After 15 days of events, parties, panel discussions, and more movies than any sane human being could possibly watch (more than 300, to be exact-ish), the 2015 Milwaukee Film Festival came to a close last week Thursday. It was another stellar year for the annual fest, and one that will stick in our cinema-addled brains as we patiently tick off the days until the 2016 installment. Here are 12 of the many, many standout moments from the gone-but-not-forgotten MFF2015.
1. Juicy roles for older actors
We’ve all heard the aging Hollywood star’s lament: “There just aren’t any good roles for people my age!” While there’s certainly a grain of truth to this, our MFF2015 experience suggested that perhaps the problem is more of a financial threshold than a strict lack of worthwhile material. On Opening Night, Harvey Keitel and Michael Caine both dove into very memorable characters in the intermittently brilliant Youth. Maj-Doris Rimpi perfectly captured a sense of cultural self-loathing and personal catharsis in the span of 15 minutes in Northern Great Mountain. Tony Reilly was terrific as a conflicted clergyman dealing with his surrogate daughter’s coming of age in Neptune. And, in one of the festival’s most devastatingly believable works of fiction, Krisha Fairchild gave a knockout performance as a “recovering” addict trying to reintegrate into her family (Krisha). It probably won’t rake in millions for Fairchild, but the role has as much complexity and gravity as any actor could hope for. [Cal Roach]
2. The redemption of The Milwaukee Show
MFF’s annual Milwaukee Show has always been a huge draw—so huge, in fact, that Milwaukee Film decided to split the homegrown-shorts program into two parts a few years back. Unfortunately, the first installment of this year’s show left us cold: Pretty-but-pointless demo reels and a truly painful Tarantino/Fargo ripoff (in 2015!) made us question our allegiance to Milwaukee artists. (Kate Balsley’s lovely The Sonatina was the exception to the rule.) But! The second Milwaukee Show was flat-out awesome, highlighted by Erik Ljung’s powerful and award-winning Mothers For Justice, John Roberts’ delightful dark comedy Lemon, Natasha Scannell’s stop-motion delight Again, and Kurt Raether’s popcorn-pleaser We Interrupt This Broadcast. Hell, there was even a 16mm experimental film (Benjamin Balcom’s Notes From The Interior) tossed in for good measure. Great job, Milwaukee. [Matt Wild]
3. The annual Stop Making Sense dance party
Three years ago, Milwaukee Film Festival first screened Jonathan Demme’s classic music doc. At the time, I was on staff at the festival, and when my colleague Angela Catalano booked the 35mm print, we went bananas. We knew there was a long history of the film playing at midnight during the ’80s in the Oriental Theatre, and we were beside ourselves thinking of how magical it was going to be immersed in the greatness of the Talking Heads with our fellow Milwaukeeans. There were two screenings that inaugural year. I had photographers lined up for the first, convinced that the entire audience would erupt as “Psycho Killer” started. Not so much. Next was “Heaven,” then “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel,” and it was still just a handful of us in the back: bouncing, swaying, running, and cheering after every song. The photographer left. But then “Burning Down the House” played…and “This Must Be the Place”…and by the time Byrne screamed “And you may say to yourself yourself, my God / What have I done?” it had finally happened: the whole audience was dancing and we were part of magic. The second night, it happened earlier; the second year, even earlier still. Now in its third year, the dance party started immediately: “I can’t seem to face up to the facts / I’m tense and nervous / Can’t relax.” The audience was basically doing stretches in the concession line to warm up. Ohhh, what a night that was. [Blyth Meier]
4. Jaws in 35mm, on the big screen
When Milwaukee Film announced this year’s Cinema Hooligante program (sponsored by Milwaukee Record!) would include a 35mm screening of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws, some online commenters wondered why they would sacrifice their precious time and money to see a movie that has been on permanent rotation on basic cable for the last 20 years. These people were crazy. Seeing Jaws in 35mm in the packed main room of the Oriental Theatre was fucking incredible: every anxiety-inducing shot was bigger, every blood-curdling scream was louder, and every jump-scare was jump-scarier. This was Movie Magic the way it was meant to be experienced. [MW]
5. The Shining in 35mm, on the big screen
See above, but swap out Jaws for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and add in a special appearance by John Axford dressed as Danny Torrance and driving around the theater in a super-sized big wheel. [MW]
6. The addition of the Avalon Theater
As everyone knows, there’s nothing to do in Bay View. What a boon for the community when the Avalon reopened last year after lying dormant for 14 years! Finally, residents wouldn’t have to take a five-dollar Uber to the East Side to experience a night life. Luckily, that went double for MFF2015, to the benefit of everyone involved. The “atmospheric theater and lounge” takes a similar approach to the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill: it boasts a healthy selection of adult beverages, including a separate bar area, as well as food service, and the theater itself is a magnificent combination of historic décor and modern niceties—chiefly, the cushy seats with swiveling tray-tables and all the leg and elbow room you could possibly desire. The shooting stars on the ceiling high above are a nice touch, making this the closest thing to a drive-in that modern city life has to offer. It may not have quite the grandeur of the Oriental, but it’s a terrific all-around experience. Besides, another theater equals more screenings! [CR]
7. The horrors of childbirth
MFF2015 probably wasn’t the ideal destination for expectant mothers. Go ahead, mothers-to-be, bring another human being into this violent, overpopulated world; just be prepared for what might await you: a brain-damaged newborn which sends you to therapy and ultimately a violent, masochistic freak-out (Hotell); Socialist Bulgaria Baby of the Decade, whose charms fail to ignite even the tiniest drop of motherly instinct or affection (or milk, for that matter) (Viktoria); a talking mutant baby with an adult head that symbolizes the perversion of all your teenage dreams (Bang Bang Baby); or, of course, a youngster named Danny who’s given to bouts of psychic possession yet nevertheless fails to warn you that your husband is probably going to try to kill you (The Shining). [CR]
8-11. Q&As with special guests
One of the things I love most about film festivals are the Q&As after the screenings. It’s one thing to watch a film on your big screen TV or take in a matinee at your local theater, but it’s an entirely different animal to hear from the cast and crew afterwards. It transforms a film from a repeatable event to something unique, like a concert or a dance performance. The Milwaukee Film Festival brings in hundreds of guests each year, and every festival goer comes away with moments they can boast for having caught. Here are the stories I’ll be telling while I wait in line at next year’s festival:
The first screening of The Russian Woodpecker featured the director, Chad Gracia, and the film’s subject, Fedor Alexandrovich, who charmingly started every answer in enthusiastic English, only to hand off the microphone to his translator a few sentences in, the fury of his thoughts too much to convert from his native Ukrainian.
Georges Perrier working the crowd after the screening of King Georges was a sight to behold. The world-renowned chef walked up and down the aisles, flirted with women in front of their husbands, asked for local restaurant suggestions, and demanded an audience member divulge their chocolate mousse methodology. The man was a French stand-up act, and could have entertained the crowd for hours.
DJ Marco Collins, the subject of The Glamour & The Squalor, was wonderfully vulnerable, sharing stories about Kurt, Courtney, and all of the past luminaries of the Seattle music scene—not in a name-dropping way, but in a “I really miss my friends who are all dead now” way. At the end, he encouraged the audience to stick around for the next film, Eden, which also paid homage to the music of the ’90s. When that film wrapped up around midnight, Marco and the crew jumped up and danced around, waving around their cell phone lights like glow sticks. Rave at the Oriental!
By far for me, the most moving moment of the festival was during The Milwaukee Show II. Erik Ljung’s short film, Mothers For Justice, focused on the family of Dontre Hamilton. Being in a room of 1,000 community members, all standing and clapping for this family, and all they have endured, will be stuck in my heart for many years. [BM]
12. Chanting “FUCK” before The Best Damn F*#@ing Midnight Program Ever. Sh*t.
This year’s gleefully vulgar midnight shorts program—once again entitled The Best Damn F*#@ing Midnight Program Ever. Sh*t.—ran the gamut from slow and eerie to, well, gleefully vulgar. Also gleefully vulgar: the pre-show warmup, courtesy of Milwaukee Film staff. Chanting “Fuck…fuck…fuck…FUCK!” with a theater full of tired and inebriated festival-goers may not seem like much, but sometimes it’s the little things that make MFF such a delight. ’Til we fucking meet next fall, Milwaukee Film Festival. [MW]