Have I mentioned before that the Milwaukee Film Festival is my absolute favorite thing about Milwaukee? Yes I have. But Cal, why then didn’t we hear a peep out of you about it last year? Well, kids, that was because, due to sporting events, Phish concerts, and family hardship, I made it to a total of zero screenings in 2018. Thus, my ignorance of last year’s changes may have inspired questions about MFF2019 that have already been answered; sue me. No pesky Brewers playoffs this year, so I managed 17 screenings (two of which were taken in from my living room couch, which may be cheating but such is life), and for the first time, not one of the films I saw completely sucked, except the one whose suckiness was already well-established. Super mega bravo to everyone involved in programming this year’s fest. I’m eager to catch a whole bunch more that I couldn’t fit into my schedule. Without further ado, here are some categorical headings with sentences below them. Enjoy.
I can’t recall a year I didn’t enjoy the preroll at the festival. This year’s subtle animation of Whitney Salgado’s program artwork stands out, though. It took me at least four viewings before I noticed the blinking eyes on the mountain, and that’s after already admiring the booklet for weeks. It’s a beautiful piece, augmented by (at least?) three different infectious little musical vignettes courtesy of Justin Krol and Quinn Scharber, possibly the least cutesy intro yet, if markedly less ambitious than in years past. And Kurt Raether’s Oriental Theatre “house rules” sketch I’ll never grow tired of watching. Classic. As for the membership pitch, I did always love the member testimonials, but Kristopher Pollard (creator of my favorite program booklet the fest ever had) as a bag of popcorn is admittedly a hoot.
-Oriental: Duh. Still not thrilled about the cocktail selection, and the popcorn was generally sub-par, but real butter at least (I’m pretty sure), and it is the most incredible movie theater I’ve ever been in. Still my number-one choice for establishment in Milwaukee I’d like to basically live in.
-Avalon: It’s dreamy, like Fox-Bay fully realized. The comfiest seats, best drink selection, and I’m not saying the food is amazing but I was pretty surprised at how tasty the fries were. I don’t recall ever getting popcorn here; too many other choices. The servers do a great job being as unobtrusive as possible, too, but if you’re easily distracted, the minimal chatter is the only strike against this place.
-Times: I’ll always love it. They serve good beer and whether due simply to my accumulated memories of the place, there’s a subversive air to it. I feel weirdly at home in there. Popcorn: hit or miss.
-Rivoli: It’s nice! Nothing fancy, sort of a Downer surrogate, maybe? Except it takes about eight times as long to bike there and even driving you have a tough time navigating any critical half-hour windows between screenings. Pretty perfect if you wanna spend an afternoon or evening in Cedarburg, though. I can’t comment on the popcorn; the line was too long.
Jann Serr: For a makeshift cinema experience complete with folding chairs, it was easy to just surrender to the film. The sound in there was excellent. The popcorn was the dry, uniformly pre-butter-flavored variety, but it wasn’t stale, so there’s that. Otherwise they had Mountain Dew and Pepsi and were all out of water.
Broadway: I didn’t make it to this one. Maybe next year.
QUESTIONS FOR THE VOID
-What happened to Downer and Fox-Bay? As to the former, I can speculate, something something Landmark, but their popcorn was always reliably great! Fox-Bay, though, is a bit more of a loss, because even though the acoustics there aren’t the greatest, at least you could squeeze in a meal if you had to, and they do serve adult beverages. I hope they bring it back in the future.
-What happened to all the random short films they’d wedge in prior to the features in years past? Did people not dig those? I always felt like we were getting a bonus surprise. Maybe I just didn’t hit the right screenings but I didn’t see a single short outside of actual shorts programs.
-Why don’t they split the Herzfeld Competition program into separate contests for documentaries and fiction? It’s preposterous to pit them against each other, and this is the third straight year that a documentary has won the de facto best-of-fest award. Nothing against documentaries, but I’m just more interested in, well, writing, I guess. And I’m always curious as to how my opinion stacks up against The Experts. I’m sure I’m in the minority here; I don’t get to travel to other film festivals so far, so maybe this is just how it’s done but I think it’s dumb.
-Why did they change “rush” to “standby”? I liked it better when it was made less sense!
-Why do the people who want to talk through the whole movie always sit in the back row and leave early? It’s almost like they know they’re a bunch of assholes and don’t want anyone to see their faces.
BEST LOCAL SHORT I SAW
It was a close race, but “Love Begins With M”, from The Milwaukee Show After Dark, takes this one, narrowly edging out “Everything You Need To Know About Pierogi” and “Rocky VI”, but really this whole program was pretty great. I didn’t make it to The (traditional) Milwaukee Show, but I have to give a special shout-out to Saebra & Carlyle’s music video for “Rabbit Hole”, a mesmerizing single-shot thriller that got the win it deserved, as well as the premier of Amanda Huff’s new song “Division”, another highlight of the Music Video Show.
BEST NON-LOCAL SHORT I SAW
I failed to make it out to The Best Damn Fucking Midnight Program Ever. Shit. this year, which is a bummer, although I’m still scarred from past iterations (Gwilliam. Never forget.). I only caught the Out Of This World program, which was a little light on sci-fi this year but this wasn’t a detriment. The screening opened with “The Katy Universe” and “Something Like Loneliness”, both of which I loved, but my favorite was probably “Curandera”, a trippy, mystical piece that offers some perspective on healing relationships without spelling anything out, and “La Bruja” and “You Are The Captain” were both terrific, too. Whoops, that’s almost all of them.
BEST LOCAL FEATURE I SAW
I only saw one, Give Me Liberty, and it is awesome. I can’t remember any film I’ve seen that’s so equally stressful and heartwarming. I laughed a lot and only felt sheepish about it a couple times. It tackles all kinds of societal issues without judgment, a subtly activist film that offers real, ground-floor, interpersonal solutions rather than preaching. There’s little black-and-white about the plot, no definitive stance; you just leave feeling inspired and maybe a little better about humanity and our chances to fix our broken country.
…Aw who am I kidding? Coven was clearly the best local film experience of the fest. We live in an age when you can catch this 40-minute cult classic in 35mm in one of the country’s most glorious movie palaces, and enjoy a free-flowing Q&A with director Mark Borchardt afterwards. All is not lost. I probably can’t put into words what a thrill this was. Some pleasures are simply self-evident.
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE I SAW
I didn’t see any documentaries. Who wants to escape from reality into reality? Documentaries are stupid. (I’M JUST KIDDING, sort of.) However, I did see a film that was based on true events, only set in the future: One Man Dies A Million Times. It’s based on the experiences of scientists at a seed bank during the siege of Leningrad, reimagined as a near-future event, and it was one of the most moving films I’ve seen in a long time. Great acting and great writing, and the kicker is that the narration was all pieced together from poetry and journal entries from people who actually lived through the siege; even in translation, these fragments are absolutely crushing and beautiful. And that’s how I justified creating a totally misleading heading just to tell you about this incredible film.
BEST COMEDY FEATURE I SAW
My wife and I almost rewatched Greener Grass the night after we first saw it. It’s hard to become a cult classic in modern times; there’s endless content to keep up with, making repeated viewings seem less and less, uh, productive, but this is one of a couple films in this year’s lineup I could see myself practically memorizing if I had the time. It’s a pointed satire of suburban USA but it’s definitely not without heart and I just laughed soooo much. Shout-out to Matt Wild for his timely insistence that this one was a must-see.
BEST DRAMA FEATURE I SAW
It was the first screening I took in and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is almost impossible to grok upon first impression, but, well, I like that sort of flick. I have a feeling I’m going to get a lot out of a second viewing, but this film is unforgettable even if you find yourself at the end with no clue what just happened. Forget about the 3D aspect, forget even the fact of the hour-long continuous shot; the imagery is what will haunt you, and whatever aspects of the mystery you can’t unravel in real time. While the entire film is hypnotic, the final hour in particular feels so dreamlike that it nearly put me in a literal trance; walking out of there was like waking from a dream I was trying really hard to keep ahold of. This is magical filmmaking.
BEST UNCATEGORIZABLE FEATURE I SAW
File under: Mystery/Thriller/Comedy/Teen/Drama, Knives And Skin sets you up for one kind of film and unravels to become a different kind every ten minutes or so. As character after character enters, you find yourself amazed that you’re so easily able to keep them all straight, blessed with just enough evidence to start empathizing with each one. You realize pretty quickly that there will be awkward turns and questionable bits of dialogue; attendees at the screening I went to were prone to laughter at completely inappropriate moments, ultimately making any moment appropriate for any reaction. It’s like a John Hughes/David Lynch/Robert Altman hybrid in terms of ambition and flow, and its minor flaws only inspire excitement for whatever writer/director Jennifer Reed might dream up next, but as is, it has serious cult potential, if there’s such a thing any more. It’s not easy to make something this weird also this emotional; your heart will get tugged in soooo many different directions, and you might get to the end feeling empathy for all 80 or so characters—even the assholes. Another one I really wanna watch again.
BEST OVERALL EXPERIENCE
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, obviously. Not only was I due for a rewatching of this, a film which, like all Lynch, demands as many viewings as you can squeeze into life and always rewards you for them; the two frikkin stars of the film were there for a Q&A afterward. And they were such gracious and thoughtful people, Sheryl Lee and Ray Wise, these people who have had such a profound impact on my life I can’t even do words about it. As I sit here, I sort of wish I were the type of person who wants to meet celebrities. I should’ve gone to the post-show thing to get a photo taken, just to be able to look them each in the eyes and thank them for their work, but I was very tired. The film fest is always exhausting, and it’s worth every bit of lost sleep.
WORST FILM I SAW
For whatever reason, you can’t stream Showgirls anywhere, and reading that some critics and filmmakers have reassessed this bomb as a fierce satire, I decided what better time to see a terrible movie I nevertheless feel compelled to see than at a film festival? All I can say is it was a really fun experience in a mostly-empty main room of the Oriental laughing my ass off with other people, quite the singular midnight-movie atmosphere. But if Paul Verhoeven really was going for the jugular, he could’ve done so much more with this. There are just too many moments of stupidity unrelated to any possible level of self-awareness, and I’m pretty sure I can tell the difference between bad acting and ironic bad acting. But hey, I’ll admit this movie might not be quite as bad as I think it is.
A COUPLE OTHER NOTABLE MENTIONS BEFORE WE GO
-I want people to watch Edge Of The Knife and then tell me if I’m crazy, because to me, this was an utterly captivating film bordering on brilliance, except for the lengthy stretches that featured only Tyler York, who was good in the other scenes but terrible in these. I felt like he had something written into his contract demanding a certain amount of screen time, only most of his solo scenes would’ve been challenging even for a much better actor. (Note: I have no idea if this is even a thing; it’s probably not true at all.) I get that the jarring transitions between modes of the film were probably intentional, but dammit, I just kept squirming every time it switched to York in the woods. Maybe he was simply the most-qualified ethnic Haida actor around; maybe co-directors Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown should’ve rethought their approach to those scenes; maybe I’m not even a film critic. I just wanted the movie to be as good as its best parts, which were truly inspiring and/or deeply heart-wrenching.
-Suburban Birds is one that I feel like I’d gain a greater appreciation for if I watched it one more time, but it wasn’t quite captivating enough the first time to make me want to. And I like dry, slow-burning dramas; I’m just not sure there’s enough at stake with any of these characters to make me want to definitively get to the bottom of the story. Just mentioning that it’s worth seeing if you want a puzzle and don’t mind endless red herrings and drawn-out scenes in which nothing really happens.
-Watching The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, I felt like it’s film that a lot of people should see, but that most of the people who will see it aren’t the ones who need its lessons. It at least gives the impression of one very long continuous shot—not the whole movie but the meat of it—and it successfully elicits discomfort repeatedly in an involuntarily-voyeuristic sense. Not to oversimplify it, but the overriding theme to me was womanhood. Men cannot fathom the everyday trials that every woman goes through, and then you add domestic violence on top of it, yet it rolls out simply as a day in the life. I thought the performances were practically perfect and can’t imagine anyone not being moved; every detail seems so true to life, and it’s okay to feel hope and despair at the same time.
That’s all I’ve got. Thank you once again, Milwaukee Film. Can’t wait ’til next year!