Milwaukee Film Festival (The Movie)
How did I get in this movie? A review of the first week and look ahead at the festival’s second week.
EXT. DOWNTOWN MILWAUKEE – NIGHT
A thick fog creeps through the old stone bones of East Town. A JOURNALIST sits in the back of a cab. The piercing white lights of the cab cut across Prospect Avenue and float over Lake Michigan. The CABBIE is a
Where to boss?
Kenilworth Square East.
What’s going down? Sumthin‘ fancy?… I see you got the crushed red velvet jacket. Old school.
Oh, it’s a party for the Milwaukee Film Festival. It’s Opening Night.
Thus began my arrival at the Milwaukee Film Fest, 2014 edition. The red velvet symbolized the popping of my MFF cherry, though I wasn’t about to tell the cabbie that. So what was in store? A fortnight of promise. A monsoon of movies; some short, some long, some young, some old, some Black, some Mexican, some local, some foreign, some musically inclined, even some world premieres. Not to mention, conversations, critical thinking, and cold pizza.
The Opening Night soirée was a swanky event spread across three floors of a UW-Milwaukee building just around the corner from the Oriental. A few of the city’s best DJs spun party jams for a well-dressed crowd. Pictures were posed for and captured. Chit-chat was spat. And I got a free beer (woohoo!).
Had I not been at a sold out Pabst Theatre show (Tim and Eric & Dr. Steve Brule), I’d have been at the sold out Film Fest Opening Night screening of 1971, which my colleague Jeramey Jannene was at. But I’ve seen the film and it’s heavy, well-constructed material, reminiscent of the Oscar-winning Man on Wire (complete with dramatic reenactments). In Man on Wire the almost unthinkably ballsy action is the centerpiece, whereas in 1971 the aftermath may be even more interesting.
There is a malignant myth that the Civil Rights Movement was the work of a few singular acts of frustration and a handful of persuasive preachers. Freedom Summer enlightens us to the reality that it was a dangerous, well organized ongoing struggle, focusing on the story of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the summer of 1964, when they recruited 1,000 (mostly white) college students to Mississippi to register black voters. Its run at the festival has elapsed, but look for it on PBS eventually.
I wrote about and interviewed the director of Purgatorio, a deeply personal and poignant documentary on the US-Mexico border.
Shorts: Let’s Get Animated is a mixed bag of comical and curious offerings, mostly from Commonwealth countries. Though the prevailing mood is bleak, the images, sounds and styles vary considerably and touch on a number of subjects. Marilyn Muller, White Morning and The Missing Scarf stood out among the fray.
The rousing Revenge of the Mekons documentary premiered Saturday night with band members Sally Timms, Jon Langford, as well as director Joe Angio in the house. I wrote about the film and interviewed Angio, which is why I missed The Milwaukee Show I.
Trying to find a parking spot and fast walking past the Ivanhoe Place lot on my way to The Milwaukee Youth Show reminded me of my own youth, when my high school girlfriend and I would be running late to the Oriental or Prospect Mall movie theaters. Between that, the image of a kid riding the escalator at the Mayfair Mall Barnes and Nobles, seeing the inside of my middle school on the big screen, and all the memories of being a youth in those Oriental seats got me choked up. The morning also featured a mix of serious PSAs, documentaries, narrative and experimental shorts. Almost all the filmmakers graced the stage, which was adorable and inspiring. One of them couldn’t make it because she was attending her first semester of film school in New York City. Pretty good excuse.
After that emotional roller coaster I relaxed at Hotel Foster with a Bloody Mary, a cold slice of Ian’s pizza, and bad horror movies, presented by the Milwaukee Record. It was good to finally meet Matt Wild and Tyler Maas, who agreed that while we may technically be competitors on the Arts and Entertainment beat, we’re all in this together, like the congealed cheese on the pizza pie that is Milwaukee.
Sunday night I took in Mystery Road, a piercing cop drama set in a rural Australian town. The plot and action are thin, but the cinematography is beautiful and the story exposes us to the ugly racial tension between whites and Aboriginal people.
The locally produced Serial Daters Anonymous has some serious miscues, but on the whole, it’s a positive sign of growth in the Milwaukee film industry. Director Chris Emmons is passionate about proving that moviemaking can create jobs and that Milwaukee should reinstate tax incentives for TV and film production. The movie’s leading lady was a psychologically dense and challenging female character, and the diversity of locations and cast members represent our city fairly well.
The last time I was at a packed show in the balcony of The Oriental was on the opening night of Bowling for Columbine. Alloy Orchestra laid a Jack White approved (his label, Third Man Records, sells the vinyl) score on the legendary 1929 silent Russian documentary (some say the first of its kind) Man With A Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. I glanced down to jot a note and missed the baby being born, and after that I couldn’t take my eyes off the spectacle, which was at times both elegant and frantic.
INT. ORIENTAL THEATRE – NIGHT
The Milwaukee hip-hop community is out in their fineries. The documentary ‘Til Infinity: Celebrating 20 Years of the Souls of Mischief is screening.The sacred cinema house is drinking in the spirit of early 90s rap, arguably the Golden Age. Long time fans are geeking out. We get to see the actual street poles in Oakland where the rap group first freestyled. It squarely puts the crew in the context of Bay Area rap, probably the most important region outside of NYC in the history of hip-hop.
The highlight of my festival experience came somewhere in the middle of the ‘Til Infinity screening when the crowd erupted in cheers at a reference to the 90s era low-power UHF music video channel The Box. As a television employee and childhood friend of the Souls of Mischief (and Hieroglyphics crew), director Shomari Smith was in a unique position to make the film. He said as much during the Q&A.
Jennifer Lopez had Selena. I think this is my Selena!
A major through line in the film are the shout-outs by contemporaries of the Souls of Mischief who were with them on the 2011 “Rock the Bells” tour, from which we see a good chunk of live footage.
When do you ever walk up to Rza and actually have something relevant to say to him?
After the film and Q&A, I caught up with Smith in the lobby. A rapper friend of mine, MC (mikal), busted out his iPhone.
I’m just gonna shoot this, okay?
Mikal caught me a little off guard, but I didn’t stop him, nor did Smith. Below is a clip of our conversation, where Smith discusses the group’s trust in his vision and how the film was a no-budget labor of love.
Now to look ahead at the second glorious week of the 2014 Milwaukee Film Fest.
Acquaint yourself with the righteous side of the fairer sex in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (4:30pm, Times). Later, get inside the mind of a suicide bomber in Horses of God(9:30pm, Oriental).
Skip out of work early and get your daytime ballgame fix with Shorts: Sports Shorts. Shorts About Sports (2pm, Oriental). The Women’s Rights Movement takes the spotlight for a second consecutive day with Vessel (4:45pm, Downer), the story of a controversial abortion doctor. Later at the Downer you can uncover the secrets of the magic trade in An Honest Liar (7:15pm).
The primetime screening of Finding Fela! (7:30pm, Oriental) will be nothing short of lively, which I’ll have a Spotlight for tomorrow.
Sure, you could go down to your trusted Milwaukee Public Library and borrow a copy of the 1987 classic Hollywood Shuffle (7pm, Oriental), but it’s highly unlikely that its acclaimed director Robert Townsend will be available for your personal screening. However, he will be in attendance at the Oriental.
Friday also brings one of the most anticipated shows in the Hotel Foster music series, featuring GGOOLLDD, Rio Turbo, and Color Numbers (9pm).
Aspiring filmmakers should not miss the “Pitch Us Your Doc!” (Noon) and “Film Financing Panel” (2:30pm) at Colectivo on Prospect.
All of my Saturday picks are music related, anchored by the most anticipated film of the festival, Jimi: All Is By My Side (7pm, Oriental). The screening became an even hotter ticket when the festival locked down an appearance by the film’s writer and director, Mequon-native, Oscar-winning John Ridley (writer 12 Years A Slave, Three Kings). In his keynote Wesley Morris said about the film, “It’s a dream-like distillation of who Jimi Hendrix is…unconventional style…taps into a very specific period in England…it’s really smart.” I’ve been waiting for this one since the first images of André 3000 as Jimi surfaced online.
Of all the music films, only The Ballad of Shovels and Rope(4:45pm, Downer) gives you the opportunity to see the story on the big screen, then see the band (Shovels & Rope) live at Turner Hall Ballroom (8pm).
The jams continue into the night as one of the greatest concert films, Stop Making Sense (10:30pm, Oriental), captures the Talking Heads at their height.
Wake and bake (some croissants, or something) for Paulette (11:15am, Downer), a French film that smells like the beloved Showtime series Weeds, this time about a Parisian pensioner and her gang of elderly neighbors who make ends meet through some innocent illegal activities.
The Imitation Game (1:30pm), a biopic about a brilliant British mathematician played by the mighty Benedict Cumberbatch, will no doubt reach theaters on a wide release, but if you can get a ticket (rush only) you’ll be among the first to see this talked about film, which is already attracting Oscar-buzz.
Round out your weekend with two music-centric movies: Take Me to the River (4:30pm, Oriental) is about the monumental role that Memphis and Stax Records played in the history of music. See why Nick Cave is considered a legend in the critically acclaimed film 20,000 Days on Earth (7pm, Fox Bay), which has been described as “a stick of cinematic dynamite blowing up any and all rockumentary conventions.” (Back in June Nick Cave and his group The Bad Seeds captivated the crowd at the Milwaukee Theatre.)
I missed the first installment of The Milwaukee Show, but I won’t be making the same mistake twice. The sequel premieres at 7pm at the Oriental. Later, grab a drinking buddy and head over to Don’t Leave Me (9:30pm, Downer) for a tale of two hard-drinking and hard-thinking Belgian farmers.
Point and Shoot (7pm, Oriental) looks like one of those moving character documentaries, this time about a restless Baltimore native who becomes a Libyan rebel taking up arms against Muammar Gaddafi. Director Marshall Curry, friend of the festival whose 2009 film Racing Dreams was the Opening Night feature for the inaugural festival, will be in attedance.
I’ll be presenting a Spotlight on Hamlet A.D.D. (9:30pm, Times) next week.
If you’re not ready for commitment and want to keep your relationship with Milwaukee Film casual, I might recommend Charlie’s Country (7pm, Times), about an Aboriginal Australian man trying to maintain his culture and land, featuring a “Un Certain Regard” acting award for the lead, David Gulpilil, from last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Closing night. Headlining is The Surface (8pm, Oriental), shot on Lake Michigan and starring Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings, The Goonies, Rudy). Produced and written by Milwaukeean Jeff Gendelman, this should be a special event. Many of the cast and crew will be in attendance. Preceding The Surface will be Dear MKE (5pm, Oriental) a series of shorts that paint a portrait of modern Milwaukee.
If you prefer to stay away from the crowds, I might suggest Workers (7:15pm, Downer) a fictional film about the very real and precarious situation of illegal immigrants in the United States. Cesar’s Grill (7:15pm, Fox-Bay) looks like an interesting story about a vegetarian who comes home to Ecuador (my fatherland) to help his father’s (pro-meat) restaurant.
Well, there you have it. There is definitely no shortage of films to see, industry authorities to impart wisdom, and music to enjoy (on-screen and off). And if you still want more info, go ahead and pick up an official festival program. After all, it’s only the halfway mark.