Saturday, October 8, 2011

2011 Milwaukee Film Festival

The third annual Milwaukee Film Festival offered up a typically diverse selection of international and local films, most of which would otherwise not have made it to area theatres.  Though work commitments, a wedding, the sheer breadth of films on offer, and a poorly-timed head cold prevented me from catching several of the things I was hoping to see – most notably Raul Ruiz’s four-hour period piece Mysteries of Lisbon – I still managed to see a wide variety of interesting and engaging films.  Below are brief reviews of all of the movies that I saw in theatres at this year’s festival, as well as several of the most notable films that I saw through other means.

The Bengali Detective (Philip Cox, India/UK, 101 min.)
Documentarian Philip Cox has found a fascinating subject for a documentary in Rajesh Ji, a private investigator who looks into everything from counterfeit shampoo scandals to triple-homicides, and spends his spare time either caring for his ill wife or practicing dance steps for his upcoming reality show audition.  Unfortunately, the director doesn’t have any sort of angle for this story, leaving the film at the mercy of the success of individual pieces of footage.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if, say, the homicide investigation or the reality show audition wound up going anywhere, but since they don’t, the film winds up feeling less like a look at a complicated, multi-faceted individual than a succession of uneven scenes adding up to nothing.  C

A Cat in Paris (Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli, France/Belgium/Netherlands/Switzerland, 65 min.)
This charming, lighthearted action movie for children eschews the frantic pacing, cynical pop culture referencing, pointless celebrity voiceovers and lazy computer animation of most contemporary animated films.  The tale of a polite cat burglar, his feline companion, and the mute young girl who inadvertently gets wrapped up in their adventures boasts a handsome hand-drawn style that looks like a series of oil crayon pictures come to life, a style that taps directly into childlike imagination.  B

The City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, China, 132 min.)
Lu Chuan’s epic recreation of the Rape of Nanking falls into the same trap as many films about holocausts, with the perpetrators being portrayed as evil, mustache-twirling villains, as if the film is saying “they treated us like animals – those monsters.”  But perhaps we should be glad that the film at least has enough nuance to include one token conflicted Japanese soldier, considering that that small acknowledgement of the “enemy’s” humanity was enough to get the film banned from many Chinese theatres.  What the film lacks in nuance it makes up for in sheer cumulative tragedy.  Few works of art have given such a convincingly brutal depiction of the devastation that an occupying force can have on a nation, and the stunning widescreen black and white cinematography of Cao Yu really puts across the full scale and crushing weight of the tragedy.  B

A Good Man (Bob Hercules & Gordon Quinn, USA, 86 min.)
This in-depth look at the artistic process follows avant-garde modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones’ efforts to pull together his most ambitious production to date:  a large-scale production about the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.  Jones emerges as a charismatic yet prickly figure whose struggle to express complicated feelings about racial, ethical, and historical issues frequently puts him at odds with his collaborators, most of whom are interesting characters in their own right.  The dance company’s frustrations in pinning down their leader’s careening muse is alternately moving and funny, and the periodic glimpses of the spectacular final product demonstrate why all of the hair-pulling is worth it.  B

The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi, Iran/Germany, 80 min.)
This documentary about the tragic fallout of Iran’s 2009 presidential elections cuts back and forth between traditional talking heads footage, animated recreations of police brutality, and occasional cellphone footage of shocking human rights violations, with contemporaneous Iranian blog posts providing much of the narration.  Given the nature of the material, The Green Wave is unavoidably powerful, but director Ali Samadi Ahadi’s attempts to capture the “new media” response to the election results feel too one-note, mostly due to an overreliance on the ugly comic book style animation sequences.  C+

 The Interrupters (Steve James, USA, 125 min.)
The latest documentary from socially-minded director Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) is a moving look at a Chicago organization that hires former gang members to diffuse violent situations and help current gang members find better opportunities.  Riveting whether it’s showing the interrupters getting in the middle of a hostile scene or simply documenting the progress of people trying to get through the day, the film nevertheless feels less in-depth than expected from a filmmaker of James’ status.  It would be nice to know more about issues like the interrupters’ relationship with the police, and the ending seems a bit too abrupt.  Still, this is trenchant, essential stuff, and one of the highlights of the festival.  B+

 Into Eternity (Michael Madsen, Denmark/Finland/Sweden, 75 min.)
Few of this year’s fiction films were as haunting or as purely cinematic as Michael Madsen’s conceptual documentary about the ongoing construction of Onkalo, an underground Finnish facility that is intended to store nuclear waste for one-hundred thousand years – which would mean that it would have to last ten times longer than any man-made structure ever built.  Madsen uncovers a fascinating and disturbing debate about how to properly warn a theoretical future society to avoid entering Onkalo, and asks scientists and scholars the tough questions about potential problems with the experiment.  Meanwhile, he and cinematographer Heikki Farm capture some of the most beautifully creepy shots of the year from inside the caves where Onkalo is being built.  The filmmakers are working almost entirely inside the Werner Herzog school of documentary-making, but there is no reason to complain when it’s clearly the right approach to the material.  B+

 The Last Circus (Alex de la Iglesia, Spain, 108 min.)
This phantasmagoric, genre-defying sensory explosion recalls the epic patchworks of Terry Gilliam and Emir Kusturica.  The latter director’s Underground is perhaps the closest analogue to The Last Circus’ mix of political allegory and outrageously baroque imagery.  Unfortunately, the new film has a lot less to say about the Franco era than Underground does about the political divides in the Balkans; anything particularly thoughtful or nuanced in writer-director Alex de la Iglesia’s vision is drowned out by his wildly excessive style.  But that style is enough to keep the movie consistently compelling, with every corner of every frame being crammed with things that you haven’t seen before.  B

 Marathon Boy (Gemma Atwal, India/UK, 98 min.)
This look at a four-year old Indian marathon runner is hardly the year’s flashiest or most high-profile documentary, but it may very well be the most gripping.  Far from the faux-inspirational “real-life Slumdog Millionaire” story that it is advertised as, this is a complicated and layered story about the limited opportunities for Indian slum kids, the thin line between exploiting said kids and giving them a chance at a better life, and the political structure that often prevents the poor from improving their situation.  First-time director Gemma Atwal pursues all of these questions to their logical end, never allowing the film to become a conventional sports documentary.  B+

Natural Selection (Robbie Pickering, USA, 90 min.)
There is potential in the odd-couple story of a devoutly Christian housewife (Rachael Harris) meeting up with the escaped convict (Matt O’Leary) who her husband birthed from a sperm bank, but writer-director Robbie Pickering can’t decide if he wants to make a nuanced character study about his lead characters or a broad comedy about the hypocrisies of conservative Christian culture.  What he winds up with is a middle-of-the-road dramedy designed to get the easiest possible laughs and tears from a large audience.  That said, Harris’ lead performance is very strong, displaying a lived-in realism that sadly eludes the rest of the film.  At any rate, this is certainly a step down from last year’s opening night selection, Blue ValentineC

 On Tour (Mathieu Amalric, France, 111 min.)
The great French actor Mathieu Amalric has been directing films on the side since the ‘90s, and the tone of his latest behind-the-camera effort perfectly matches the nervy tone of his best performances.  On Tour follows a group of eccentric American burlesque performers (portrayed by actual practitioners of the craft) as they travel around the homeland of their unreliable French manager (Amalric).  There isn’t much more to it than that – the film is basically divided between bizarre stage performances and scenes of the manager having awkward reunions with people from his past – but there is almost always something interesting happening between the actors, and the boozy, semi-improvised aesthetic compares favorably to late-‘70s Cassavetes.  B

 Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, Japan, 109 min.)
Takeshi Kitano’s films have always been baffling – even his relatively watered-down take on Zatoichi ended with an inexplicable musical number – but this may be the first time that it seems like there’s nothing to “get.”  The prolific writer/director/actor/editor’s latest consists almost entirely of scenes of yakuza members discussing who they are going to kill, followed by scenes of the hits taking place, and with that pattern repeated until virtually every character is dead.  Some of the variations are interestingly staged, but seeing them piled on top of each other with almost literally no time devoted to anything else is ultimately numbing and tedious.  Kitano does manage to wring some pitch-black laughs by contrasting the utter pettiness of the convoluted gang rivalry with the brutal violence of the executions, but he doesn’t even seem to be aiming for any larger point.  C

Page One:  Inside the New York Times (Andrew Rossi, USA, 91 min.)
This documentary about the financial struggles of America’s greatest newspaper sacrifices depth and focus in favor of providing a broad look at various issues affecting the institution.  Considering the sheer breadth of topics covered in 91 minutes – from the blogs vs. print media debate to the controversy over WikiLeaks to the career of crusading journalist David Carr to the massive round of layoffs that the Times has been forced to execute over the last several years – director Andrew Rossi does an impressive job of keeping the movie coherent and lively.  But he might have been better off giving an in-depth look at one of those topics than trying to cram surface-level looks at each of them into one breezily entertaining movie.  B-

 The Redemption of General Butt Naked (Eric Strauss & Daniele Anastasion, USA/Liberia, 85 min.)
The most fascinating character in any film this year was General Butt Naked, formerly a ruthless warlord in Liberia’s civil war and now a Christian preacher hoping to atone for the atrocities he’s committed in the past.  Documentarians Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion follow the newly-christened Joshua Milton Blahyi as he attempts to reunite with, and receive forgiveness from, the people whose lives he’s ruined.  It’s never clear how sincere Blahyi’s quest for redemption is, and the filmmakers avoid any editorializing about whether a man who has committed so many atrocities even deserves to be forgiven.  The film’s neutrality is almost frustrating at times, but with a subject as complicated as Blahyi it may be more important to ask questions than to give answers.  B+

 The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, France, 82 min.)
Provocateur Catherine Breillat has been in an enjoyable classical period for a few years now, and her second straight adaptation of a Charles Perrault fairytale would seem to promise more of the same.   While the opening scenes of The Sleeping Beauty seem like a perfectly logical (if slightly safe) follow-up to 2009’s Bluebeard, Breillat begins departing from the original story and wildly defying expectations as soon as the princess’ finger is pricked.  The film turns into a ramblingly episodic, and frequently baffling, essay on puberty, the battle of the sexes, and aging.  Perhaps Breillat could’ve made a more coherent film about all of those themes by sticking closer to her source material, but it is exciting to watch her follow her muse down the least predictable paths, and it is truly impressive to see her capture so many magnificent images without ever breaking the film’s casually surreal tone.  B

 El Velador (Natalia Almada, Mexico/USA, 72 min.)
Natalia Almada’s film about the night watchman of a Mexican cemetery plays more like an experimental short film than a conventional documentary.  Long, static shots observe the watchman’s banal workplace rituals, as he tends to the elegant mausoleums that house some of his nation’s most brutal drug lords.  The largely silent scenes are punctuated by aural reminders of the violence that keeps the titular figure in business, with muffled gun shots interrupting distant musical performances and news reports occasionally filling us in on the latest murder.  Almada certainly knows how to build a creepy atmosphere, and her shot compositions are truly impressive.  But El Velador suffers from being in such close proximity to the similarly moody Into Eternity, which not only creates a creepy atmosphere but also leaves you with something to think about long after the credits role.  That said, El Velador is a very assured stylistic exercise.  B-

 Viva Riva! (Djo Tunda Wa Munga, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 96 min.)
This energetic modern blacksploitation film about small-time Congolese hoods battling for oil drums suggests what Mad Max would be like if it took place in the real world – and also disturbingly suggests through its gritty cinematography and location shooting that we may already be living in such a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  First-time writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga keeps the plot unpredictable and the pace lively, and also shows a good instinct for dismantling potentially sensationalistic moments with shocking moments of brutally realistic violence.  It seems unlikely that there will be a better action film this year.  B+

 We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK, 112 min.)
We Need to Talk About Kevin demonstrates that director Lynne Ramsay hasn’t lost a step in the near-decade gap since her last film, 2002’s Morvern Callar.  She handles the new film’s nonlinear structure with grace, and maintains a consistently creepy aural and visual atmosphere that really puts the viewer inside the head of Tilda Swinton’s main character, the mother of the perpetrator of a Columbine-style massacre.  Unfortunately, Ramsay’s portrayal of the violent offender as a born sociopath is a shade too purple for this otherwise impeccably crafted film.  She mostly gets away with it because the film is a psychodrama told entirely from the point of view of Swinton’s character, and the son more or less functions as a manifestation of her fears of motherhood (in the scenes set before the tragedy) and her failings as a parent (in the scenes set after).  But the film’s depiction of Kevin as pure evil prevents it from having anything substantive to say about school killings, even as it powerfully captures the fears and neurosis of his mother.  B

 The White Meadows (Mohammed Rasoulof, Iran, 93 min.)
Mohammed Rasoulof’s ravishingly beautiful mix of folklore and poetic surrealism has less in common with the films of fellow Iranian New Wave masters Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi (who is credited as an editor on this film) than it does with the ecstatically personal ethnography of Sergei Paradjanov.  The quasi-documentary, self-reflexive style of many modern Iranian films is replaced here with a series of lovely tableaus that have the primal force and potency of fairytales.  Though the film is a bit too episodic for its good, its most beautiful moments more than make up for its brief periods of downtime.  B

No comments:

Post a Comment