Saturday, October 13, 2012

2012 Milwaukee Film Festival

The fourth annual Milwaukee Film Festival boasted the largest lineup and longest overall running time that the festival has had to date, and as usual it offered a little of something for everyone and an embarrassment of riches for area cinephiles.  As usual, I imagine that I missed as much great stuff as I caught – among the most notable things I didn’t get a chance to check out were a special presentation by J. Hoberman (in town to promote his new book Film After Film and present archival screenings of David Lynch’s Inland Empire and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil), a movie called 3,2,1…Frankie Go Boom that apparently features world’s ugliest man Ron Perlman as a transvestite, Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet, Goodbye (the new film by Mohammed Rasoulof, who directed one of last year’s festival highlights, The White Meadows), documentaries about Bad Brains and The Sugarhill Gang, the much-hyped raunchy comedy Klown, the well-received Israeli suspense film Policeman, and Oscar hopeful closing-night film The Sessions.  I also imagine that there are a number of films that weren’t even on my radar that might have been excellent; the only reason that I saw Marathon Boy, my favorite film from last year’s festival, was because I was on the Features Screening Committee for the festival that year (and considering that the film hasn’t picked up any sort of critical reputation since then, it seems unlikely that I ever would have seen it otherwise).

This year I was on the Shorts Screening Committee, meaning that I came into the festival relatively cold as far as the features were concerned.  To be honest, there were only a handful of short films that made the festival that I consider to be truly memorable – with Ryan Prows’ extended action sequence Narcocorrido being the only one that stands out as a true must-see – and I wish that the festival would consolidate the best shorts into one “best in show” program like they used to rather than scattering nearly 100 shorts across eight different programs.  But there were a lot of interesting feature films this year, and I’ve written brief reviews of all of the ones that I saw in theatres below.  The only one that I saw that is not included below was an archival screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent film Blackmail (1929), which was accompanied by live instrumentation from the Alloy Orchestra.  Suffice to say that it was an awesome filmgoing experience, but one that doesn’t really make sense to compare to the twenty modern-era films listed below.

11 Flowers (Wang Xiaoshuai, China, 110 min.)
Though ostensibly based on personal events from the childhood of director Wang Xiaoshuai (best known for his 2001 release Beijing Bicycle), this period drama is fairly indistinguishable from the many other Chinese films set during the Cultural Revolution.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with 11 Flowers – the cinematography is exceptional, and the performances are uniformly strong – but there is also nothing that really sets it apart from the pack.  C+

Ai Weiwei:  Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, USA, 91 min.)
First-time feature director Alison Klayman could be accused of making an overly conventional documentary about an extraordinary man, but Ai Weiwei is such a fascinating and complicated figure that this film’s aesthetics seem almost beside the point.  This thorough yet breezily entertaining portrait of China’s most prominent subversive artist manages to deal broadly with Ai Weiwei’s struggles with political authorities, his innovations as an artist, and his unconventional personal life without short-changing any of these elements.  B

 The Ambassador (Mads Brugger, Denmark, 93 min.)
Stunt documentarian Mads Brugger was last seen infiltrating a North Korean cultural festival in the underappreciated gem The Red Chapel (which was one of the highlights of the 2010 Milwaukee Film Festival).  In his latest provocation, Brugger adopts the guise of an ambassador to the Central African Republic, and gives viewers an unprecedented glimpse into the corrupt and violent world of international business.  Brugger’s hidden cameras make backstage deals involving bribery, diamond smuggling, and even murder sickeningly, grippingly transparent, and it’s frankly amazing that the director was able to escape the making of this film without getting killed himself.  Unfortunately, The Ambassador lacks The Red Chapel’s sense that Brugger is sticking up for the oppressed people who are the victims of Imperialism – he seems more interested here in exposing powerful political figures than digging into the psychology of the beleaguered Pygmies – but this is still one of the most vital documentaries of the year.  B

Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos, Canada, 110 min.)
Though it is one of the few festival movies that became available on DVD before the festival started, Beyond the Black Rainbow really demands to be seen in the theatre.  A pure sensory experience, the debut feature of writer-director Panos Cosmatos relies entirely on the power of its audio-visual assault rather than its sketchy, besides-the-point plot or its thin characterizations.  While the movie occasionally feels too drawn out for its own good, and loses its way toward the end with an out of place turn into slasher movie territory, it is for the most part a genuinely spellbinding experience, a non-stop parade of gorgeously icy shot compositions set to an ominous synth score by Black Mountain’s Jeremy Schmidt.  Though Cosmatos was clearly influenced by the entire lexicon of trippy filmmakers (with Kubrick, Cronenberg, and Lynch seeming like the most obvious reference points), his slow-motion nightmare has a genuinely unnerving sensory power that is all its own.  You’ll certainly never be able to un-see the incredible flashback sequence that (apparently) involves a man dipping into a pool of oil, disintegrating and re-composing in an inexplicable field of light and smoke, and then devouring a frightened woman.  B

Citadel (Ciaran Foy, Ireland, 84 min.)
This amateurish, run-of-the-mill zombie movie should’ve gone straight to DVD.  D-

Compliance (Craig Zobel, USA, 90 min.)
This “real-life horror story” about an incredible instance of duplicity at a fast food restaurant caused quite a stir when it screened at Sundance, prompting a number of walk-outs and some filmgoers loudly accusing in-attendance writer-director Craig Zobel of misogyny.  Frankly, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.  Zobel clearly went out of his way to avoid making an exploitation film, and he handles the more unpleasant moments in an understated, matter-of-fact way that gives the situation dramatic impact without becoming offensive.  A prank caller (Pat Healy) convinces the restaurant’s manager (Ann Dowd) that one of her cashiers (Dreama Walker) stole from a customer, and fools the manager into conducting a degrading strip search of her employee.  Zobel’s intention was to try to make sense of this absurd yet true story, but his efforts to connect the dots are sometimes unconvincing.  The film loses credibility around the time that the manager’s fiancĂ©e shows up to deliver a spanking to the wrongly accused cashier; even if this actually happened, it’s tough to buy into the depicted buildup to the event.  The decision to actually show Healy on the other end of the extended phone call fairly early in the film also seems like a poor creative choice.  That said, Compliance is never less than compelling, with Zobel displaying a fine sense of ominous pacing and Dowd delivering a heartbreaking performance as the simultaneously victimized and bullying manager.  C+

Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia, 109 min.)
This artsy take on the old “woman kills her spouse to gain his inheritance” story is elegantly crafted but perhaps a bit too emotionally distanced to be truly affecting.  The central relationship between the titular nurse (Nadezhda Martina) and her wealthy husband (Andrey Smirnov) is perfectly realized; the entire history of their relationship is clear without ever being completely spelled out, and their loving yet frustrated attitudes towards each other are practically written on their faces.  Elena’s reason for killing her husband (she is trying to help her dead-beat son’s family make ends meet) is also credible and plausible, as is his decision not to give away the money.  But director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s cold style (methodical paced, carefully composed shots) prevents the story from having the gut-level impact that it needs to get into the next gear.  B-

The Imposter (Bart Layton, UK, 95 min.)
An amazing true story about a Texas family that was duped by an international conman into believing that he was their missing son gets the full Errol Morris treatment in director Bart Layton’s compelling documentary debut.  It’s hard to complain too much about Layton’s blatant theft of Morris’ aesthetic when the story is this interesting and weird.  Layton uncovers some ominous and fascinating hints about why the family might have been willing to accept a French-accented, black-haired man as their American, blond-haired son, as well as a grimly entertaining side story about a folksy local detective’s attempts to find what he believes will be the dead body of the missing boy.  The film arguably ends just as things are getting really interesting, but perhaps the resulting frustration is an appropriate statement about this open-ended, truth is stranger than fiction tale.  B

The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, USA, 93 min.)
Documentarian Kirby Dick has argued passionately for transparency from the MPAA ratings board (in 2006’s This Film is Not Yet Rated) and from closeted gay politicians who vote against gay rights (in 2009’s Outrage), but he’s never had a subject as vital and disturbing as the one he deals with in The Invisible War.  Dick’s new film is about the widespread phenomenon of rape in the military, and viewers might be surprised by just how big an epidemic this is.  One of the film’s many staggering statistics reveals that female soldiers in Iraq are more likely to be raped by male colleagues than killed by enemy fire – a tragedy compounded by the fact that many of the rapists are the commanding officers who the victims are meant to report such crimes to.  Considering how damning the statistics are, and how tragic many of the personal stories told in the film are, Dick’s constant use of emotionally manipulative music seems especially obnoxious and unnecessary.  Despite this film’s shortcomings as cinema, it is a thorough and engrossing dissection of a widespread problem that is too rarely reported on.  B-

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (Chris James Thompson, USA, 75 min.)
This might be the most laser-focused documentary I’ve ever seen.  A total of three people are interviewed for the talking heads segments, and they are pretty much exactly the people you’d want to hear talk about notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer:  the lead detective who investigated Dahmer, a forensic analyst who worked on the case, and, most fascinatingly, the killer’s former next-door neighbor.  These interviews are interspersed with the expected archival footage and staged reenactments depicting everyday moments from Dahmer’s life.  The whole thing moves by at an engrossing clip, but the reenactments, though reasonably well-executed, feel like unnecessary padding designed to bring the film to (just barely) feature length.  B-

Let the Bullets Fly (Jiang Wen, China, 132 min.)
The fact that this is currently China’s highest grossing domestic film of all time suggests that Chinese audiences have a high tolerance for frantic mugging and confusing plot twists.  Or maybe they just expected a movie titled Let the Bullets Fly starring Chow Yun Fat to be a full-blown action movie rather than a childishly goofy comedy with light action elements.  There are a handful of amusingly eccentric moments scattered throughout the film – as when a man cuts open his stomach to prove that he didn’t steal jelly from a food merchant – but for the most part this film is as dull as it is noisy and convoluted.  C

Mea Maxima Culpa:  Silence in the House of God (Alex Gibney, USA, 106 min.)
Alex Gibney is one of the most gifted documentary filmmakers working today.  Even when he is dealing with all too familiar subject matter (such as the Iraq war in his 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side) or simply summarizing major news stories (as in 2005’s Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room), Gibney is usually able to deal with these events in a thorough, coherent, and entertaining matter.  The story of four deaf men’s attempt to expose the priest who sexually abused them during Catholic school should make for Gibney’s most gripping film to date, but the film has a surprising lack of focus, frequently cutting away from the central narrative to spend time giving broad, common knowledge information about the Catholic Church’s history of sexual abuse and the Vatican’s sinister unwillingness to stop the problem.  The result is a decent but fairly generic documentary that feels like it could’ve been directed by just about anybody.  C+

Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 85 min.)
The press materials for this film aren’t kidding when they say that first-time director Morteza Farshbaf is a disciple of Abbas Kiarostami.  Every element of Kiarostami’s distinctive aesthetic is on display here, from the many distant, gorgeously filmed shots of cars driving down roads to the occasional conversations where the camera focuses entirely on one of the people talking.  It’s an effective style, and a fine way to tell this simple story of a child searching for his parents, but hopefully Farshbaf will be able to step out of his mentor’s shadow with his next film.  B-

Old Dog (Pema Tseden, Tibet, 93 min.)
Crappy digital photography and stiff performances prevent this film from achieving the neorealist naturalism that it aspires to.  A poor family of Tibetan farmers struggle to prevent their sheep-herding mastiff from being sold to (or stolen by) Chinese traders (who will presumably sell the dog to wealthy families as a pet, though this is never really explained in the narrative).  While much of this film was a chore to sit through, I’m still glad I caught it simply for the audience reaction to the ending, which features an offscreen act of animal cruelty that provoked more walk-outs than the extended rape in Compliance, the graphic gore of V/H/S, and the pretentiousness of Beyond the Black Rainbow combined.  C-

Sacrifice (Chen Kaige, China, 132 min.)
I was afraid that Chen Kaige’s opulent period drama might be a dull prestige film, as some of the reviews seemed to suggest, but this non-musical adaptation of an ancient Chinese opera is actually a spectacularly over-the-top melodrama filled with wild plot twists, exciting battles, and numerous eccentric touches.  The plot is too complicated to adequately describe in one paragraph, but suffice to say that it involves secret identities, an ultimatum that involves the potential slaughter of 100 babies, and an assassination by mosquito.  The story may ultimately be too broad to have any real emotional or psychological depth, but it is still one of the most exciting (and exquisitely filmed) action films of the year.  B+

Starbuck (Ken Scott, Canada, 109 min.)
This French-Canadian comedy is the second annual opening night film to feature sperm donation as a major plot point.  Thankfully, it’s a lot more entertaining than last year’s forgettable Natural Selection.  A 42-year old loser (Patrick Huard) discovers that his teenage sperm donations have made him the father of 533 kids, 142 of which are suing the hospital in hopes of revealing their father’s identity.  From there the story hits the exact beats you’d expect it to - no one will be surprised when the donor is initially reluctant to make contact with his kids before eventually deciding to quietly make a difference in each of their lives – but it does so in a relatively charming way.  Writer-director Ken Scott has a good sense of comic pacing, and he also holds the film back from becoming too mawkish during its inevitable heartwarming moments.  He is also aided by a charismatic lead performance from Huard, whose presence will undoubtedly be missed in the currently in-production English-language remake starring Vince Vaughn.  C+

 Le Tableau (Jean-Francois Languionie, France, 78 min.)
This wonderfully inventive animated film is designed for children, but has more wit and allegorical power than most films intended for adults.  The story starts out inside an unfinished painting, where a group of upper-class Allduns (completely drawn characters) lord over the Halvsies (characters missing color on part of their bodies) and the impoverished Sketchies (black and white scribbles).  A star-crossed romance between a rebellious Alldun male and a Halvsie with an uncolored face leads several characters to escape from their painting in search of The Painter who will presumably bring harmony to their lives.  Their search leads the characters to inhabit the worlds of several other paintings, each of which brings a new and enchanting visual style to the film.  Gorgeously animated and endlessly entertaining, this was the highlight of this year’s festival, and one of the best films shown anywhere this year.  B+

Tales of the Night (Michel Ocelot, France, 84 min.)
In 2000, ace French animator Michel Ocelot made a feature anthology called Princes and Princesses that depicted several short fairy tales by having black silhouetted characters play against vibrantly colorful backgrounds.  Tales of the Night returns to the aesthetic of Princes and Princesses, even going so far as to include an identical framing device in which a boy, a girl, and an elderly technician insert themselves into each story.  It’s somewhat disappointing to see a creatively fertile mind like Ocelot relying so heavily on things that have worked in the past – especially on the heels of his mind-blowing Azur & Asmar, which was one of the highlights of the 2009 Milwaukee Film Festival – but there is still a lot of charm in this style, and the six tales told here are uniformly entertaining and beautiful.  B

Tchoupitoulas (Bill Ross & Turner Ross, USA, 82 min.)
This New Orleans-set quasi-documentary was perhaps the most innovative and stylistically forward-thinking film to play at the festival this year.  The film ostensibly follows the adventures of three young boys who become stranded in the French Quarter after missing the last ferry home, but that loose narrative strand is really just an excuse to present an impressionistic inner-city symphony that captures the feeling of wandering around at night, catching stray glimpses of musicians, street performers, burlesque dancers, junkies, and drag queens.  The somnambulant pace sometimes becomes tedious, especially when directors Bill and Turner Ross’ experiments aren’t quite working, but the best moments of this grungy film are practically miraculous.  It’s impossible to describe in words the way that the duo film the performance of a fire juggler/fire breather, but suffice to say that it is about as trippy as anything in the much more carefully composed Beyond the Black RainbowB-

V/H/S (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence, USA, 115 min.)
Horror anthologies rarely have more than one or two worthwhile segments, and the faux-documentary style of horror film became tiresome the instant the The Blair Witch Project (1999) became a sensation.  So I’m happy to report that this anthology of faux-documentary horror stories is a wonderfully fun and inventive anomaly, displaying a surprising degree of consistency and wit, as well as some of the best-ever use of the rarely effective first-person camera style.  Though some segments are stronger than others, there really isn’t a weak one in the bunch.  Ti West’s tale of two vacationing honeymooners being stalked comes the closest to failing due to having the most generic concept (and a dumb twist ending), but it also features one perfectly executed jolt that made the entire midnight audience gasp.  The best segments are David Bruckner’s tale of three horny douchebags bringing home the wrong girl, and capturing her bloody rampage through one of their hidden-camera glasses; and internet collective Radio Silence’s story about enthusiastic haunted house lovers accidentally stumbling onto a house that is actually haunted, leading to some incredibly impressive special effects that never disrupt the flow of the documentary-style footage.  Though a tad uneven by design, V/H/S is an ideal midnight movie, and one of the most purely fun horror movies in years.  B+

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