Fri Oct 11 2013

The Milwaukee Film Festival left me very unfulfilled in 2012 (through no fault of its own!); I happened to be in an awful frame of mind at the opening night party and didn’t make it out to anywhere near as many screenings as I hoped (and that irresistibly-titled Eddie - The Sleepwalking Cannibal flick was terrible), but of course Giant Spider Invasion night was awesome in every respect, and then on the final night my core Milwaukee crew had a total blast seeing Let The Bullets Fly and suddenly it was all over. The best thing that happened was it reminded me how much I love GOING TO THE MOVIES. I hate to be that guy, but most modern mainstream movies are a waste of time; obviously that’s not an objective statement, but 99% of the time I personally get more out of old and/or independent films than something that’s currently playing in a theater. Anyway, I was determined to get more out of this year’s fest. Great success!!

The Fest

The atmosphere is a huge factor in why I love this thing. For the most part, people who go to these screenings are lovers of film. Out of eleven outings (I'm missing a stub, darn it!), I heard someone's phone go off only once, and not a single instance of people gabbing during the picture. It's not by any means a community of snobs; it's just people who pay attention and genuinely love being there, right down to the volunteers who keep everything organized. And obviously, we have one of the sweetest movie palaces in the country at the Oriental, and Downer and Fox Bay are far from ordinary themselves; nothing goes better with popcorn and a great movie than beer, am I right? Night after night, you start seeing familiar faces, and unfamiliar faces start becoming familiar, and everyone is always smiling. It's hard to have a bad time.

I will admit I enjoyed last year's introductory piece more; I felt inspired each time by the way it captured the intangible magic of film itself (and it had Mark Borchardt in it), but this year's was charming as well and kept people chuckling about Milverine right through to the final night. And seriously, 88.9: the we-played-The-Constellations-first ship has sailed, y'know? You guys play lots of local music--would it hurt to support one of those acts in your featured promo bit at this fest? But of course Duane Dudek's bits were cool (from a writer's standpoint, I wish every Moody Blues fan would see Duane's summation of his intent as a critic), and the membership episodes were very inspired as well. And now that I've way overanalyzed the ten minutes prior to the actual films…

Best Film I Saw

I only realized how difficult a choice this is after I typed the heading. I was totally planning to make this about The Act Of Killing, because I've never had a reaction to anything in my life like I had to this film. It's the type of thing that you can only recommend to certain people, because some people might be forever disturbed by you if you tell them you liked it. It's an absolutely revolting picture that left me feeling simultaneously ill for humanity and shaken with gratitude for the location I happen to have been born in, even though it's clear that this country is significantly responsible for so much suffering all over the world. There are so many levels of personal and global condemnation in this documentary that it required immediate discussion afterward, which I unfortunately didn't get enough of because I really needed to get to bed. The truth is, I want to see it again, as nauseating as it was, just to be able to discuss it. But then I think about actually doing that, and I'm not sure I can stomach it. You could say director Joshua Oppenheimer just got lucky in a lot of ways, if you were the sort to believe in luck, which I'm not. It's an absolutely brilliant piece of art, and in multiple ways, a heroic piece of art, even despite of its very literal cruelty.

But a better film than 2001: A Space Odyssey? Geez, no, I don't think so. Act is a masterpiece of deliberately evoking a specific set of feelings; 2001 is the exact opposite, dependent entirely on your own lifetime worth of experiences to curate your reaction to it. I'm not going to use this space to interpret the film; I've seen it about a dozen times and my reaction is different every time. It's not as though I catch different things; the film is so bare-bones that everything is very apparent on first viewing. What's different is what it makes me think about. I've felt hopeless at the end of it, and I've felt revitalized. Sometimes I feel like humanity is destined for greatness; sometimes I feel like we're doomed.  And at least once or twice, I thought 'come on, gimme a break, this is bullshit.' But after decades of exploring it, I do think it's one of the peak cinematic achievements of all time.

Still…Stop Making Sense was the best film I saw. I'd say until probably ten years ago, I hated Talking Heads. I can't explain it except to say their handful of radio hits always bugged me, and when you get into a habit of scoffing at something, it's hard to break out of that mode. Phish's awful half-speed cover of "Cities" has never garnered any points either. But over time, a mountain of evidence began to pile up, and I decided it was time I broke out of the negative mindset and made my way through the catalog. That debut album is terrible. David Byrne has no clue what his persona is yet. The music is an awkward cocktail of traditional rock antecedents, prescient rhythmic experimentation and pissy New York attitude, with an unconvincing dash of punk-rock-by-default. That stalled me. Then I saw the YouTube videos of the Rome show from 1980 with Adrian Belew and I was like, wait a minute. But it's hard to dedicate as much time as one ought to obsessing over a long-gone band when you have a duty to write about new music, know what I mean? Then, still with some trepidation after not really liking the album, I went to the Byrne/St. Vincent show at the Pabst, and although Byrne was pretty timid compared to the old days, he radiated an otherworldly charm and of course Annie Clark is ridiculously amazing as a performer, so that was very helpful. But then I saw Stop Making Sense at the Oriental on 35mm, and for the first time it dawned on me that Byrne is an indisputable genius with the most unique and glorious vision of how to present music to the world and what it should make people do--i.e., think about the world and the universe and your place in them, dance, and feel amazing. Not only that, but Jonathan Demme captured it all in what amounts to its own separate but intensely symbiotic triumph. As in, even if you hated Talking Heads, you'd have to be an idiot to claim it's a bad movie. Also, I might not know much about how the brain or the eyes work, but it was on this night that I realized fully that there's something that digital film cannot fool my senses into feeling that's right there on 35mm. All I can guess is that no amount of pixels can quite put together reality, and some things you can only understand subconsciously. Anyway, this was a life-changing night, so Stop Making Sense must've been the best movie I saw.

The Best Night Of The Fest

Duh, it was the night my wife played the score to Earth with Altos. Two great writers have already expressed why, here and here, plus Altos have been my favorite Milwaukee band for years, and now my wife joined the band, so duh.

Best Shorts

We only saw two collections, The Best Damn F*#@ing Midnight Program Ever. Sh*t. and Let's Get Animated, both highly entertaining, although I must say I liked last year's edition of the former better. As for this year's, Flytopia was soooo good for its first half but totally failed to capitalize on its creepy avant vibe; otherwise, Oh Sheep was an amazing cartoon cute/gory juxtaposition, and The Apocalypse, Sea Pig and It's Not You, It's Me were all funny and gross, as you'd hope. The animated stuff took the cake, though; Oh Willy… was a crazy all-fabric stop-motion story that's hilarious, thought-provoking and gross, and Boles was a claymation writer's fantasy/nightmare that's both visually and thematically engrossing. Marcel, King of Tervuren was a great narrative and a dazzling display of drawings come to life, and Bird Food was another adorable/evil combo. I don't know, do people actually seek these out? I hope so; these are all worth seeing.


It could be argued that I concentrated too much on old movies, but there's no doubt that the four flicks I saw on 35mm were all bona fide masterpieces. The one I haven't mentioned was Wings Of Desire, which I totally didn't realize City Of Angels was a remake of. Does that get the award for remake least like the original? Oh, probably not, but anyway. For the first 20 minutes or so, I thought it might drown in its own surrealist bucket, but then it unfolded into this delightful narrative with these totally unique performances and imaginative cinematography and one of the most perfect scores I can think of. It's one of those jarring reminders of the emotion you rarely ever feel in modern cinema that this movie is drenched in.

I thought The Angel's Share, Northwest and Sightseers were all highly entertaining bits of violence and empathy, definitely worth seeing though I wouldn't put them at the top of anyone's priority list. Northwest was ultra-realistic and paradigmatically tragic, while Sightseers was utterly absurd and morbidly hilarious, and Angel's Share split the difference into something not very convincing but funny and heartwarming nevertheless. But if you're at all a fan of retroish camp horror, you really should see Billy Club. When you compare it to the most well-known mainstream franchises, it is admittedly a bit unpolished in terms of acting and editing (although the producers are purportedly putting their earnings from the film fest into perfecting some of the technical aspects), but in terms of story, visual creativity and atmosphere, it is right up there with anything in its category. It moves along at a breakneck pace, with some inventive transitions between scenes, several downright hilarious scenes and even a bit of character depth. Sure, it's obvious from the opening scene who the killer will turn out to be, but it had to be that way, and the telling is so much fun. Made mostly in Wisconsin (parts of it a few blocks from my house!) and 100% worth seeing for anybody who likes a good old-fashioned slasher.
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