Sunday, October 17, 2010

Film Festival Review: Milwaukee Film Festival

2010 hasn't been a great year for movies.  The arthouses are mostly showing the same movies as the multiplexes, a situation that has prevented all but a small handful of foreign or independent films from breaking through to a decent-sized audience.  While the past couple of years have been banner years for blockbuster entertainment - producing ambitious and smart entertainments such as The Dark Knight, Inglourious Basterds, Where the Wild Things Are and Up - this year has only produced a handful of interesting wide-release features.  Even the always-reliable Pixar studio rested on its laurels a bit this year, offering up a sequel (Toy Story 3) that, while entertaining, was a step back from their usual commitment to innovation.

Under these circumstances, The Milwaukee Film Festival is the one of the few platforms in Wisconsin for interesting and groundbreaking films from around the world.  The second annual festival did not disappoint, offering up its best and most diverse selection of films to date (even taking into account the fact that the festival is a kinda/sorta continuation of what for several years was called The Milwaukee International Film Festival).  Perhaps even more exciting than the films themselves was the reception that the festival received in general.  Even a year ago it would've been practically unthinkable that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives - an avant-garde Thai film that defies easy categorization - would've made it to Milwaukee the same year that it was released worldwide, much less that it would've virtually sold out the main auditorium at the Oriental Theatre. 

Below are brief reviews of most of the movies that I saw in theatres at this year's festival.  I'm not reviewing the rerelease of Metropolis simply because most people reading a recap of a film festival are probably already familiar with that classic (the newly restored footage is cool, but not essential) and I think it would be too awkward to review the animated shorts program I saw (though I will say that the new Don Hertzfeldt short, Wisdom Teeth, is hilarious), but everything else is here, in alphabetical order.

About Elly
The winner of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival's Award for Best Narrative Feature begins as a lighthearted chronicle of a weekend getaway on the Caspian Sea, develops into a tense thriller when one member of the party goes missing, and finally settles in as an intense exploration of male-female relationships in contemporary Iran.  There are a few notable flaws here – the script backs itself into a corner and just kind of stops instead of coming to an end, for example – but the cast has great chemistry, and director Asghar Farhadi handles the shift in pacing and tone very well.

The Art of the Steal
A surprisingly engaging and entertaining documentary about the struggle for control of the Barnes Foundation, a priceless private art collection that the now-deceased founder intended as an educational institution but that a number of his personal and political enemies want to turn into a tourist trap.  Director Don Argott keeps the pace fast and the talking head conversations lively, and editor Demian Fenton deserves credit for giving this potentially dry story the feel of a tense conspiracy thriller.

Blue Valentine
Derek Cianfrance's simultaneous telling of the beginning and end of a relationship arrived in Milwaukee with a lot of advance praise, having already won over a number of critics at Cannes and Sundance.  The film doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to chronicles of troubled relationships – in some respects it feels like a less raw, more slickly-directed version of Cassavettes' A Woman Under the Influence – but it isn't hard to see why so many reviewers have been raving about this it for a better part of the year.  The storytelling device of continually flashing back and forth between the tender early days of a relationship and its bitter final days is very well handled, and the incredible performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as the couple prevent several moments from feeling as false or clichéd as they probably should.

A lot of the fun of this exploitation film comes from the simplicity of its outrageous premise:  a truck driver working in Iraq (Ryan Reynolds, in what will probably be the performance of his career) wakes up inside a coffin, with only a cell phone and a lighter, and spends 95 minutes trying to get back above ground before he runs out of oxygen.  Considering the sheer amount of suspension of disbelief required to accept the film's plot, the only way to make this material work is to turn it into a dark comedy.  Fortunately the script is essentially a morbid parody of the horrors of modern bureaucracy, such as call centers and contracts designed to eliminate a company's responsibilities to its employees.

Freedom Riders
Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: the Life and Death of Peoples Temple was one of the most gripping and harrowing films to screen at the previous incarnation of the Milwaukee Film Festival, so it's a shame to report that his new documentary about the black civil rights movement is a generic telling of a very familiar story.  There is some interesting material about the ambivalent attitude that the Kennedys and Martin Luther King had toward the Freedom Riders, but for the most part this film isn't telling us anything we don't already know.

His & Hers
70 Irish females, ranging from very young children to very elderly women, discuss the most important men in their lives, whether they be their fathers, husbands, or sons.  Each woman is only on screen for a minute or two at a time, they never mention the men's names, they appear in similar domestic settings, and they appear in order from youngest to oldest, which gives the viewer the impression of one coherent story instead of 70 different ones.  Veteran short filmmaker Ken Wardrop's formal experiment yields mixed results – it sometimes feels like a pre-feminist tribute to the "traditional woman," but there are also a number of genuinely touching and amusing moments, and the gimmick doesn't overstay its welcome at 80 minutes.

Katalin Varga
British ex-pat Peter Strickland's debut feature isn't necessarily original – the story has a bit of The Virgin Spring in its DNA, and the audio and visual aesthetic brings to mind Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr.  Yet this menacing fairytale couldn't stand further apart from everything showing in theatres today.  The economy of the storytelling, the painterly beauty of the cinematography, and the consistently unnerving sound work give this tale of a raped woman's revenge the feel of a folk tale that has been with us for a long time.

Last Train Home
This documentary is ostensibly about the world's largest human migration – as 130 million Chinese migrant workers return to their homes for New Year's - and the strain that it places on one family.  But part of what makes Lixin Fan's debut feature so special is that it manages to use its seemingly limited perspective to give a broad and multi-faceted overview of what life is like in China today.  What emerges is an epic yet focused depiction of the distance between the working class and the wealthy, between the older and younger generations, and between rural and city life.

Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski's documentary about legendary Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister feels like something that would be a bonus feature on a DVD rather than something you'd watch in a theatre.  But it's still kind of awesome, mainly because Lemmy is such a singular, bizarre, and charismatic figure that he seems to have actually earned the adulation that he receives from the film's many famous talking heads (including Ozzy Osbourne, Henry Rollins, and, most incongruously, Billy Bob Thornton).

After being beaten into a brain-damaging coma by five men outside a bar, amateur artist Mark Hogancamp returned to consciousness with substantial memory loss.  He retreated from the world at large and began to focus his energies on Marwencol:  a one-sixth-scale, WWII-era Belgian town populated entirely by dolls representing Hogancamp's friends and family.  This documentary is at its best when it simply allows Hogancamp to explain the elaborate, intensely pulpy personal mythology of Marwencol and at its worst when director Jeff Malmberg gets in the way of his fascinating subject by cutting to uninteresting commentary from Hogancamp's friends or silly stop-motion sequences with the dolls.  Luckily, the good heavily outweighs the bad, and this was one of the unexpected highlights of the festival.

Both halves of this two-part film open with a disclaimer that this is only one interpretation of the life of notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine.  But the filmmakers seem to have gone out of their way to avoid coming to any conclusions about Mesrine's life.  What we get instead is simultaneously a standard rise-and-fall crime saga and the type of biopic that reduces an actual person's story to a series of major events.  The film doesn't linger on anything long enough to establish a consistent sense of tone or pace, and the talented cast (including Vincent Cassel, Gerard Depardieu, and Mathieu Amalric) is stranded by the overall lack of direction.

My Perestroika
I'm not sure that this documentary about the social and political changes that took place over the last 30-odd years in Russia tells us anything we don't already know, but it does do an excellent job of personalizing those changes.  Director Robin Hessman follows several Russians in their 30s as they explain how seismic events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union have affected them personally and professionally.  The subjects are lively and interesting, and propaganda films, old news footage, and home-movies are integrated seamlessly with the new interview footage.  The festival jurors awarded this the Best Documentary prize.

Night Catches Us
First-time filmmaker Tanya Hamilton has a nice feel for period, place, and community in this bicentennial-set exploration of the Black Panther Party's conflicted legacy.  The story involves an ex-Panther (Anthony Mackie) who returns to Philadelphia for his father's funeral, only to discover that many of his old associates (including several cast members of The Wire) are adrift in a haze of directionless anger, without the direction of the Party to guide them.   There are a few problems with the script – some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, and a few seemingly important characters simply disappear, but the atypical subject matter and the excellent cast mostly make up for it.

The Red Chapel
A Danish theatre troupe infiltrates North Korea, entering their intentionally ridiculous (and partially subversive) vaudeville act into a cultural festival.  The premise of this documentary makes it sound like a Sacha Baron Cohen stunt, but what the filmmakers are after is less a full-front assault on North Korean fascism than an inside look at the psychology of a fascist society.  The troupe is assisted by a group of Korean handlers whose job is to make sure that the Danes don't do anything inflammatory in their act or in their day to day activities, and the ways that the handlers attempt to modify the actors' behavior is often more illuminating than funny.  And while the filmmakers do get a few laughs in at the expense of the North Koreans, they also offer a surprisingly multi-faceted – and at times even sympathetic – portrayal of the people who spend their lives propagating the insane doctrine of Kim Jong-Il.  This is by far the finest and most insightful film I've seen about North Korea, as well as being one of the most purely entertaining films of the year.

Sons of Cuba
Aside from having an interesting subject – a Cuban boxing school for 9 year old boys – there isn't much to say about this very standard British-produced documentary.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Even though I've seen several of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's previous features – Mysterious Object at Noon, Tropical Malady, and Syndromes and a Century – I feel like I have virtually no critical context in which to place his new film, which won the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.   But for once the eccentricities seem purposeful and tied to a specific mood, so that the proceedings can be enjoyed on more than a scene-by-scene basis.  The film follows the titular character during the last days of his life, as he encounters ghosts of people from his past (some of whom appear as creatures that look like a cross between Chewbacca and a Jawa), who help him remember his past incarnations (though it is never made entirely clear who Boonmee was in these flashbacks).  As the film goes on, the distinction between the living and the dead, and the spiritual and the everyday, evaporates completely, and the effect is quite moving even for someone who knows nothing about the Thai culture that the film is playing off of.  This is the kind of film where inexplicable moments – such as a scene involving a catfish seducing a princess, or a mostly wordless trip through a dark cave, or a memory of a violent situation told entirely through still photographs – rattle around in your brain for weeks afterwards.  The best and most original pure filmmaking I've seen anywhere all year. 

Johnnie To's bizarre, highly mannered version of a violent Hong Kong shoot-'em-up suggests a simultaneous deconstruction of Jean-Pierre Melville and John Woo, although I can't imagine what point To thinks he's making.  The purposely (?) outrageous story involves a French chef (Johnny Hallyday) who travels to Hong Kong to avenge a gang hit that left his daughter in critical condition and killed her husband and children.  Along the way he hires a trio of gangsters to help him navigate the Hong Kong underworld and to help him recover his rapidly fading memories.  The film works best when To lets his fantastic visual sense take over, as in a fantastic park shootout timed to the flickering light of the moon.  But too often the film returns pointlessly to odd semi-parodies of action movie conventions, which isn't enough to sustain a 2 hour film.

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