and unpleasant, if the story needs it to be. (Unlike most American cinema, for the most part.) Cell 211 is suspenseful and gritty, with amazing performances by the two main actors Ammann and Tosar as (respectively) Oliver and Malamadre, the head leader of the prison population. Their combined intensity and natural performances are so good that it is really easy to forget that one is watching a work of fiction, since nothing screams "I'm acting!"

Cell 211 has a similar theme as Philippe de Broca's 1966 film King of Hearts, which examines whether those who are locked away in a mental institution are crazy, or are the crazy ones the people who diagnose them? Cell 211 presents the theory that the characteristics of humanity and loyalty are more prevalent on "the inside" than among those who make the laws and enforce them. Even the most feared and revered inmate holds his word against what his baser instincts dictate, whereas the guys calling the shots on the outside choose their positions based on politics and are not concerned with ramifications that extend beyond the well-being of most everyone beside themselves. Whichever side you feel is "right", Cell 211 is surprisingly deep and thought-provoking.

MFF Ballot Vote: 4
My Scale: 4

MFF Film Review - Perrier's Bounty


Director: Ian Fitzgibbon
Screenwriter: Mark O'Rowe
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson

Perrier's Bounty is an Irish film starring Cillian Murphy as Michael, who owes the local heavy, Perrier (Brendan Gleeson) $1000 that has to be paid that evening or the penalty is two broken bones. (Of his choosing, but fingers and toes don't count.) Unfortunately, in order to deal with one thug, Michael chooses to get into a scheme with another thug, which, if film history or at least the Coen brothers have shown us, is never a good idea. With subplots including an ailing father (Jim Broadbent) who comes out of nowhere to attempt to hang out with his son, and dealing with an unrequited love interest who is suicidal over the fact that her two-timing boyfriend has dumped her, mayhem ensues and leads to a very bad day for Michael.

Like similar European films of the gangster genre (like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or In Bruges) Perrier's Bounty is rife with action, violence, profanity and dark humor. There are also a million characters, but the size of the cast is not prohibitive to the story. It was nice to see Murphy in another role other than as a clean cut, pretty guy, rather he was dirty, violent and rough, but not without some charm. He and Broadbent played fabulously well off one another. I laughed really hard during a lot of this film and never knew that Murphy could pull off comedy. Just a simple exasperated look and a roll of his huge blue eyes was enough to set me and the rest of the audience off, but it wasn't remotely corny. There were some repeated quick gags throughout the film that were a riot, including multiple showdowns with two "gangsta" parking checkers, and the numerous subplots were simple and not superfluous.

I really liked Perrier's Bounty and couldn't help but imagine who I know that I could recommend the film to, which is an alarming number of people, considering its violence and dark humor. Rather than reassess my choice of companions, I'm choosing to embrace the darkness because watching Perrier's Bounty is a great way to spend an hour and a half.

MIFF Ballot Vote: 4
My Scale: 4

The 2nd Annual Milwaukee Film Festival Day 3

Got up today and everything seems slightly "off" - I hope this isn't going to be indicative of my whole day. I got out of the house late because I kept dropping things, or couldn't find anything; a t-shirt that is the exact same size and style of every other shirt in the closet is fitting weird and making me look like the Michelin Man, and I'm struggling to pack and close my messenger bag which houses no more or less than it did yesterday. Ugh. Not the way I wanted to start a long day at the festival. At the very least I'll be here for more than 8 hours and 3 movies.

To top it off, there are a million kids running around the theater lobby because of the children's film festival. Great idea, and I'm glad that they're doing it, but the local kid traffic and noise is horrifying.

Tonight is also the screening of Jack Goes Boating in the Ultrascreen theater, which apparently is sold out. This unfortunately kills my fantasy of having a jump seat, space to write and a place to put my messenger bag because a woman came late and wanted to sit with her husband, so the woman in the two-seater in front of me offered to sit next to me so they could. Nice gesture, but then the late woman spent the next ten minutes thanking the woman while I rearranged my stuff and gingerly put my nice leather bag on the kind of sticky floor. Bah. I realize that the empty seat had to be filled, but listening to them congratulate each other over their solution until the movie started wasn't part of the deal.

While I'm being a curmudgeon, what's up with all of these people coming in to a theater 5 minutes before the movie starts or later and then complaining loudly that there are no good seats left? I scooted into the theater a half hour early and was relieved to get a mediocre seat because it was already filling up. Meanwhile, the MFF needs to figure out how to have their volunteers explain the whole "reserved seats" thing because once again, every conversation around me centers around "why are some seats reserved? It says $10 all seats on the web site!" Maybe I'm just hungry, tired and jonesing for some fresh air and a cigarette after being in the theater for 7 hours, but people are getting on my nerves more than usual today. I saw a couple of great movies though, so ultimately, it's all good.

MFF Film Review - Vengeance

(Multiple languages with English subtitles)

Director: Johnnie To
Screenwriter: Wai Ka Fai
Starring: Johnny Hallyday

In Hong Kong, a woman, her husband and two children are gunned down in their home. Barely clinging to life and her family dead, when her father, Costello (Hallyday) a famed restaurateur in France, comes to see her in the hospital, she points to one word in the paper: "Vengeance". Costello vows to avenge her family, and with the help of three hired gunmen who work for the mafia, he sets off to find the perpetrators and kill them. Unfortunately, there are several roadblocks along the way, most notably, the bullet that's been in his brain for 20 years that is rapidly removing his short-term memory. Due to these extenuating circumstances, the question arises of whether vengeance can really exist when one doesn't remember why they are seeking it nor who they are seeking it for.

I was afraid that Vengeance was going to be a Memento clone that would have some Asian action movie style thrown in to the mix. Vengeance has more depth than being a simple copy, and the action is definitely there, but it all left me a little flat. There are eye-rolling general stereotypical gags like the fat gunman having his goofy eating scenes, etc. that sunk like a stone with the audience in general. The acting in Vengeance is decent, though I found Johnny Hallyday, apparently a legendary French singer, kind of hard to look at. I'm not sure if it's a really oddly aged face or there's some majorly bad plastic surgery going on, but his appearance was actually a little distracting to me.

When I reflect on Vengeance, it meets a few of the criteria I tend to favor in films: a decent story and ambiguous ending open to interpretation among them, plus there is a fair amount of action thrown in for good measure. Truthfully, I rated the film a 3 out of 5 on the audience ballot, and that means "Good" at the MFF. I guess I can chalk it up to my high expectations of the films presented at the festival because a "Good" rating should be what we expect, right? I guess it's the least I expect, which is why I was just kind of warm about it. Vengeance is a good film, and I definitely recommend it for those who like the Hong Kong action film genre because that's the audience that will get the most out of it, rather than a mainstream one.

MFF Ballot Vote: 3
My Scale: 2 1/2 out of 5

MFF Film Review - Freedom Riders


Director: Stanley Nelson

Through archival footage, interviews and photographs, Freedom Riders documents the Freedom Rides of 1961, when a group of more than 400 people from all religious and ethnic backgrounds challenged the intrastate Jim Crow laws that prohibited black people from traveling on integrated buses throughout the South. Along the way they faced extreme hatred, violence, arrest and imprisonment, but their actions finally prompted the federal government to intercede, forced a change in the segregation laws and ultimately, showed a complacent nation that a simple act could cause change.

The beginning titles of the film announced this was "An American Experience Film", which gave me mixed feelings; I wondered if I would have been able to see this on PBS instead of the theater. That aside, I knew that Freedom Riders was going to be a superior and exhaustively researched documentary because the quality of the American Experience series is outstanding. I truly wasn't disappointed. Director Stanley Nelson (who previously had directed the superb Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) put together an amazing collection of media material and interviews. The photographs documenting this time period are stunning and both visually breathtaking and horrifying at the same time.

Archival news footage served as wonderful backup to the stories the interviewees told. Nelson's subjects included government officials, the riders, journalists and townspeople where the riders stopped, and where some of the most horrifying attacks occurred. More than one of the witnesses were defensive of the violent reaction of the town, while another was moved to tears recalling witnessing a mob scene as child, watching her father and others burn a bus with people trapped inside.

The Freedom Rides became international news as well, due to its violence and lack of action from local, state and federal governments. (A lot of times, local and state law enforcement were in fact the instigators and perpetrators.) Even Eastern Block countries, at the height of the Cold War, were criticizing us for our government's inaction and allowing their citizens to be brutalized; a concept wholly ironic for many reasons, but mainly because we were threatening war with them and criticized those countries for arguably similar treatment of their citizens.

Being a generation removed from this time period, I find it hard to understand how this kind of segregation could have occurred, even in my parents' lifetime, and how acutely non self-actualized our country was regarding this issue. Freedom Riders is an excellent documentation of an important segment of the civil rights movement whose impact on future generations was priceless, and director Stanley Nelson treats the subject with the respect and reverence which this part of history and its participants deserve.

MFF Ballot Vote: 4
My Scale: 4

MFF Film Review - Mid-August Lunch

(Italian with English Subtitles)

Director: Gianni di Gregorio
Screenwriter: Gianni di Gregorio
Starring: Gianni di Gregorio

It is the holiday of Ferragosto (mid-August) in Rome, a time when everyone gets out of town to have fun, but Gianni, a middle-aged man who lives with his demanding, but loving mother finds himself in a "situation." It starts off as a financial situation, with his condominium association threatening to kick them out for non-payment of utilities and maintenance. Then a representative from the condo board comes up with a proposal: take care of my mother for an evening and I will pay your past due debts. What Gianni doesn't realize is that the man's elderly aunt will also join them, and later, he would be asked by his physician for the same favor of his mother. Gianni suddenly has a full house of elderly women to care for, and while Gianni's mother starts out gracious but distant, the four soon become the best of friends, all in the course of one hot day in mid-August, with Gianni running himself ragged to cater to them all.

Mid-August Lunch is absolutely charming, with wonderful performances by everyone, especially the ladies. The intimate feeling of the film makes it seem like Director-Writer-Star di Gregorio (who looks and carries himself like Jerry Orbach) just put a camera somewhere and let people do their thing. The story is simple and unfolds beautifully and organically, with character shifts performed in a brilliantly subtle way. All of the women begin their stay appearing meek and complacent, but after being drawn out a little and allowed to be themselves without their overprotective sons watching their every move, show that they are strong Italian women, full of zest and personality. This is a lesson Gianni seems to take to heart with his own mother, who he sees come out of her shell in the presence of the group.

Set in Rome, Mid-August Lunch is mostly set in the small apartment and surrounding neighborhood, but a short scene when Gianni and his friend "The Viking" ride a motorcycle through the deserted streets of Rome was literally breathtaking. Even the neighborhood scenes were gorgeous; the old architecture, narrow streets and the kind of local commerce where one can walk into a small wine shop and buy a couple bottles of wine and have the guy behind the counter pour you a glass to enjoy outside for a minute.

The best word to describe Mid-August Lunch is "pleasant." I'm pretty sure there was a smile on my face during most of the film because the general camaraderie among everyone - the women, the locals and local merchants, even strangers was infectious. Where else but in Italy does it seem appropriate to go to the sea to get some fish and end up cracking open a bottle of wine with the fisherman and sharing a glass or two? The film is simple to the point of refreshing, yet quite beautiful and entertaining.

MFF Ballot Vote: 4
My Scale: 4

The 2nd Annual Milwaukee Film Festival Day 2

Holy buckets, day 2 started out at a frantic pace and I almost didn't make it into my first movie. Note to self- everyone on the planet goes to the North Shore Theater for 5pm matinees on Fridays. Granted, I only gave myself about 30 minutes at the theater before the first show, but I couldn't find any parking that didn't involve me practically parking in the town of Glendale (about 10 minutes South of the theater, for anyone reading this unfamiliar with the geography of the theater). When I finally did, I had about 5 minutes to get from my car-to the theater-to my seat. Yikes. But here I sit, puffing away from the effort with about a minute to spare. At least I will get to see a good movie (I hope) that looks interesting. Apparently I wasn't the only one who thought so, because there are a good 250 people here for a 5:45 show. When I came in I slunk into one of the lower section side seats to create the least amount of disruption, and was grateful for that seat, even. Turns out, it's my new favorite spot in this particular auditorium.

Poor Managing Director Kyle Heller. He's introducing the film and having to contend with this really hilarious uptempo Spanish music playing in the auditorium, which he found really distracting, but was pretty hilarious to the audience, well, me at least. He was actually getting pretty annoyed and kept dropping hints into the microphone that went unheard. Can't blame the guy. Catchy music though.

The racing around continues, because my next film begins 15 minutes after the first one ends, (and it's starting a few minutes late) so I make sure that I jump up the second it ends and book next door. I made it with a couple of minutes to spare, but I've quickly discovered the differences between the two main auditoriums they show the films in - Theater 1 is bigger and it rocks because there are a lot of great vantage points to sit from, and since everyone gravitates to the stadium seating anyway, I get perfectly good seats on the ground floor that give me space to work in and a quick exit strategy when the film ends. (Unlike when I see movies any other time, at the MFF, I jump up the second the film ends so I can get to the bathroom and get situated at my next venue.) Theater 2, which is the one closer to the lobby, is smaller and doesn't have the same good vantage points on the ground level, so I either have to do stadium seating or try to get one of the two back rows of the floor level. Plus the seats are really squishy so if you apply any kind of pressure to the back of the seat you're practically in a La-Z-Boy, which is comfy, yes, but when you've been sitting in theaters for 7 hours, sleep aids are not welcome and especially when there's no one in front of you? It's really easy to lean back and put your feet up on the seats in front of you. By the 9 or 10pm movie I'm usually ready to sit in an rigid-Amish made chair despite the protestations from my ass. It may seem like I've over-analyzed these theaters, but let's see what your mind turns to after spending half your waking hours in the same two places?

Anyway, my second movie was in Theater 2 so despite the fact I got there minutes before the show start, I still got a back row ground seat and there were about 200 people behind and above me, so everything was okay. UWM Peck School of the Arts Dean Wade Hobgood introduced the film and mentioned (not sure why, maybe because of it's association with UWM?) that the LGBT film festival is going to be at the Oriental Theater this year. I'm either way out of the loop and it's been there before, or that's new, but either way, it's cool and I'll probably try to check it out.

VENGEANCE. It's a great word and pretty much the only way I can keep going tonight. VENGEANCE. It's just before 10:15 and the final movie tonight is, yes, Vengeance. (I wasn't just repeating the word psychotically or anything...right.) Now, I'll admit it. I'm an old lady. Maybe not in earth years, but hey, I work at 8am normally and so my bed time is somewhere around 10:30 - 11:00 if I'm feeling saucy. Plus my eyes get super tired faster now (boy, I'm really going to be primed to be one of those complaining old people when I go to the home) so it actually is a physically improbability that I'm still at it tonight. But VENGEANCE! It looks like a good movie, so here I am with...20 people. WTF?! That's pretty surprising considering the late start shouldn't be much of a deterrent on a Friday night. Wusses. Or maybe the general public knows better. I shall soon see, I suppose.

A note to whoever is running the show - at this point I've seen 4 films, which means that I've seen the sponsor trailer 4 times. Only once (at opening night) did the trailer start playing without a hitch; every other time so far, either the screen was too blurry to see anything for the first 10-20 seconds, or there was no sound... my "real job" is in Marketing and lemme tell you - the more than 90 sponsors would be pretty pissed to see that, especially since the problem is always in the beginning when they're showing the big guns.

Walking out to my car after the movie ended was pretty funny though; there were about 10 cars in the entire lot so obviously we were the last ones standing at the theater and there was probably a really annoyed teenager waiting for us to get the hell out of there.

Monday, September 27, 2010

MFF Film Review - Blue Valentine


Director: Derek Cianfrance
Screenwriters: Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, Joey Curtis
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams

American love stories are not an uncommon genre - just look at your local multiplex and you'll see any number of boy and girl meet cute movies, or the time-honored tradition of opposites attract and hate each other until they love each other. It's a rare American love story that realistically depicts relationships, however, and for those, one mostly has to look to independent cinema; a recent offering being the sublime (500) Days of Summer.

Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as Dean and Cindy, a married couple who are at their breaking point, regardless of whether they are ready to let go or not. It is told in a non-linear style, set in the present, but cross-cut with scenes showing the evolution of their relationship from both perspectives. As more of their history is revealed, the more poignant and significant their present situation becomes, and their personal growth and stagnation become apparent.

At the forefront of Blue Valentine is its amazing performances by Gosling and Williams. Anyone still writing them off as the guy from The Notebook and the girl from Dawson's Creek would be surprised by the incredible intensity and depth of their work in this film. There are a lot of types of "good" acting, and the performances in Blue Valentine are somehow both natural and challenging. It is obvious we are witnessing an acting performance, but there is something organic within as well, and the who experience is appealing and noteworthy. It's impressive and encouraging that Gosling and Williams lend their significant acting chops to independent cinema as their predominant medium.

Though non-linear, the story of Blue Valentine unfolds naturally and cleverly, but without pretension. Elements of their lives at present, taken at face value, take on an entirely different meaning when pieces of their backgrounds are revealed, a brilliant device executed with finesse by writer and director, Cianfrance, with co-writers Delavigne and Curtis. Their decision to test the audience by leaving unanswered questions hanging until their answers are naturally provided later in the film is risky and admirable, and ultimately paid off in a big way.

Blue Valentine, for all of its clever reveals, is also stark and at times, profoundly unpleasant. The camera is unwavering and thus, we are subjected to real life, warts and all. Scenes in an abortion clinic, painful fights between the main characters and the effects of the parents' soured relationship on their beautiful and charming daughter are gut-wrenching and not for all audiences. I was left with such a bleak feeling that my initial reaction to the film was not entirely positive, and I transferred that feeling of despondence to my vote on the audience ballot, giving it less of a grade than I probably would now. It was only after a little digestion and reflection that I realized how good Blue Valentine is. (And perhaps an indictment of instant, gut reaction balloting?) Ultimately, however, since we can't rate on a half scale, I'm zen with my decision to round down instead of up, regardless of the reasons behind it.

Like another powerful relationship film, Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Blue Valentine is a hard pill to swallow, but ultimately, a really good film. It's not for everyone, but it is an important dark member of the American love story family.

MFF Ballot Vote (Out of 5): 3
My Scale: 3.5/5 stars