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.