Friday, October 17, 2014

2014 Milwaukee Film Festival

Movies That I Wanted To See That I Missed
20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, UK, 2014, 97 min.)
An Honest Liar (Tyler Measom & Justin Weinstein, USA, 2014, 93 min.)
Charlie’s Country (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2013, 108 min.)
Human Capital (Paolo Virzi, Italy, 2014, 109 min.)
In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross, Georgia, 2013, 102 min.)
Still Life (Uberto Pasolini, UK/Italy, 2013, 92 min.)

Movies That I’ll Be Catching Up With On Netflix Shortly
Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2013, 120 min.)
The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Cambodia, 2013, 92 min.)
Young & Beautiful (Francois Ozon, France, 2013 95 min.)

The Expedition to the End of the World (Daniel Dencik, Denmark, 2013, 90 min.)
A group of artists, scientists, philosophers and sailors travel beyond the rapidly melting ice mastiffs of Greenland and into uncharted territory in this intriguing but ultimately directionless documentary.  Despite featuring a polar bear attack, a partially heavy metal soundtrack, and even the discovery of a new species, Daniel Dencik’s film still feels like a fairly generic travelogue.  Certainly it suffers from comparison to Werner Herzog’s similar but far more eccentric Encounters at the End of the World (2007).  The scenery is nice, but the film never really develops a point of view beyond a general bemusement regarding the human race’s insignificant place in the universe.  C+

Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, Soviet Union, 1929, 68 min.)
With Live Musical Accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra                    
Though a Sight & Sound poll of critics and filmmakers has declared Man with a Movie Camera the greatest documentary of all time, it really belongs more to the tradition of experimental avant-garde film, and boasts an anarchic playfulness to rival Luis Bunuel’s contemporaneous Un chien andalou (1929).  Rather than focusing on a central subject, the film hops restlessly between sensationally filmed imagery ranging from an oncoming train filmed at track level to explosions in a mine to a graphic child birth.  Much of the footage is captured with the aid of then-innovative (and still strikingly impressionistic) use of fast and slow motion, superimpositions, and even a bit of stop-motion animation.  There is no dialogue but you can practically hear the filmmakers shouting “LOOK AT THIS” throughout the film.  Vertov is always credited as the film’s auteur, but Elizaveta Svilova deserves an enormous amount of credit for editing her husband’s mounds of unrelated footage into a coherent (if chaotic) tribute to the possibilities of cinematic expression.  A

Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran, 2013, 125 min.)
Equal parts suspense film, impassioned agitprop, and howl of despair, Manuscripts Don’t Burn bluntly details the horrors of living under a fascist regime.  Writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof knows this subject firsthand – he made this film in defiance of a 20-year band on filmmaking levied by the Iranian government, and had to leave the names of his cast and crew out of the credits to protect them against retribution.  The narrative, drawn from real life, follows a pair of poor killers hired to execute a group of writers who threaten to publish a story exposing a particularly heinous act of government corruption.  Amazingly Rasoulof manages to makes one of these killers a nuanced (at times even sympathetic) character, who struggles with crippling debt and mounting guilt even as he grimly (and graphically) fulfills the demands of his profession.  Unlike some of the recent, similarly themed work by Jafar Panahi, this really feels like a full-fledged film, as gripping as any action blockbuster of recent memory despite its purposefully muted style.  A-

Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, France, 2013, 94 min.)
The third film adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1947 novel Froth on the Daydream suffers from an excess of whimsy but nonetheless charms thanks to the boundless visual inventiveness of director Michel Gondry.  The couple (Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou) at the center of this love story has the depth of stick figures, which makes it hard to get invested in either their meet-cute or the tragedy that occurs when she develops health issues.  Still, on a purely formal level the film is a constant delight, offering up something funky and strange to look at in virtually every frame.  B-

Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland, 2013, 81 min.)
The feature debut of writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson is a series of interconnected vignettes revolving around men and their equine companions.  Though it never reaches the surreal heights of its obvious inspiration Songs from the Second Floor (2000) it does have some dryly funny moments of its own, and sometimes comes across as the world’s most deadpan sketch film.  The first two segments, revolving respectively around a pompous horse rider’s humiliation when his mare is humped mid-ride, and a drunkard who takes a horse into deep water to score some vodka from a passing commercial boat, are highlights.  B-

Patema Inverted (Yasuhiro Yoshiura, Japan, 2013, 99 min.)
This charming anime has a sci-fi concept perfectly suited to the visual freedom of the animated medium.  A scientific disaster has split the world into two radically different societies, one made up on “inverts” whose reversed gravitational pull forces them to live underground so as to not fall into the sky, and another of surface-dwellers who have been taught that they are a superior race.  The visuals are spectacular, but writer-director Yasuhiro Yoshiura hasn’t thought through what he wants to say with the film’s muddled allegory (beyond the obvious “respect each other’s differences” message).  The inevitable star-crossed romance between two members of the separate worlds is nothing we haven’t seen before, but the film’s odd conceit and lovely animation are strong enough to keep things entertaining throughout.  B-

The Tribe (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine, 2014, 130 min.)
Told entirely in unsubtitled Ukrainian sign language and without the aid of background music, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s bold feature debut earns credit for sheer stylistic audacity.  The narrative is so elemental, and the sign language so expressive, that it’s never a challenge to follow the tale of a young man’s initiation into a fearsome gang at the school for the deaf that he attends.  Cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych’s masterful tracking shots drop the viewer right in the middle of this alien world, and the results are utterly transfixing, at least in the early going.  Eventually it becomes disappointingly clear that this stylistic innovation is being used in service of a story that grows increasingly nihilistic, climaxing in a series of pointless acts of ultra-violence.  Still, this is a rare film that offers a truly new way of telling a story, and for that alone it’s one of the most noteworthy films of the year.  B

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (Jessica Oreck, USA/Ukraine/Russia/Poland, 2014, 73 min.)
Jessica Oreck’s freewheeling essay film touches on ancient Slavic folklore and modern ecological issues while quoting liberally from a variety of classic philosophical texts, but it winds up being less than the sum of its parts (and, frankly, considerably less awesome than its crazy title makes it sound).  This type of film doesn’t have to make a clear point to be effective – Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1983), evidently a major inspiration for this film, is a masterpiece even though I could not tell you what it’s about – but it does have to form its disparate parts into a hypnotic whole, and the material in Oreck’s film never quite gels.  Parts of the film are quite effective – the animated stills recounting the legend of Baba Yaga (a forerunner of Hansel & Gretel) are beautiful, and the moody ambient soundtrack by Paul Grimstad is haunting.  But there are too many dull stretches that break the spell.  C+

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