Saturday, October 31, 2015

2015 Milwaukee Film Festival

Call Me Lucky (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2015, USA, 106 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary begins as a lightweight (and perhaps overly fawning) tribute to his stand-up comedy mentor Barry Crimmins, but gradually works its way toward far darker and more compelling material regarding the sexual abuse that Crimmins suffered as a child. The comedian first revealed his traumatic past to friends and fans alike during what was presumably a very intense show, and later became an outspoken crusader against childhood pornography. B-

 Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 2015, USA, 100 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Matthew Heineman’s riveting look at vigilante groups fighting against Mexican drug cartels often feels more like a high-octane action feature than it does a documentary. The director (who served as his own cinematographer) was often present when bullets were flying and hostages were being taken, and he managed to capture most of his footage with camerawork that feels remarkably composed considering the difficult conditions that he was working in. This is one of the most cinematic documentaries in recent memory, but some tightening up in the editing room could have improved it as both a film and a piece of reportage. The material about the Autodefensas, a group of Mexican citizens raging against the notorious Knights Templar gang, is vastly more engaging than the sections concerning a crackpot Arizona paramilitary group who seem more concerned with preventing illegal immigrants from entering the United States than they do with keeping drugs off the street, but Heineman awkwardly crosscuts between the two frequently as if to suggest that their efforts are somehow equivalent. B

The Club (Pablo Larrain, 2015, Chile, 98 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
This lacerating yet wryly funny indictment of the Catholic Church concerns a group of disgraced priests whose cushy banishment on a beach house is disrupted when a man badly damaged by the years of sexual abuse he suffered as an altar boy arrives looking for answers, and inadvertently incites a violent event. The church sends a crisis counselor to investigate the incident, leading to a variety of revelations that would be a shame to spoil here. Co-writer/director Pablo Larrain doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the film’s subject matter, but takes an admirably nuanced and measured approach that prevents this from feeling like a simplistic angry screed. The superb ensemble cast ensures that the priests feel like real people rather than broad caricatures, which makes it all the more effective that Larrain refuses to let them off the hook. A

Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015, Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina, 125 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Ciro Guerra’s visionary epic rivals Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) as a viscerally authentic depiction of dangerous jungle landscapes as it follows an Amazonian shaman’s experiences guiding European scientists searching for a legendary healing plant. The film threatens to go off the rails during an over-the-top sequence where the heroes are kidnapped by a false prophet, but is otherwise a thoroughly convincing and thoughtful look at the destructive effects of colonialism on South America. David Gallego’s black and white cinematography is consistently mind-blowing. B+

The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014, Denmark/Indonesia, 103 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
The companion piece to the remarkable 2012 documentary The Act of Killing approaches the 1960s Indonesian genocide from the perspective of an optometrist whose brother was one of the victims. The eye doctor visits some of the high-ranking perpetrators (many of whom are still in positions of power) under the guise of giving them medical help, but gradually confronts them about their roles in the purging, and the various responses to his interrogations are psychologically fascinating and often intense. As in his previous film, director Joshua Oppenheimer exposes an entire nation still traumatized by and unable to process their brutal history. While the film lacks the audacious premise or the unforgettable ending of its predecessor, it has a similarly disquieting power. A-

The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden, 96 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    Third Viewing
The Seventh Seal is such a revered classic of highbrow world cinema that it’s easy to forget how witty and light on its feet it is. Max von Sydow’s knight is a typical Ingmar Bergman hero in that he is tediously obsessed with “the silence of God,” but the broad existential struggles explored here are fully justified due to the fact that the man knows that he’s dying, and is in fact engaged in a protracted literal chess match with the Grim Reaper (Bengt Ekerot) that will seal his fate once and for all. Though Sydow is ostensibly the protagonist, comic relief characters such as his sarcastic squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) and a goofy actor (Nils Poppe) who they encounter on their journey are positioned as the audience identification figures, which greatly softens Bergman’s usual sledgehammer approach and makes this film far more palatable than much of his other work. Despite its wryly comic tone, this is by no means a frivolous film, and its depictions of the ravages of the Black Plague remain chilling. A-

Theeb (Naji Abu Nowar, 2014, United Arab Emirates, 100 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
The world’s first Bedouin Western follows a young boy (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) who is forced to grow up fast when he is charged with leading a WWI British soldier (Jack Fox) to a secret desert location. Things fall apart quickly as members of their party are killed by members of a rival clan and the survivors have to struggle both to avoid capture and to find drinkable water. The brutality of the film’s desert setting never feels less than authentic, which makes the lead character’s struggle absolutely gripping. B+

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents (Don Hardy Jr., 2015, USA, 87 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
This frivolous documentary about legendary avant-garde collective The Residents feels more like a DVD bonus feature than something that belongs in theaters. The group’s continuing dedication to anonymity prevents the talking heads footage from revealing any new insights to longtime fans, and too much of the performance footage was culled from what appears to have been a relatively mundane recent tour. Still, the group’s aesthetic is colorful enough that the fleeting glimpses of their pioneering music videos and bizarre TV appearances could convert some adventurous music fans to their cause. C

We Come as Friends (Hubert Sauper, 2014, France, 110 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Hubert Sauper’s disturbing documentary about the chaos in modern Sudan and the outsiders who attempt to profit from the nation’s natural resources features an impressive amount of provocative, unforgettable imagery. Unfortunately Sauper seems more interested in simply outraging the viewer with distressing images of political turbulence and abject poverty than he does in actually understanding the Sudanese crisis or offering solutions. The film is undeniably disquieting and striking, but it never comes close to feeling edifying. C+

Welcome to Leith (Michael Beach Nichols & Christopher K Walker, 2015, USA, 85 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Leith, North Dakota is one of the smallest towns in the United States, with a population of 24. In 2012 a white supremacist named Craig Cobb began buying up land in the town with plans to move in like-minded people and overthrow the tiny local government. This documentary follows the efforts of the townspeople to prevent their home from becoming a base of operations for extremists. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K Walker don’t do anything cinematically flashy or innovative here, but the story is so bizarre and fascinating, and the copious footage of Cobb’s contentious interactions with his neighbors is so consistently intense, that aesthetics almost seem beside the point. B+

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