Sunday, November 10, 2013

2013 Milwaukee Film Festival

I can’t imagine that I’ll have a better filmgoing experience this year than I did at the sold-out screening of Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), a celebrated classic of silent Soviet montage that here featured live musical accompaniment by the 18-piece Altos Orchestra.  Despite the film’s vaunted reputation, I admit that I’d never been able to connect with it when I watched it on a TV screen, but seeing Dovzhenko’s majestically poetic imagery splash across the Oriental Theatre’s massive main screen as the Altos’ moving original score filled the auditorium finally made the film’s mastery click into place for me.  It was a stark reminder of the superiority of the big screen, public moviegoing experience to home viewing.

Thanks to On Demand and instant streaming services, it’s never been easier to keep up with the state of the cinematic arts.  On the other hand, it’s perhaps never been more difficult to see current releases the way they are designed to be seen, in a theatre.  Unless you live in a major film market like Los Angeles or New York, a great deal of interesting and exciting films from all over the world simply aren’t going to make it to a theatre near you – and if the movies are small enough, you might not even get the chance to catch up with them at home, which is why events like the Milwaukee Film Festival are so vital to our current film culture.

In addition to special archival screenings like the aforementioned screening of Earth, the fifth annual Milwaukee Film Festival presented more than 100 new feature films and 100 short films.  (Full disclosure:  I was on the short films screening committee this year, and have been on the feature films screening committee in the past).  This year’s lineup was so stacked that it would’ve been impossible to see everything noteworthy even if I’d taken an extended vacation from work (or if I hadn’t gotten a head cold that caused me to sit several days out).  I simply couldn’t find room for Breathing Earth (the latest gorgeous-looking documentary from Thomas Riedelsheimer, director of 2001’s Rivers and Tides), the J. Hoberman-approved biopic Hannah Arendt, the acclaimed Danish Somali pirate drama A Hijacking, the intriguingly creepy looking documentary The Institute, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise:  Hope, or the surreal erotic film Vanishing Waves.  As always, I’m sure there were plenty of fantastic movies that weren’t even on my radar – discussing films with other attendees in between screenings, I heard great things about the relationship drama The Broken Circle Breakdown, locally made documentary Date America, provocative documentary God Loves Uganda, and the bee-themed documentary More Than Honey.  Below are capsule reviews of the feature films that I did manage to see.

12 O’Clock Boys (Lotfy Nathan, USA, 75 min.)
Director Lotfy Nathan’s feature film debut is one of the most beautifully filmed and edited documentaries in recent memory.  With crisp slow-motion footage and an energetic hip-hop soundtrack, Nathan captures the grace and recklessness of a loose collective of Baltimoreans who perform insane dirt bike and ATV stunts on crowded public streets.  The film doesn’t commit fully to the gorgeous impressionism of its extreme sports sequences – and the brief asides about tragic accidents that some of the riders have been involved in feel like token nods to social responsibility rather than serious looks at the negative ramifications of the crew’s illegal brand of extreme sports – but overall this is an exhilarating look at a singular phenomenon.  B

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/UK, 116 min.)
The most mesmerizing, terrifying, and all-around audacious movie of the year is documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer’s unblinking look at the very worst of humanity.  In 1965 and ’66 the Indonesian military staged a coup in which they exterminated the nation’s Communist party (and anyone who they arbitrarily decided was a Communist).  Rather than being punished for their war crimes, many of the perpetrators have remained major players in the Indonesian political structure, and are even celebrated as heroes by the country’s media.  The provocative hook of Oppenheimer’s film is that he has encouraged these criminals to recreate their atrocities in the style of the Hollywood movies that they love.  Even while attempting to portray themselves as heroes, the self-described “gangsters” inevitably end up exposing themselves as vicious thugs, and much of the film’s queasy fascination lies in the way that these recreations make some of these men become self-aware of their awfulness for seemingly the first time.  In the film’s unforgettable conclusion, one of these fearsome killers, having struggled to portray the role of a victim in one of the reenactments, is reduced to a pathetic dry-heaving shell that couldn’t be further from the macho action hero that he’s always imagined himself as.  A

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, USA, 96 min.)
David Lowery’s moody, impressionistic crime story has more craft than originality.  But while the film’s aesthetic instantly brings to mind Badlands (1973) and Thieves Like Us (1974), it’s not because Lowery is ripping those classics off so much as because he’s tapping into the same rich vein of weird old Americana.  The elements are familiar – an outlaw (Casey Affleck), his lover (Rooney Mara), the kindly sheriff (Ben Foster), the wise old man (Keith Carradine) – but the terrific cast, the poetic dialogue, and Bradford Young’s beautiful cinematography combine to make Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feel like a timeless tale rather than a tired retread.  B+

Beyond the Hills (Christian Mungiu, Romania, 152 min.) 
Director Christian Mungiu made a name for himself with 2007’s intense abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and his new, equally harrowing film confirms his status as the most talented member of the Romanian New Wave.  Alina (Cristina Flutur) plans to help her best friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) escape from her secluded monastic life, but severely underestimates Voichita’s commitment to her cause.  As it becomes increasingly clear that Voichita isn’t on board with the plan to run away, Alina’s behavior becomes more erratic, violently disrupting her sedate surroundings.  The monastery’s attempt to help the troubled woman in the only way it knows how – by performing an exorcism – has tragic consequences.  That plot synopsis might make this film sound like a simple anti-religious screed, but while Mungiu is certainly critical of the repressive atmosphere of the monastery, he also makes it clear why that lifestyle might offer genuine solace to underclass people who have been left behind by the uncaring institutions of the secular world.  The film is also beautifully shot without seeming overly composed, and could be enjoyed simply as a masterful demonstration of the many ways that framing can be used to emphasize the growing distance between two friends.  A-                     

Blancanieves (Pablo Berger, Spain, 104 min.)
Pablo Berger’s silent, bullfighting-themed variation on Snow White won Best Film at the most recent Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent to the Oscars), but, like The Artist (2011), it never really transcends its gimmicky origins as an homage to silent cinema.  Still, the film does have its charms, mainly found in its gorgeous cinematography and scenery.  B-

Bound by Flesh (Leslie Zemeckis, USA, 95 min.)
This biography of conjoined twin sideshow stars Daisy and Violet Hilton is a textbook example of a documentary ruining a compelling story with a generic talking heads aesthetic.  The sisters’ rise to prominence on the vaudeville scene is depicted with the exact same tone as their gradual fall from grace, giving the film a generic feel that is totally at odds with its subjects’ colorful life story.  C

Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi & Kamboziya Partovi, Iran, 106 min.)
In 2010, the great Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to a 20-year ban on filmmaking due to the subversive political content of his films.  Closed Curtain is the second movie that Panahi has made in secret and had smuggled out of the country since then.  It begins as a compelling allegory for Panahi’s current life situation, with a writer (played by co-director Kamboziya Partovi) boarding himself up in his house so that the authorities won’t become aware of his dog’s existence (dogs are considered unclean under Islamic rule).  The sudden arrival of two mysterious people seeking shelter from the law brings exactly the type of attention that the writer was hoping to avoid.  This opening half of the film is exciting and tense, featuring brilliant use of offscreen sound as unseen assailants storm around outside the writer’s house.  Unfortunately, when Panahi himself takes over as the protagonist in the second half of the film (as if the allegory wasn’t already clear enough), the film turns into a clumsily symbolic retread of material from 2011’s far superior This is Not a Film.  Panahi’s focus on his current predicament is understandable, but hopefully he’ll find a way to make a film about any other subject next time rather than continuing to cover the same ground.  B-

The Crash Reel (Lucy Walker, USA, 108 min.)
This documentary follows professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce from his rise to fame on the extreme sports circuit to his struggles to re-enter the scene after a failed stunt leads to a traumatic brain injury.  At various points it seems that the focus of the film will be on Pearce’s rivalry with Shaun White, on his family’s post-injury frustration with his determination to get back into the sport, or (most compellingly) as an indictment of the corporate sponsors who push young athletes into ever more dangerous situations, but director Lucy Walker favors a generic all-encompassing approach that makes the film feel indistinct despite its interesting subject matter.  The MTV-style editing and common TV-sourced snowboarding footage seems especially limited in such close proximity to the far more artistically accomplished 12 O’Clock BoysC+

Drug War (Johnnie To, China, 107 min.)
Prolific Hong Kong action director Johnnie To’s first film financed by and produced in mainland China appears at first to be a straightforward battle of wills between a determined undercover police officer (Sun Honglei) and a questionably trustworthy informant (Louis Koo) as they attempt to infiltrate a major drug cartel.  While the film does work wonderfully as a brutally streamlined action film, and is less outwardly bizarre than something like To’s 2010 MFF entry Vengeance, there is still plenty of offbeat humor around the margins, and the film has a slyly satirical take on the nature of drug enforcement.  Though the police are nominally the good guys and the drug dealers are ostensibly the bad guys – probably a necessity to get the film past the Chinese censors – it’s clear that this is a rigged game, with the humorlessly stoic authorities using their seemingly unlimited resources to torment the more personable dealers.  Mild subversion aside, Drug War will probably be best remembered for concluding with one of the more relentless and over-the-top shootouts in recent memory.  B

Enzo Avitabile Music Life (Jonathan Demme, Italy, 80 min.)
Italian multi-instrumentalist Enzo Avitabile is less well-known (at least in the United States) than previous Jonathan Demme music documentary subjects like Talking Heads and Neil Young, but this charmingly low-key film makes a strong case for his talent.  The film is basically a series of performances where Avitabile is joined by master musicians from all over the world, performing gorgeous music with largely esoteric instrumentation.  A little more context for Avitabile’s life and career might have been instructive, but Demme’s decision to let the music speak for itself keeps the film lively and fun.  B

Free the Mind (Phie Ambo, Denmark/Finland, 80 min.)
The subject matter of this documentary – the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder through non-chemical means – is interesting and vital, which makes it all the more disappointing that the film’s focus is so scattershot.  The 80 minute running time just doesn’t leave enough room to properly tell the stories of two Iraq war veterans, a young child struggling to get past an experience where he was trapped alone in an elevator, and a University of Wisconsin doctor whose Buddhist studies have influenced his experimental treatment techniques.  C

House with a Turret (Eva Neymann, Ukraine, 81 min.)
This child’s eye view of a Soviet Union devastated by World War II was adapted from an autobiographical novel by Friedrich Gorenstein.  When his mother passes away from illness in the middle of a trip, the young protagonist (Dmitry Kobetskoy) is forced to fend for himself in a world of starving, desperate adults.  The film’s long take, deep focus aesthetic brings to mind the classical European cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr.  Though director Eva Neyman is clearly working in the tradition of those giants, her beautifully composed film is one that either Tarkovsky or Tarr could’ve been proud to include in their respective oeuvres.  The black-and-white cinematography is stunning, leavening the film’s thick air of misery with its sheer beauty.  B+

In the House (Francois Ozon, France, 105 min.)
Having not been impressed by Swimming Pool (2003), the only other film I’ve seen by writer-director Francois Ozon, I had fairly low expectations for his latest meta commentary on the nature of storytelling, revolving around a teacher (Fabrice Luchini) who is increasingly sucked into the ongoing narrative of the writing assignments of his most mysterious student (Vincent Schmitt).  Fortunately the script (adapted from a play by Juan Mayorga) is as witty as it is clever, and Luchini is hilarious as the comfortably bourgeois teacher with frustrated artistic ambitions.  For a film that is commenting on the clichés of erotic thrillers, the film never becomes particularly sexy or thrilling, but the light comic tone assures that it never suffers from the heavy handed pretensions that brought down Swimming PoolB

Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 168 min.)
Laurence Anyways is the type of wildly impassioned project that takes so many risks that it constantly seems on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its ambitions.  24-year-old writer-director Xavier Dolan (already on his third feature film) isn’t always in full command of everything he’s trying to do, but it’s impossible not to admire the stylistic chances he takes in telling the decade-spanning story of a man (Melvil Poupaud) undergoing a gradual sex change, and the girlfriend (Suzanne Clement) who struggles with adapting to his shifting sexual identity.  Poupaud and Clement’s excellent performances keep the story grounded even as Dolan indulges his most flamboyant artistic whims, including a splendidly goofy sequence where the couple walks through a storm of raining sweaters.  B+

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, UK/Ireland, 136 min.)
The second collaboration between iconoclastic psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek and director Sophie Fiennes (after 2006’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema) is a freewheeling essay about the hidden meanings that Zizek finds in popular Hollywood entertainments ranging from The Sound of Music (1965) to The Dark Knight (2008).  Not all of Zizek’s theories are as insightful as his hilarious class-based analysis of the ending of Titanic (1997), but there is a mesmerizing forcefulness to his nonstop Slavic drawl that carries the movie over its brief rough patches.  B

Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Germany/Netherlands, 115 min.)
Admittedly impenetrable yet undeniably stunning, Carlos Reygadas’ fourth feature offered the best pure sensory experience of this year’s festival.  Like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), Post Tenebras Lux mixes an intensely personal family story with metaphysical flights of fancy, and once again the combination is as awkward as it is fascinating.  The film may ultimately be less than the sum of its parts, but many of those individual elements – a CGI devil stalking around a live action house during a storm; a bathhouse orgy that is somehow simultaneously sedate and intense; an impromptu rendition of a Neil Young song that is all the more haunting for being completely off-key; an abrupt self-decapitation - are as sublime and as beautifully filmed as anything in recent memory.  The lightning bolt edit between the first two scenes single-handedly justifies the Best Director award that Reygadas received for this film at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.  B+

The Rambler (Calvin Lee Reeder, USA, 97 min.)
This tale of a stoic drifter (Dermot Mulroney) attempting to reconnect with his family after a stint in prison aspires to be the ultimate midnight movie, combining the splatter humor of Evil Dead II (1987) with the nightmarish surrealism of David Lynch and the outrageous sleaze of a Troma production.  Unfortunately all of director Calvin Lee Reeder’s effects seem borrowed from better films, and the incompatible influences ultimately cancel each other out, making this just another pre-fabricated grindhouse wannabe cult item.  A scene where a succubus vomits on the shackled hero sums the film up nicely:  rather than seeming funny or scary or even particularly weird, it is merely gross.  D

Reality (Matteo Garrone, Italy, 116 min.)
I was not as blown away by Matteo Garrone’s breakthrough film Gomorrah (2008) as most critics were, so I was looking forward to this goofy farce simply as a radical change of pace.  But while Gomorrah may have been too didactic for its own good, its single-mindedness at least gave it a certain forceful vitality that is completely missing from this slackly paced follow-up.  A fishmonger (Aniello Arena) becomes obsessed with appearing on a popular reality show, to the point that he ultimately gives away all of his possessions.   Despite the too-obvious satirical target, this story might have worked had Garrone consistently amped up the lunacy to match his protagonist’s story arc, but stylistically the film works backwards, beginning with a party scene that suggests Fellini-esque carnival extravagance and then slowly settling into a dully respectable tonal register that just doesn’t work for comedy.  C-

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, UK, 98 min.)
Ben Wheatley’s third feature lacks the daring tonal shifts of his impressive previous efforts Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011), but still features the careful attention to character and the stylistic swagger that set the director apart from the pack of young horror filmmakers.  This horror-romantic comedy hybrid follows a young couple (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, both hilarious) on an initially peaceful RV road trip that turns violent whenever other tourist’s slight them.  The concept (a romantic comedy where the couple is made up of complete sociopaths) is fairly one-note, but it’s a note that Wheatley and his stars play exceptionally well.  B

Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, France, 122 min.)
Though this early-‘70s period piece is reportedly based on events from director Olivier Assayas’ youth, its narrative suffers from the same stasis as his previous film, Carlos (2010); it is clear, literally from the first shot, that Assayas thinks that his student activist protagonists are poseurs.  Assayas may be in a rut as a storyteller, but thankfully he remains one of the most expressive and energetic directors alive.  The fetishistic attention to specific “revolutionary” tchotchkes and fashions of the ‘70s keeps the film engaging even as Assayas seems to insist that we not invest in his characters.  B-

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada, 108 min.)
Actress Sarah Polley’s deeply personal documentary begins as a chronicle of her free-spirited mother, gradually turns into a gripping investigation into her unexpectedly complicated family tree, and ultimately uses this specific story to ruminate about the untrustworthiness of subjective memories in general.  Polley spends too much of the film’s climax expounding on that last point, and she also relies too heavily on Super 8 home video footage throughout the film, as if she doesn’t realize how fascinating her own story is.  But it really is an entertaining, wild story, and one of the more enthralling documentaries of the year.  B

This is Martin Bonner (Chad Hartigan, USA, 83 min.)
Many popular works of art claim to be about redemption, but This is Martin Bonner is the rare film that actually deals with that subject matter in an adult, realistic way.  The story revolves around the titular social worker’s (Paul Eenhoorn) attempts to help a repentant drunk driver (Richmond Arquette) readjust to society after a twelve-year stint in prison.  Bonner is dealing with his own crisis of faith, seemingly related to some unspecified family trauma, and his own distance from his loved ones mirrors the ex-con’s strained relationship with the daughter (Sam Buchanan) who grew into a different person during his prison stay.  This material could’ve easily turned into melodrama, but writer-director Chad Hartigan favors an understated, humane approach that is perfectly complimented by the subtle, lived-in performances of Eenhoorn and Arquette.  This is Martin Bonner isn’t particularly stylish – it could probably be just as easily enjoyed on a laptop screen as in a cinema – but the lack of flash is appropriate to the story.  The film isn’t small, it’s life sized.  B+

Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, USA, 96 min.) 
The quality of surreal, dreamlike films is even more subjective than the quality of most art; you either get hypnotized by them or you don’t.  Having been mightily impressed by Shane Carruth’s previous film, Primer (2004), I was prepared to follow him pretty far down the rabbit hole on Upstream Color, but I have to admit that I couldn’t really get on the film’s inscrutable wavelength.  This could be because of my preference for the long-take, creeping dread of something like Mulholland Drive (2001) over the Nicolas Roeg-style non-stop fragmented editing Carruth employs here, or it could be because the obscure plot (having something to do with a mad scientist using a virus that infects the memories of its protagonists) seems less like a compelling mystery than a somewhat clichéd sci-fi story told from an odd angle.  Carruth certainly deserves credit for his industriousness – he wrote, directed, scored, co-edited, starred in, and even helped operate the camera on this film, and made a slick looking product on a shoestring budget.  I just wish that he had used his undeniable talent on something more compelling than footage of pigs milling around, or his lead characters arguing about which of their memories are real.  Aside from one mesmerizing scene in which the wormlike virus makes its way through the female lead’s (Amy Seimetz) body, the film is largely tedious.  Don’t take it from me, though; this is one of the most acclaimed films of the year.  C

War Witch (Kim Nguyen, Canada, 90 min.)
Though it was a nominee for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards and a winner of the Competition jury prize at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival, War Witch is a fairly generic litany of “third-world” suffering.  It’s pretty much exactly what you would expect a film about a Congolese child soldier to be.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with Canadian director Kim Nguyen’s handling of the material – the cinematography is terrific, and Rachel Mwanza is impressive as the young protagonist – but the film has nothing surprising or edifying to say about the plight of child soldiers.  C+

Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada, Japan, 117 min.)

Mamoru Hosada’s fantastical anime is a multi-layered coming of age story about a woman tasked with raising two wolf/human hybrids on her own after her shape-shifting lover is killed during a hunt.  The animation is pretty but fairly generic, but the patient unfolding of the story is a nice alternative to the manic pacing of most children’s films, and the ways that the narrative’s events cause the children to either embrace or reject their lycanthropic heritage are surprising and touching.  B

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