2014 Milwaukee Film Festival (The Prequel)
The city will be blitzed by 275 films. Which ones should you see?
It’s my favorite time of the year, and I’m not referring to the fact that Fall has arrived. (Though I do adore Autumn.) I’m talking about film festival season, which officially kicked off a month ago in Venice.
So many memories from fests of old: discovering the raw power of Tom Hardy in Bronson at the 2009 Glasgow Film Fest. Cheering for New Zealand’s forerunner to The Flight of the Conchords — a dynamic pair of comedy folk singing, freedom fighting, lesbian twins, one of whom is battling cancer in the heartwarming and utterly inspirational documentary The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, which I caught at the 2010 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Fest.
Then there was the time Jim from The (American) Office (aka John Krasinski) and Sam Mendes (director of American Beauty) walked past and made eye contact with me before their screening of Away We Go on the opening night of the 2009 Edinburgh International Film Fest. (At Edinburgh I also saw Darren Aronofsky deflect every Rachel Weisz question and Robocop remake rumor.)
Over the next two weeks Milwaukeeans will have the chance to create their own cinema-centric memories as our international film feast is served up hot and heavy. Some may even make eye contact with Mikey from The Goonies! (Or Sam Gamgee, as Sean Astin is known to millennials.) The Milwaukee Film Festival is less than a decade old, but it boasts a nearly overwhelming program of on-screen entertainment and enlightenment from all corners of the globe.
For the majority of its existence, the film festival was where Oscar buzz began, where critics vacationed, and where Hollywood bought the movies they didn’t have the balls to make. The big five (Venice, Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, Cannes) still serve that purpose, to some degree or another, but the festival circuit has expanded immensely. And 2014 looks to be the year Milwaukee enters the stage as a world-class film festival host.
It’s essential to note that film festivals aren’t just about watching movies and eating popcorn. After all, many films can be streamed for free online, sometimes before they reach theaters. The film festival is an experience complete with Q&A’s, parties, panels, actor appearances and fellow cinephiles. Let’s not forget the most important element: a darkened room inside a movie palace. And damn do we have some fine palaces for this fest: The Downer, The Times, Fox Bay and the centerpiece, The Oriental.
The hardworking team behind the fest has broadened their scope this time around. There is an emphasis on advocacy, highlighted by tonight’s opening film, 1971 (Oriental, 7 p.m.), about a group of citizens who exposed government corruption before Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, a few of whom will be in attendance at the screening, which is extra exciting considering that the members first identified themselves earlier this year. 1971 will be followed by a soirée at Kenilworth Square East.
New to the fest is a series on African-American issues entitled Black Lens. Passport: Mexico has a thrilling slate of Spanish-language films. Sound Vision, movies about music, is back and set to have butts shaking in their seats. A slew of engaging documentaries, international offerings, shorts, Milwaukee-centric productions, lectures, panel discussions, and live music round out the 275 film fortnight.
After poring over the extensive festival program, I have compiled a list of personal recommendations. This first installment spans opening weekend plus next Monday and Tuesday.
On the advocacy tip, catch the spirit of the 60s civil rights movement in Freedom Summer (Oriental, 4:15 p.m.). Later that night at Fox Bay, the unsettling tale of for profit juvenile detention centers is the subject of Kids for Cash (7:00 p.m.).
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Oriental, 4:30 p.m.) is much anticipated given the fact that it was made in defiance of a 20-year ban on filmmaking by the Iranian government and is a fictionalized indictment of the current regime.
Art enthusiasts will delight in Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists (Downer, 4:30 p.m.), the first look at a dynamic mid-60s movement that arose concurrently with Pop Art.
It’s too bad the midnight screening, Wetlands (Oriental), isn’t scheduled for The Times, which was the site of many debaucherous midnight movies during my high school days. But this German adaptation of a novel about an 18-year old girl with a passion for masturbation is sure to deliver the kind of late night lewdness my friends I were up to on 59th and Vliet when we were the protagonist’s age.
Local rock band The Championship christens the Hotel Foster live music series at 9 p.m.
If you missed opening night, 1971 will be playing again at the Oriental (1:45 p.m.). Slow Food Story (Oriental, 4 p.m.) should be an eye opening (and mouth watering) look at the worldwide culinary movement and its founder, Carlo Petrini.
Fans of the saxophone and racial diversity (I am both) might rise early for the kid-friendly Felix (Times, 11:15 a.m.) from South Africa. In the late evening fans of 90s rap group Souls of Mischief (‘Til Infinity: Celebrating 20 Years of the Souls of Mischief, Oriental, 9pm) and genre-bending British outfit The Mekons (Revenge of the Mekons, Downer, 9:45 p.m.) will rejoice at their presence on the big screen.
A pair of Cream City Cinema offerings will be served up on Saturday: Serial Daters Anonymous (Fox Bay, 9:45 p.m.), a dating comedy shot entirely in Milwaukee, and Hamlet A.D.D. (Oriental, 9:45pm), Shakespeare reimaged for the age of viral videos and memes (featuring Dustin “Screech from ‘Saved by the Bell’” Diamond).
If you can’t wait for St. Patty’s Day, and considering last week’s event at Turner Hall Ballroom and all the bars that celebrated being “halfway to March 17,” it’s safe to say that many can’t wait, Life’s a Breeze (Downer, 4:30 p.m.), a “bittersweet recession comedy,” will deliver your Irish fix.
A trio of talks at the Colectivo on Prospect begin with Wesley Morris, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and cultural critic for Grantland, delivering a lecture on the “State of Cinema” at Noon. Le Freak play Hotel Foster at 9 p.m.
Begin with bloody’s at Hotel Foster from 11am-2:30pm, or play it sober and catch an impressive offering of young local talent in The Milwaukee Youth Show (Oriental, 10:30am). Get angry at “The Man” (and yourself) during Big Men (Fox Bay, 9:30 p.m.), about a battle between an energy company and a group of Nigerian militants. CRU (Times, 4:30 p.m.), the story of four African-American high school friends reuniting after a tragic accident twenty years prior, racked up awards and won over audiences all summer long.
I’m confident the music teacher at the elementary school I work in will be attending the Mary Poppins (Sing-A-Long) (Oriental, 4:30 p.m.). And for a less feel good experience (to say the least), Heli (Oriental, 9:15 p.m.) is a brutal portrait of the hellish drug-related violence running rampant in Mexico.
Marquette University will host “After 1971: Media, Freedom of Information, and the Public’s Right to Know” at 12:15 p.m. at Eckstein Hall. The life of the beloved King of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, will be brought to the big screen in Finding Fela (Oriental, 1:15 p.m.), a great companion to the Broadway musical I’ve seen twice.
From the Ukraine/Netherlands comes arguably the most challenging entry in the fest, The Tribe (Oriental, 4:30 p.m.), a spellbinding immersive experience in a school for the deaf told only through unsubtitled Ukrainian sign language. My (middle) namesake, Simón Bolivar, who helped South America shake off Spanish colonialism, comes to life in the historical epic The Liberator (Downer, 7:30 p.m.). Monday is anchored by the first installment of The Milwaukee Show I (Oriental, 8 p.m,), a series of shorts by local filmmakers.
Music may be the best part of Tuesday’s lineup, not only Webster X, Soul Low, and Bliss & Alice at Hotel Foster (9pm).
is playing again (Times, 4:30 p.m.), but the gem of the day will be the 1929 silent film Man With A Movie Camera (Oriental, 7 p.m.) accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra (“the best live film accompanists,” so says Roger Ebert).
Next Wednesday I’ll have a weekend review/preview for the end of that week+the second weekend’s offerings.