In case you missed it, the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival is running now through Thursday, October 12 at the Oriental Theatre, Downer Theatre, Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, Times Cinema, and Avalon Theater. Here’s what we saw during days 1-4; here are some highlights from days 5-12…
What a way to go out: The incomparable Harry Dean Stanton died this past September at the age of 91, leaving behind a memorable role in the new Twin Peaks and a starring role in Lucky as his last on-screen performances. The latter finds the veteran character actor as the lonely-but-content Lucky living in a lonely-but-content desert town, doing his daily exercises, running his daily errands, stopping off at the local bar, and occasionally talking to pal Howard (David Lynch) about a missing tortoise. A nasty fall (but an otherwise clean bill of health) leads to a sweet and warmly observed exploration of What It’s All About. Some clunky philosophical dialogue is easily forgiven as director John Carroll Lynch finds moments of grace in morning walks and unexpected friendships, and as Stanton gives everything he’s got. Also, Stanton’s Alien co-star Tom Skerritt shows up, which is great.
There Will Be Bowling 2: Electric Boogaloo
Here’s what you missed if you missed out on our second annual MFF bowling tournament at Landmark Lanes: four teams of bowlers bowling three games in hopes of toppling the not-so-mighty Milwaukee Record team, lots of beer, lots of goofy prizes, and lots of fun. Team “Boner” ended up winning the whole shebang, besting our in-house team by 205 pins. Team “Raiders,” team “Get Some,” and even a Milwaukee Film team all put in fine efforts, too. Thanks to Landmark for having us, Milwaukee Film for giving us an excuse to bowl, and to everyone that showed up!
Birdboy: The Forgotten Children
Wednesday was unofficially “Bird Day” at Avalon Theater, as the Bay View theater’s main screen hosted screenings of Carpinteros (a.k.a. Woodpeckers), The Ornithologist, and Pecking Order, before ending on an arresting piece of avian animation, Birdboy. The day’s theme concluded with a well-attended screening of the Goya award-winning film, which presented visually striking and dreamlike imagery following the flight (and fight) of the titular creature, and the other “forgotten children” clinging to life in a post-apocalyptic island landscape mired in violence, drugged-out hallucinations, industrial desolation, and an overwhelming bleakness that one wouldn’t expect from so gorgeous a film.
Remember the first time you saw Best In Show and then the subsequent year when you loved real-life fancy-pants American dog shows and their quirky contestants? That, but replace “fancy-pants American dog shows” with “regular-pants New Zealand poultry shows.” Pecking Order documents the lead-up to New Zealand’s 2015 National Poultry Show. It introduces you to a number of chicken breeders and gives you access to contentious meetings wherein the future of chicken breeding is discussed. There are tense moments, there are laughs, there are prizes, and there are like 9 billion breeds of chickens. [Screens again Tuesday, October 10, 9:15 p.m., Downer Theatre.]
Centerpiece Film: The Blood Is At The Doorstep
It’s safe to say The Blood Is At The Doorstep is the most vital film in this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival. The heart-wrenching documentary was made in Milwaukee by local director Erik Ljung, who spent three years following the family of Dontre Hamilton as they sought any semblance of justice for their fallen family member whose life was cut senselessly short by 14 bullets fired by a Milwaukee police officer. The first local screening of the festival’s Centerpiece Film illustrated the documentary’s importance, as Oriental Theatre was filled to capacity, including family members from various Milwaukee area families who have lost family members to police and vigilante violence. Despite the heavy subject matter and the lack of resolution for what’s become a national epidemic, the theater was filled with an air of optimism and positivity as the Hamilton family answered questions after the screening, then presented Ljung with a The Blood Is At The Doorstep jean jacket. [Screens again Tuesday, October 10, 8:45 p.m., Times Cinema.]
A Gray State
A Gray State tells the story of a US Army veteran and filmmaker, David Crowley, whose major film production (called Gray State) was cut short when he and his family were killed in their home. We went in expecting politics, and there is that, but there is so much more. This documentary is a response to the theory that Crowley and his family were assassinated because Crowley’s film was to depict a violent struggle between American citizens and a corrupt US government. Through video clips and interviews, the film offers an intimate look at the Crowley family and the mental illness that appears to have ultimately destroyed them. A very powerful film about a very sad story.
Kid Shorts: Size Small
Have a child in your life that’s roughly three years old? Never taken him or her to a movie before? Then there’s no better introduction to the world of obsessive movie-going than Milwaukee Film’s “Size Small” shorts program. Thirteen short films (almost all of them animated) clocking in at 54 minutes are perfect for little ones’ attention spans, and beautiful to behold: The Pits is an adorable puppet piece about a pear looking for its better half, The Pocket Man is a colorful and playful tale with a heartwarming ending, and Cloudberry trusts kids’ emotional intelligence with a bittersweet story of a girl and a wolf. Your kids will love it. (Also, the toddler audience at the screening we attended was more well-behaved than most adult audiences we encounter at the multiplex.)
The Dark Crystal
Putting aside the gentle children’s entertainment of today for the nightmare-inducing kids’ flicks of yesterday, welcome back to the world of The Dark Crystal! Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s 1982 fantasy-adventure is an almost unbelievable triumph of pre-CGI creativity, craftsmanship, and animatronic puppetry. But good lord, what an aggressively dark and ugly adventure it is at times. The first 15-minute stretch alone (complete with endless voice-over exposition) is basically a bunch of prehistoric birds (the “Skeksis”) screeching at each other. Things lighten a bit with the introduction of Jen the “Gelfling,” but oof. Anyway, Henson and Oz were/are geniuses, no one makes them like this anymore, and those Landstriders are second only to Return To Oz‘s Wheelers in the “terrifying ’80s stuff” department.
This 75-minute absurdist indie comedy—much like the film’s blunt protagonist—doesn’t waste time to get to the point. Set in a semi-futuristic world where the titular “Infinity Baby” business finds home for infants that cannot age, the black and white film (both in terms of color and metaphor) skillfully balances bone-dry humor, witty dialogue, and an impressive cast featuring Keiran Culkin, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, an underutilized Stephen Root, and Martin Starr. Both Starr and director Bob Byington reluctantly stuck around after the screening to conduct a Q&A that was as uncomfortable and hilariously awkward as Infinity Baby itself. [Screens again Wednesday, October 11, 4 p.m., Times Cinema.]
Stop Making Sense
A Milwaukee Film Festival wouldn’t be complete without a screening/dance party of Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense. What can be said about the film at this point? It’s pretty much perfect, capturing David Byrne (So young! So thin!) and the Talking Heads at their absolute creative peak. It opens with “Psycho Killer.” It’s got “Burning Down The House,” “Life During Wartime,” “What A Day That Was,” and “Take Me To The River.” Byrne dances with a lamp. Byrne wears that big suit. Hell, even the Tom Tom Club song is great. Like previous years, we didn’t even bother taking a seat for this one—we just joined our pals and danced in the aisles from start to finish. Oh, and former Brewers pitcher John Axford was there, which was cool.