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’ve seen so far…
Opening Night Film: Stumped
Past Milwaukee Film Festival Opening Night Films have fallen squarely in the “crowd-pleaser” category, and this year’s selection was no different. Stumped, a winning documentary from director Robin Berghaus, follows a man (and filmmaker) who loses all of his limbs to a bacterial infection, and subsequently embarks on an unlikely career in stand-up comedy. If there’s a better tragic-but-uplifting story that demands the documentary treatment, we haven’t heard it. Having the film’s subject, Will Lautzenheiser, in attendance throughout the night only added to the crowd-pleasing experience.
Opening Night Party
The new location for MFF’s Opening Night Party, Good City Brewing, proved to be a perfect mix of old and new. The neon-drenched tent out back—stuffed with people, drinks, and music from Abby Jeanne and Storm Chaser—harkened back to the swank Discovery World parties of yesteryear, while the ground and rooftop action was a more manageable version of recent Kenilworth Building soirees. We drank a lot. We apparently ended up at Cactus Club later in the night. Huh. Hobnobbing with the hobnobbers was never this fun.
Good lord, Purple Rain is a crazy film. There’s Prince (as “The Kid”) at the height of his powers, blazing through unstoppable performances of “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Darling Nikki,” and more. There’s Apollonia Kotero (as “Apollonia”) looking absolutely gorgeous and diving into what she thinks are the purifying waters of Lake Minnetonka. But there’s also Morris Day And The Time, Morris Day ordering a flunky to literally toss a woman in a Dumpster, Prince acting like a total dick, domestic violence, more domestic violence, overheated melodrama, and that part where Prince “sprays” the audience with his “guitar.” It’s 100-percent Prince, 100-percent ’80s, and 100-percent glorious. Seeing it on the big screen is the only way to go (crazy/nuts).
Shorts: The Best Damn F*#@ing Midnight Program Ever. Sh*t
Did this midnight shorts screening sell out? Yes, yes it did. (Okay, it was in the Oriental’s small side theater, but still.) Was it an inherently uneven but ultimately worthwhile mix of sex, violence, and a demented Red Lobster commercial? You bet your f*#@ing a** it was. Opener The Robbery was a single-shot wonder complete with a hilarious ending, Mister Popular was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets high school, the animated Pussy was downright adorable, the Milwaukee-produced Pharma Lab Training Video 1 was over-the-top hilarious, and closer Ghosting The Party involved a guy jizzing all over a Halloween party. The best bit, however, was the aforementioned Red Lobster commercial from hell, Great Choice. Here’s where it starts (but absolutely does not end up). [Screens again Saturday, October 7, 11:59 p.m., Downer Theatre.]
State of Cinema in Milwaukee: Dr. Susan Kerns & Matt Mueller
A great talk featuring two great people, this 10 a.m. Public Forum touched on everything from the Milwaukee filmmaking “bubble” (not a lot of Milwaukee films breaking through the city), the need to start thinking about statewide filmmaking tax credits (again), and the difficulty of covering niche films when you need to write yet another Bachelor recap. Kerns, a Milwaukee filmmaker and assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago, made a case for investments in Milwaukee film rather than simply donations. OnMilwaukee‘s Mueller, meanwhile, bemoaned Netflix’s knack for burying great films in its TV-heavy catalog.
VR Gallery: Kinoscope
Did you know the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival has a free-and-open-to-the-public VR Gallery? Because it totally does. Drop in at 2021 E. Ivanhoe Pl. (just around the corner from the Oriental), have a seat at a swivel chair, strap on those big ol’ VR glasses, and enjoy an immersive, 360-degree film like Kinoscope. This charming, animated history of film covers everything from Georges Méliès to Quentin Tarantino, and makes a solid case for the artistic possibilities of VR technology. Bring on The Lawnmower Man! [Screens throughout the festival.]
This long-burning documentary from Milwaukee director Ryan Sarnowski answers a long-burning Milwaukee question: What was the deal with that old “University of Lawsonomy” sign on the side of I-94? Turns out it was the last outpost of a Scientology-esque philosophy/religion/economic system created in the 1930s by aviation pioneer Alfred Lawson, and kept alive by its last remaining disciple, 90-year-old Merle Hayden. There’s a lot of story to tell here, and Sarnowski and company do an admirable job of whittling it down into a coherent narrative—albeit one that focuses more on the travails of Merle and his partner Betty, and one that ends around 2011. [Screens again Tuesday, October 3, 6:30 p.m., Times Cinema; Thursday, October 12, 1 p.m., Oriental Theatre.]
Shorts: Date Night
These eight shorts offered a nice variety of touching moments and irreverent humor, and two of our favorites landed on opposite ends of that spectrum. The first, Nothing Ever Really Ends, is a Norwegian film about a couple who spends three consecutive New Year’s Eves hosting wonderful parties while also considering going their separate directions. Very intimate and emotional. The second, It’s Been Like A Year, is a quick and raunchy comedy about an encounter between a lonely man, a female prostitute, and her distracting male employee. Kind of intimate, a little emotional, gross, and hilarious. [Screens again Thursday, October 5, 9 p.m., Oriental Theatre.]
Found Footage Festival: After Dark
Hosts Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher joked often that this, their first appearance at the Milwaukee Film Festival, would be their last appearance at the Milwaukee Film Festival. Only time will tell, but the majority of the crowd did laugh through the entirety of the show, even when they were cringing or covering their eyes. This show’s batch of clips included such highlights as the VERY REAL birth of a 1960s baby in the back of a car, some seriously shocking wound images, naked fisherwomen, lots of singing and dancing, and something featuring Rue McClanahan and a bunch of cats.
“A queer retelling of the story of St. Anthony” only scratches the surface of this stunning, lovely, and confounding film from João Pedro Rodrigues. After his kayak capsizes, Fernando, the titular ornithologist, embarks on a hallucinatory journey that involves deadly Chinese backpackers, mysterious pagan revelers, a man named Jesus, and nude women hunters on horseback. To say more would spoil it, though Googling a picture of the film’s director will help in navigating the ending. Every frame is a wonder, every moment unforgettable. Highly recommended. [Screens again Wednesday, October 4, 4 p.m., Avalon Theater.]
The debut feature from director Ann Hamilton has Gilliam-, del Toro-, and Malick-sized ambitions (perhaps not-coincidentally, Hamilton was an intern on The Tree of Life), but it can’t quite reach those lofty heights. A young girl living on a Wisconsin farm in the early 1980s discovers a man trapped in an abandoned silo. A father and mother argue over the future of the farm. A woman appears. A horned woman on horseback appears. A pet chicken is eaten. It’s all supposed to be a fairytale, sort of, but it’s undone by a muddled tone and some on-the-nose dialogue. Plus, if you’re going to go to all the trouble of including 1982 signifiers (Ronald Reagan, the Brewers in the World Series), why does everyone look like GQ models from 2017? [Screens again Tuesday, October 3, 1:30 p.m., Times Cinema.]
This (hopefully) exaggerated coming-to-terms with aging out of—or desperately clinging to—the “rock’n roll” lifestyle finds actors and actual couple Guillaume Canet and Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard tackling the familiar midlife crisis trope. The fun French feature takes the familiar framework of 40-something insecurity and abruptly carries it boldly into the uncomfortable and unrealistic (but ultimately hilarious) emotional and physical transformation of one character who will go to any lengths imaginable to prolong his time in the spotlight. By film’s end, neither actor is as you initially found them, but you’ll appreciate the whimsical, hyperbolic mutation both incurred over the course of this silly, self-referential comic departure from two internationally regarded talents. [Screens again Monday, October 9, 6 p.m., Oriental Theatre; Tuesday, October 10, 1:30 p.m., Downer Theatre.]
Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker
Last summer, Avalon Theater hosted a limited test screening of Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker in its rear theater. In truth, not much has changed from that cut to the version that a small-but-impassioned audience took in late Sunday night, but given Jawbreaker’s long-awaited reunion at Riot Fest last month, the documentary (which has been kicking around in partially completed purgatory for close to a decade before Milwaukee-based About Face helped carry it to completion) would never be more relevant. One part biography of an influential and under-appreciated punk band, and one part examination of exactly what went wrong, Don’t Break Down—behind the strength of revealing interviews and an amazing archive of footage from the studio and tours—proves to be a meaningful extended glimpse of a project that was but a momentary blip in mainstream consciousness, but that meant so much to a select few. Thankfully, Jawbreaker’s story may not be over after all, but director Tim Irwin and co-producer Dan Didier (who received an ovation when his name came up in the credits) helped convey exactly why the recent reunion was so unlikely and why the band remains important. [Screens again Wednesday, October 4, 7 p.m., Times Cinema; Tuesday, October 10, 9 p.m., Oriental Theatre.]
Love And Saucers (preceded by The Dundee Project)
Our night of science fiction (or are they?) documentaries was cut a little short by a pesky sinus headache, but what we saw was terrific. Mark Borchardt’s The Dundee Project documents the UFO Daze gathering in Dundee, Wisconsin with appreciation, respect, and fun. Great shots of the scene mesh perfectly with great attendee interviews, making this an early Festival highlight. We only caught the first half of Love And Saucers, but it, too, is a respectful and interesting exploration of a man who tells a very detailed story of his extra terrestrial encounters. We’ll circle back and see the film in its entirety before the festival’s end. [Screens again Tuesday, October 3, 9:30 p.m., Times Cinema; Tuesday, October 10, 9:30 p.m., Avalon Theater.]