Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

We saw four movies today, all at Sundance on the west side of town:

“Valley of Love” followed Gerard Depardeau and Isabelle Huppert playing the divorced parents of a son they have recently learned has committed suicide. Writing a letter to each of them at the time of his death, he beseeched them to meet at several different tourist spots in Death Valley, where he promised that they would see him. His mother seems to believe in psychics and visitations from beyond. His father flat-out doesn’t, but goes along with it, apparently to make his mother happy. The first two-thirds of the movie paint a sincerely honest and endearing portrait of these two as they come to terms with the death of their son. In the final third of the movie turned it into a heavy-handed ghost story that all but ruined everything that came before. Three out of four.

“Under the Sun” was a startlingly revealing documentary about life in North Korea, filmed by a Russian crew that was invited to record a day in the life of a typical North Korean family. Footage that was obviously not meant to be used in the finished film, so that North Korean handlers are continually seen coaching the film’s subject on what to say and how to say it. Five out of five.

“Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words” is just what it says on the tin. Archived films and photos illustrate passages from Bergman’s diary and letters to friends. Four out of five.

I don’t think I’ve seen a Roberto Rosellini film before, and if “Europe ’51” is exemplary of his work, I don’t think I’ll be seeing one again. Walked out after watching half of it and couldn’t bear any more. No stars.

WFF day seven | 10:00 pm CDT
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Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Only three movies today, our lightest day at the film fest all week:

“Best of the British Arrows” is always a crowd-pleaser. A collection of some of the best television advertisements from Europe, they usually lean toward humor, although it seems to me that nobody can make a more pointed public service announcement than the British.

I liked “Little Men” a lot. B thought it was so-so. A family moves to a Brooklyn apartment over a store. The family’s son becomes close friends with the store owner’s son, but the parents do not become friendly at all. Wonderful acting all around made this movie a treat to watch. Five out of five.

“Louder Than Bombs” was a drama that started with a birth, then spent the next two hours examining how the death of a mother affected her sons and her husband in ways that often contradicted their outward behavior. Five out of five.

WFF day six | 10:00 pm CDT
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Monday, April 18th, 2016

No trouble getting to the movies today. We reviewed our schedule the night before and again this morning. Our first movie started at one, so we set an alarm to remind us to get out of the house by noon, and we actually left about ten minutes before noon. No panic today, no sir.

No panic | 10:22 pm CDT
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“Nahid” was a whole lot of drama about a woman who was ripping off the kind, compassionate man who wanted to marry her so she could pay off the debts she was drowning in from trying to raise her brat of a son without any help from her douchebag ex-husband. Four out of five.

“My Love, Don’t Cross That River” was a tender tribute to a couple married seventy-some years. Four out of five.

“The Witness” was a documentary that followed Bill Genovese as he learned about the murder of his sister, Kitty Genovese, in 1964. The story went viral when the New York Times famously asserted that dozens of people witnessed the murder but did nothing to help. In Bill’s interviews with people who lived in the aparement building across the street, he learns otherwise. Four out of Five.

“The Mountain” was an unexpectedly gripping drama about a woman growing increasingly frustrated with her marriage to a husband who has no time for her and her life in a house that is virtually a tomb and literally part of the cemetary on the Mount of Olives. Five out of five.

WFF 2016 day five | 10:00 pm CDT
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Sunday, April 17th, 2016

We almost didn’t make it to the first movie we wanted to see today. It started at noon, so the night before we agreed that we would leave the house no later than eleven o’clock. Fast-forward to the next morning and we were be-bopping around the kitchen, singing along with the soundtrack from the Broadway play “Hamilton,” our newest favorite musical ever.

After singing our way through acts one and two, I stepped into the shower to clean up. B took her shower a little while later. When she stepped into the shower, I noticed that it was already eleven o’clock, but I said to myself, Surely she knows what time it is and when the show starts, so I didn’t say anything. And she took a good, long shower, as she should be expected to do when she’s on vacation. But the longer she was in there, the more I asked myself, How are we going to the movie on time?

When she finally stepped out of the bathroom at eleven thirty, toweling her hair dry, I asked her, You know the movie starts at noon, right?

Right, she said.

Well, I said, looking at the clock, I don’t think we’re going to make it.

She stopped toweling her hair, looked at the clock, too, and said, Oh, shit.

But we decided to try anyway, packed up the car and hit the road, B’s hair still damp from the shower. Traffic on the Beltline was very light and we managed to pull into the parking ramp by the theater at about five past noon, hurried over to the theater and found that people were still waiting in line for the first movie, collect our tickets and got in line just minutes before they opened the doors. Even got some pretty good seats, although they were a little closer than we usually want to be.

How to almost miss a movie | 10:00 am CDT
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“Rwanda & Juliet” is about a retired Dartmouth professor who travels to the trouble spots of the world to produce Shakespeare’s plays. In Rawanda, the young men and women are more than a little skeptical of his intention to reconcile Hutus and Tutsis through his production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Four out of Five.

“Sonita” is a documentary about a young woman from Afghanistan who fled to Iran to escape the Taliban, only to have her mother try to take her back because marrying her off would bring the family $9,000 that they need to pay for the marriage of another relative. But Sonita has spent her time in Iran learning music and earning awards. Her music video about child marriage wins her a scholarship to a school in the U.S. Five out of five.

“The Fear of 13” is ninety minutes of one guy sitting in front of a camera, spinning the story of how he entered the prison system, talked himself into a conviction for murder, compounded his conviction by escaping, then was exonerated for the murder through DNA examination of the murder. As compelling as this might sound, watching this guy talk for an hour and a half was never as interesting as the story might have been. Walked out, no stars.

“Viva” My Darling B said it best: “”Viva” wasn’t quite what I expected, and I’m glad for it. I expected a fun romp about a drag show newbie; what I got instead was a story about forgiveness, acceptance, and strength.” Four out of five

“Tickled” was without question the most interesting, and the weirdest documentary of the day. After a journalist in New Zealand stumbles across a video of “competitive endurance tickling” and writes to the organizer about his interest in producing a documentary, he begins to receive blatantly homophobic emails in reply that escalate into threats of legal action. As the journalist digs deeper, his investigation slowly pieces together a bizarre story of a guy with a tickling fetish, a mountain of money and a sociopathic need to control people. Five out of five

WFF 2016 day four | 7:00 am CDT
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Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Mad About Madison: a collection of shorts made by people who are from or living in Madison, or about Madison itself, including:

“Intimate Nature” was four minutes of scenes from the Arboretum. The irony of sitting in a dark room on a beautiful day to watch a film about a walk through the Arboretum on a beautiful day was not lost on me.

“The Turkeys of Atwood Avenue” was a collection of Facebook posts (literally!) from a fan page devoted to watching a gaggle of turkeys (or whatever you call them) that roamed up and down Atwood Avenue in the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood of Madison. Was it inevitable that one day film makers would turn to Facebook for source material?

In “A Grand Walk … Paul’s Late”, a student at the UW wakes up late for class, runs his ass of to get there, sits down just as everyone in the class receives an email message announcing that the class has been canceled. Oops, spoilers.

“Lakeshore Preserve” looked like found footage shot for a news story about volunteers doing trail maintenance at a nature preserve.

I went in thinking I would not like “Nigga: A Monologue” but came away feeling that it deserves a lot more of my attention.

A nature photographer searches for the rusty-patched bumblebee in “A Ghost In The Making”, which sounds really, really boring, but I promise you it’s not.

Hundreds of nude and seminude bicyclists ride through Madison on World Naked Bicycle Ride Day, the subject of “Real … Live …”

“Continuum” is another film about a UW student who wakes up late for class and how that worked out pretty good for him. Will we soon see trash cans piled high with alarm clocks all over campus?

There is a Russian Folk Orchestra at the UW. “Russian Folk” is a four-minute short documenting a rehearsal. Worth watching just to see a balalaika as big as a dining room table.

“IMMO 240 Frames A Second” is just what it says on the tin: Iron Man Madison filmed at 240 frames per second, which slowed the action down to a snail’s pace. Watching it in slow-mo didn’t do anything for me. Take that back: an artifact of the high-speed recording process gave the playback a herky-jerky motion that irritated the hell out of me. Also, a lot of the film was shot in the low light of early morning and late evening, making it very hard for me to follow the action.

WFF 2016 day three | 10:00 am CDT
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Friday, April 15th, 2016

My Darling B and I both took a week off from work so we could sit in dark, windowless rooms and watch movies all week long. It’s time again for the Wisconsin Film Fest. We veered slightly from tradition this year; I was sick with a nasty chest cold when the film guide was published last month, so we didn’t go straight to Roman Candle after work to pick out the films we wanted to see. I think we went the next day or maybe the day after that. Even then, we didn’t pick out all the films we wanted to see, or go through the long, complicated negotiations where we whittled them down to the twenty or thirty that we could fit into the schedule. Instead, we bought a pair of all-festival passes, same as we did last year. They’re pricy, but they’re a savings on the cost of individual tickets for the thirty-two films we wanted to see this year.

Thursday was the opening night of the festival with a reception in the lobby of the Barrymore Theater an hour and a half before the start of the first film, a comedy from New Zealand called “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Although the reception was very crowded, there were plenty of noshies, champagne and chocolate, with enough left over that My Darling B pocketed a few extra for later. The comedy was good; a little uneven, a little over the top at times, but genuinely fun. I gave it four out of five.

Friday was kind of a bust. After struggling to find a place to park on campus, we found out that the first film we wanted to see, “Louder Than Words,” had been canceled. With a couple of hours unexpectely dropped into our laps, we rented a couple of B-Bikes and pedaled up State Street to Capitol Square to eat a leisurely lunch at Graze before coasting back down State to the campus to see the rest of the movies on our Friday schedule:

“Phantom Boy” was an animated feature about a boy with an unspecified but serious disease who learned while he was in the hospital that he was able to leave his body and float around. He teams up with a police officer to catch the arch-criminal who is threatening the city. I thought it was worth four out of five, but B drowsed through much of it.

Two teenaged girls with way too much time on their hands stalk a middle-aged single father in “John From.” The synopsis in the film catalogue called this “a sensitive, infectious and dreamy ode to young love.” We thought it was creepy, more than a little boring, and gave it no stars because we walked out before the end.

“The Well” was just about the cheesiest film about race relations you could imagine. I’m sure it was considered gripping in 1951 when it came out, but the writing seems cliched and the acting looks stilted and wooden now, except for Harry Morgan, doing his best to get through the movie. I gave it four out of five, should have given it three.

“True Stories” was one of the quirky movies of the eighties that we considered cool back then, but are mostly cringeworthy now. Walked out after watching thirty minutes or so. No stars.

WFF 2016 day one and two | 10:00 am CDT
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Saturday, March 5th, 2016

I used to read fiction almost exclusively. The only time I would read non-fiction was when someone made me, like for school. And even then, I blew off most of my assigned reading to read fiction.

I loved fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. Those stories had what seemed like limitless possibilities. What would a society of intelligent bugs be like? A writer could take that idea and run in just about any direction with it: Would they get along with humans? If they didn’t, would humans win or lose a war with them? If they did, would humans have sexual congress with them? (Sooner or later, even the most far-out ideas come back to sex.)

And then, for reasons I never quite understood, a switch flipped in my brain about twenty or twenty-five years ago and I began reading non-fiction. Mostly biographies, or American history. I think it started when I wanted to know more about American history during the second world war. I knew a lot about bombs and planes, but almost nothing about why America made the bombs and planes. Turned out there was a lot to learn. I think I’ve read more about that period of American history than any other, and I still wouldn’t dare say I know much about it.

But maybe five years ago I made a conscious effort, every now and then, to pick up some fiction that came with the recommendation of a friend or a critic, and read at least the first fifty pages, just to see if there was still some magic in the pleasure of reading made-up stuff. It would be a pity to miss out on a new voice as engaging as some of my old favorites. And waddaya know, I did find fiction that still raised my eyebrows in surprise, that was fun to read.

Most recently, I started reading The Name of The Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. An epic fantasy (660 pages! Run, Will Robinson!), it’s not the kind of book I would normally have tried to read for fun, and I say that as a guy who not only has all of Le Guin’s Earthsea books in hardback, but who takes them down from the shelf every couple of years and reads every page from beginning to end. I also say that as a guy who has started reading the epic tomes of Saberhagen and Martin, but could never get any further than the first fifty pages. Pure fantasy, with magic and swords, was never something I automatically loved the way, for instance, a story with a rocketship would.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I curled up on the sofa with The Name of The Wind one night and found myself immersed in a story that I didn’t emerge from until it was time to put on my jammies and turn in for the night. And even then I took the book with me, as it’s long been my custom to read a chapter or two in bed. It relaxes my neck, which lets my head sink into my pillow. Far from putting me to sleep, though, this is one of those books I have to read just one more chapter of, until I glance at the clock and warn myself that if I don’t stop, I won’t get enough sleep and I’ll be a grumpy cat in the morning.

I probably never would have looked for this book, or even heard of it, if I hadn’t gone on the JoCo Cruise. Rothfuss was there to read some of his work and to sit on a couple of panels to talk with the other authors who came along, and he was such a pleasure to listen to that I resolved to check out all his books from the library and try out every one of them, believing that surely at least one will appeal to me. Well, now I’m facing the daunting possibility that they will all appeal to me and I’ll soon have a whole shelf filled with them in hardcover. Oh well. There are worse compulsions.

The Name of The Wind | 9:56 am CDT
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Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Spoiler Alert: I watched the ending of The Man In The High Castle last week, and it’s time to unload the various and sundry brain vomit that’s been building up inside me. And grump alert: I thought it could’ve been better.

In the last half-hour of the last episode, Frank wants to know what’s so damn important about these films that Jules is after, so they thread one into a conveniently handy projector (there’s always a projector around when they want to watch a film) and Frank sees himself being lined up with a bunch of Nazi resistance fighters and shot.

Up until this point, it hasn’t been clear whether the films are a record of a reality that had somehow crossed into the alternate timeline where Frank and Jules lived, or they are a propaganda stunt. If they were from another universe, cool. But for nine episodes there was no reason to believe they were anything but a fantasy spliced together in somebody’s garage for the hell of it. Why did we have to wait ten hours to learn that the films were somehow crossing over from our reality into Frank’s?

And what the hell is with Frank, anyway? His mind is blown when he seems himself shot in the film, but just a minute or so later he snaps back to being all mad and mopey about Jules and Joe. Dude! You just saw yourself in another universe! There’s no other plausible explanation! And you got shot! In! Another! UNIVERSE! Your girlfriend and her other boyfriend are not as big a deal as that!

And another thing: The resistance has been devoting practically all their time and effort to getting hold of these films. They don’t know why. They don’t even know what’s on the films. They just know they’re important, so they do everything they can to get them. The Nazi SS in New York is doing the same thing by planting a mole in the resistance to steal the films and pass them along to Hitler, who has a special interest in the films, we’re told. The resistance is getting the films for someone they know only as the man in the high castle, which turns out to be, Guess Who?

So if the resistance has already been maneuvered into getting the films and passing them along to Hitler, then why is the SS trying to take the films away from the resistance in order to give them to Hitler? Seems to me that the first item on the things to do list of the SS commander would be: Make sure nobody stops the resistance from getting those films to Hitler.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so hung up on the films. Maybe they were meant to be nothing more than a McGuffin, but it seems to me that the story doesn’t work that way. The films point the way to an alternate universe. That would make them, and every action related to them, very important. Where am I going wrong here?

film at eleven | 8:58 am CDT
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Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

After everybody got up and got showered on Sunday, we all piled into the O-mobile to make the short trip to Lake Mills, where we visited the Tyranena brewery. Their tap room opens at noon and they encourage visitors to order take-out food from any of the local restaurants and bring it in to eat while drinking beer, so B and I covered the table with 5-ounce tasters and we phoned a local pizzeria and asked for a sixteen-inch with plenty of cheese and sausage.

The tap room has plenty of board games piled up along the window ledges. I picked out a word game that we played for ten or fifteen minutes. When I guessed it was about time to pick up the pizza, I took my leave and made the short drive into town. The pizzeria was on the town square about three minutes away; all I had to do was duck in, pay the ponytailed girl at the counter and duck out. I was back at the tap room in probably ten minutes. It was like I was never gone.

B was a little concerned about how we were going to eat the pizza without plates, but the bartender solved that problem by handing us a whole stack of paper plates and napkins. He even handed over a jar of cracked red pepper in case we wanted to spice up the pizza a little bit. Now that’s a bartender who knows how to keep his customers happy. We gobbled up all the pizza while we played the word game some more and sipped our beers, which kept us there until about two-thirty. Almost all of us dozed off on the twenty-minute drive back, so we broke up to find places to nap for an hour or so after returning.

Tyranena | 7:07 am CDT
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Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Our latest guilty pleasure has been watching The Man In The High Castle, a television series streaming on Amazon video that was released just two or three weeks ago, so we’re almost keeping up with what other people are watching. The premise of the story is a pretty straightforward what-if that has made lots of money for dozens of writers: What would America look like if the Axis powers had won the second world war? This show has some pretty good-looking visuals to answer that question. They’ve obviously devoted a lot of brainpower to giving the streets of occupied American cities look foreign and retro. Wish they had saved some of that ingenuity to translating the story to the screen as well.

I’m not sure what the story is, to be frank. We’ve watched five episodes and so far, about all I know is that there’s this guy everybody calls the man in the high castle and he’s got something to do with a film that’s a what-if story about what America might look like if the Axis powers had lost the war. Very meta, right? There’s also a resistance movement that doesn’t seem to be resisting very much. They appear to be spending most of their efforts on getting the film in bits and pieces to the man in the high castle. Beyond that, the show is mostly atmosphere and people speaking very elliptically in hushed tones. “If you knew what it cost me to get here.” “My mission must not fail.” And so on.

atmosphere | 6:04 am CDT
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Saturday, November 28th, 2015

We binge-watched all thirteen episodes of Jessica Jones last week, if you consider it binge-watching when we only watched two shows on most nights. We started with three episodes on the Friday before last when the whole season was up for grabs on Netflix; I think that’s as many episodes of any series as we’ve ever watched in a single gulp. We finished it this last Friday morning. B wanted to finish on Thursday night, but I was burned out after two episodes and had to go to bed. For some reason, she waited for me, but insisted that we watch the final episode right away Friday morning. Which we did.

Jessica Jones is unlike any other television series built around a superhero. She’s really not much of a superhero, for a start. She can’t fly or shoot laser beams out of her eyes. She’s not bulletproof, and ordinary people can knock her out by bonking her over the head with a stick. All she’s got, at least in this series, is the ability to punch people really hard and jump really high. She doesn’t wear a costume; she mostly wears undershirts and the same old ratty pair of jeans. And she doesn’t have a superhero name. Her real name isn’t even all that unusual. She’s just Jessica Jones, a private detective who isn’t especially good at investigating things, even though everybody says she is. As far as I could tell, she found out what she wanted to know because everybody was after her all the time, and when they caught up with her, she punched them really hard until they answered her questions.

Which brings me to the second point of how unlike other “gritty” comic-book hero series this is: Instead of filming it mostly in the dark, or by throwing in lots of gory fight scenes, they made this one seem real through the simple expedient of making the characters pretty ordinary. Even Jessica’s arch-nemesis, a guy who can make people do what he wants by merely suggesting it to them, is the spoiled brat you would expect anybody with that kind of power to be. Not that it makes him any less threatening. His cat-and-mouse game with Jessica over the span of thirteen episodes kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time.

Daredevil was not quite as engaging as Jessica Jones. I started watching it several months ago when I was down with the flu, got through eight or nine episodes in three or four days, then stopped and didn’t pick it up again until this week after we finished Jessica Jones. The show seems to have a much slower pace and the villain isn’t nearly as vibrant or engaging. He’s meant to be the most canny businessman ever who just happens to have a penchant for occasionally beating people to death, so the few times you see him doing that, he’s truly awful, but most of the time you see him he’s in meetings with other evil villains, expounding in his drawn-out, reserved baritone voice how he’s going to make the city better. Yawn. I can’t imagine why they didn’t go with a much more immediately threatening villain like Bull’s Eye. There was a guy who could have kept Daredevil on his toes and made his justifications for becoming a vigilante sound more reasonable and less like rationalization. Not that I minded Daredevil questioning himself. If I had one little nit-pick about the hero, it would be that I had a really hard time believing he could take as much punishment as he did, and he took a lot of punishment: he was beaten, stabbed, shot, disemboweled and thrown off one building after another, and yet he still got up and walked away, slept it off and was back on the streets, beating up bad guys the next evening. Didn’t seem too plausible, given that healing fast wasn’t one of his super-powers. I’ve got one episode left, and I’m hoping the resolution will be as satisfying as the one they wrote for Jessica Jones.

boob tube | 11:26 am CDT
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Monday, November 16th, 2015

There’s a certain kind of funny that doesn’t seem to register on my funnybone. Maybe I sprained it?

The other night I was listening to a podcast called Pop Culture Happy Hour. Three people were talking about how much they loved the television show Brooklyn 99. They thought it was one of the funniest shows on television today, funnier than Parks and Recreation, a show that, from what I’ve been able to tell, virtually every person on the planet believes is hilarious.

I’ve watched both, and I am here to confess that I have not so much as cracked a smile at either show. It kinda makes me feel like a grinch. These shows are not hyperpopular for no reason, but I just don’t get the funny, even though I can tell when the characters deliver what is clearly meant to be a joke. They even pause for audience reaction. It couldn’t be more obvious if there was a laugh track. But the jokes just don’t register on me. I don’t get it.

By coincidence, Brooklyn 99 was on TV the night I’d heard the podcast. It had been several months since I’d tried watching it, so I sat through the episode to the end, thinking that maybe this would be the episode that would flip the switch. Maybe that discussion I heard on the podcast gave me the insight I needed to properly experience this show. Maybe, but no. No funnies.

The weirdest example of funny shows that are not funny to me was the very excellent The Last Man On Earth. The first episode had me doubled over laughing until I was in tears. Those were the funniest twenty-two minutes of my life. Naturally, I wanted to binge-watch the whole series after that, so I went on to the next episode. It was … meh. Could’ve been a misfire, I thought, so I went on to the next episode, which was … okay.

How did that happen? How did they go from a first episode that was so funny I was struggling for breath every single minute to a series of episodes so meh that was struggling to find reasons to keep watching? After the fourth or fifth episode I couldn’t think of any, and stopped watching.

I’m not blaming television, or anybody else besides me. I’m completely okay with owning this. It’s clear to me that my sense of humor fossilized in the 1980s and can’t understand what young people these days think is so darned funny.

sprained | 7:00 am CDT
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Sunday, November 1st, 2015

Well I hope you all had a good time at your various pagan celebrations last night, not that I think there’s anything wrong with pagan celebrations. I am, in fact, a supporter of almost any celebrations at all, particularly if drinks and noshies are on hand. And if it’s a party where you dress up in underpants and a cape, or as sexy garbage collector, I have been known to appear at those, too. Sorry, no, there aren’t any photos.

Our Little Red House was visited by sixty or seventy little superheroes and pixies last night, but nobody with bloody axes or knives sticking out of their heads. Thank goodness that particular costume has gone out of fashion in this neck of the woods. And thank goody-goodness they took all the Snickers snack-size candy bars and Reese’s Pieces and left us nothing but Twizzlers, which neither one of us will be tempted to eat today. Tomorrow we’ll take them to work and leave them in the break room, where they’ll disappear before the lunch hour.

pagan | 9:58 am CDT
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Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Last night I finished reading The End Of All Things, the latest science-fiction novel from John Scalzi, and I have to say that I felt he overpromised and underdelivered by several orders of magnitude. All the things did not end. Not even close. There were, to be fair, a number of things that did end, but by far the vast majority of things did not end. In fact, I would have to say that, on a scale of “All Things,” the number of things that ended was statistically insignificant. So the title was a little misleading. Chalk it up to poetic license, I guess.

But other than that teensy-tiny little nitpick, I’d say it was a good read. The book is actually four novelettes (plus a bonus 25-page “deleted and alternate scenes” coda) set in the same storyline where Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War first conjured up what has become known in the mind-bogglingly technical nomenclature of science fiction fandom as “The OMW Universe.” You don’t have to read Old Man’s War to get maximum enjoyment out of The End Of All Things. It works just fine as a stand-alone collection, but I’m going to give you fair warning that The End Of All Things may leave you with an overpowering compulsion to get your hands on a copy of Old Man’s War, and from there you’re gonna want The Ghost Brigades and oh geeze you’re in it for the long haul at that point because, damn, these books are fun to read.

In the OMW Universe, humans colonize far-flung planets with the help of the Colonial Union, a organization that does not have the motto “We come in peace” emblazoned anywhere on its great seal, or a prime directive of non-interference with aliens it discovers on the planets it means to colonize. The CU exists to shove the aliens aside and make sure they stay shoved. This policy results in some hard feelings between humans and non-humans, to say the least. Hard feelings lead to conflict, and if I recall anything useful at all from the English Lit classes I took thirty-some years ago, it is that conflict is the heart and soul of exciting drama.

Each novelette in The End Of All Things is about a hundred pages long, give or take ten or twenty pages, so you could treat this book as four yummy afternoon snacks, but if you got it into your head to binge-read the whole thing from cover to cover, you could probably gobble it up in a weekend. Scalzi’s previous OMW book, The Human Division, was a similar collection of novelettes, and also one hell of a fun read. Again, you don’t have to read The Human Division to know what’s going on in The End Of All Things but, again, you’ll probably want to afterwards. Just sayin’.

Scalzi’s been compared favorably to Heinlein for his storytelling abilities; I would say that’s about right if you’re comparing Scalzi’s work to Heinlein’s earlier adventure novels, like Tunnel In The Sky or The Puppet Masters, not so much if you’re into Heinlein’s later works. For what it’s worth, when I read Scalzi’s stories, I get a vibe that’s a lot like the one coming from my favorite Joe Haldeman books, like The Hemingway Hoax or The Forever War, but I also feel as though I can detect a witty harmonic wave that’s a lot like the one running through Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker books. The characters in Scalzi’s stories talk like people I know and would be friends with; they take the time to intelligently think a situation all the way through, but they never take themselves so ridiculously seriously that I have to roll my eyes and moan, “Oh, come on, now.”

To sum up, an entertaining sci-fi adventure for a weekend, or to string out over several days, and don’t let the title put you off. All the things, relatively speaking, are pretty safe.

The End Of All Things | 5:19 pm CDT
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Monday, June 15th, 2015

In a scene from an episode of True Detective that we were watching the other night, the characters played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey passed a pint bottle of Jim Beam between them, each taking a generous swig at the end of each line of dialogue before passing it back.

This was not the first television show or movie where we’d seen people knock back the hard stuff like it was water. And no, I’m not stupid, I know it was water, like I know it’s a television show. But I have to wonder, are there people who really drink like this? Or even close to like this? If I drank like that, I would be unable to speak by the time we got to the fourth swig. I like a drinking buzz as much as most people, but one beer and I’m already there. There is no way on earth I can drink a half-pint of whiskey and keep on talking so it makes any kind of sense. I have my doubts that anybody can. Not only that, but in the show we watched the other night, Matthew McConaughey’s guy kept not only drinking but snorting coke and remained lucid. I’m pretty sure nobody can do that. But what the hell, it’s television.

booze | 6:46 pm CDT
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Sunday, June 14th, 2015

After our weekly visit to the farmer’s market on Madison’s west side, My Darling B and I crossed the street to the Hilldale Mall where B had to shop for a dress to wear to a wedding. B hates shopping with the blazing white intensity of a thousand exploding suns, but the wedding is just two weeks away, so, even though there was still some time left to procrastinate, she decided it was time to get it over with. As luck would have it, she fell in love with the very first dress she found, but it’s fire-engine red and apparently there’s some rule about wearing a dress to a wedding that would upstage the bride. She put it on hold and kept shopping, eventually ending up with what she called “the granny dress,” a cream-colored, knee-length dress with lots of sparklies. B loves sparklies.

While she was trying on dresses, I wandered down the street a few blocks to a garage sale on Midvale Avenue that I spotted as we drove past. There wasn’t much that interested me, and the only thing I eventually bought was a book published by the Associated Press to commemorate the 1969 moon landing. Titled “Footprints On The Moon,” it was a coffee table book chock full of familiar photographs of the space race, starting as usual with Sputnik and ending with lots of lofty prose about how Neil & Buzz walking on the moon had ushered the world into a new era, yada yada yada.

When I picked up the book I had no intention of putting it down again. I’ll buy almost any book or commemorative nick-knack that came out of the space race. I’d never seen this book before and as I opened the cover I thought, Oh nice, something new for my collection, but I didn’t think it was anything extraordinary at first. Then the book fell open to the middle where the folded newspaper pages were tucked away. My heart sped up. It was the first four pages torn out of the Wisconsin State Journal dated July 21, 1969. “ON THE MOON!” the headline on the front page blared in block capital letters over a full-color photo of Armstrong and Aldrin in a training scenario, using tongs to pick up rocks in their space suits. An inside page ran a snapshot of the video feed from the moon, unfocused and about as black-and-white as any photograph could be. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you might not realize what was going on.

I tucked the pages back in the book and carried it reverently to the front of the garage where a quartet of old friends were bantering with some customers about one of the items for sale. When one of them turned to me and offered to help, I handed over the book, which he opened to the inside cover to read the price: two dollars. “Footprints on the moon,” he said conversationally, flipping through the first couple pages before it fell open to the middle where he found the newspaper pages. I was sure when he saw those that he would either take them out because they weren’t part of the book, or at least charge me for them separately. He barely looked at them before he snapped the book closed. I held my breath. “Two dollars, please,” he said. I dug two singles from my wallet and handed them over; he thanked me, and I walked away with a tiny piece of history.

Shopping for dresses took a lot out of B, so we headed straight home where she planned to spend time in her garden to decompress. It had been raining for the past two days so the ground was probably too wet for her to plant anything. Even so, she figured she could at least pull weeds, but when we got home she wasn’t up for that any more. “A new bar opened in town with fifty-zillion taps,” she informed me, and she wanted to go there to see what that was about.

The bar was Mr. Brews Taphouse, a Wisconsin chain of bars that specializes in craft beers and features loads of local brews as well as national craft beers. I don’t know how many taps there were; it was too way many for me to bother counting them. We settled in at a hightop table next to the beer menu chalked on the wall, where I studied the options long and hard. I spotted a specialty brew called Sixty-One from Dogfish Head that a friend had raved about; I wish I could say it was as good as the hype, but I couldn’t be bothered to finish it. B ordered a delicious barrel-aged porter called Barrel Aged Brrrbon with Vanilla from Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland OR. She let me taste it, then she let me taste it again, and then I tasted it some more. Eventually she just said to hell with tasting and we called it sharing.

After the first draughts were out of the way, we ordered a flight of four beers: Dynamo Copper Lager from Metropolitan Brewing in Chicago; Bean Me Up Scotchy from St. Francis Brewing in St. Francis WI; Shake Chocolate Porter from Boulder Beer Company in Boulder CO; and Quinannan Falls Lager from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo MI.

We’ve been to Chicago on our own, but we have to go back soon on a proper beer tour because there’s some really good brews coming out of there. If Dynamo’s any indication, I could probably spend all day in the taproom of Metropolitan Brewing, sampling their beers.

St. Francis is just north of Milwaukee and we’ve enjoyed their beer before. Bean Me Up Scotchy is a barrel-aged version of their scotch ale, known as Pride, and I would guess they’ve added vanilla beans to the recipe to boot. Very smooth, and yummy enough to make me want more.

I don’t remember drinking any brews from Boulder Beer before, so that’s something I’m working on correcting, starting with this excellent porter.

Bell’s has been one of my favorite breweries ever since I tried Two-Hearted Ale, a very hoppy beer. I’m not so much into hoppy beers any more, but fortunately Bell’s has produced plenty of other styles that are ever so tasty, and this lager, I’m happy to report, is no exception. Plus, it comes from Kalamazoo, which gives me an opportunity to say Kalamazoo. I love to say Kalamazoo. Who doesn’t love saying Kalamazoo? Boring people, that’s who.

I can’t remember whether or not we visited Widmer Brothers when we were in Portland. Looking photos of the place and where it is on the map, I’m pretty sure we didn’t. If we didn’t, we were stupid. It looks like a pretty great place to visit. Plus, the vanilla porter we sampled was scrumptuous. Getting some right from the source would’ve been a treat.

Our sufficiencies well and truly serensified, we retired back to Our Little Red House to pass the rest of a quiet afternoon reading and napping until supper time. And that is a satisfying way to pass a Saturday afternoon.

walking on the moon | 9:04 am CDT
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Monday, May 4th, 2015

It was the first weekend of Madison Craft Beer Week, so brace yourself! This is going to be mostly about beer.

Both B and I had some flex time to burn on Friday, so we got out of work a couple hours early, drove straight home and had a nice nap for an hour or so. Hey, we’re middle-aged. It seemed like a great idea to us.

After getting a really good, restful nap, we changed clothes and went to The Malt House, where the Central Waters Brewery was doing a tap takeover, pouring I don’t know how many different beers – looked like at least a dozen. We got a flight of their darkest, maltiest high-gravity beers: an imperial cherry stout, a coffee stout known as Peruvian Morning, and their anniversary ale, 17. We grabbed a couple of chairs and settled in on the patio where we could enjoy sipping them in the evening light.

And sipping was about all we could do with these very strong brews. These are beers to be savored, not guzzled. We both thought that 17 was the very best. I had to give it 5 out of five marks. I can’t remember the last time I did that, but this was such a yummy beer that I just had to. I thought the cherry stout was a bit too tart, but B liked it fine. The coffee stout had just enough coffee aroma to make it as close to perfect as coffee stout gets, if I may say so.

After enjoying the beers on offer at The Malt House, we strolled down to Dexter’s Pub because we heard there was a tap takeover there, too. We sampled a few chocolate stouts from Southern Tier Brewing and a porter from Great Lakes before the noise and the crowds were too much for us and we began to miss the peace and quiet of our little red house.

Saturday we went to breakfast at Lazy Jane’s. Biscuits and gravy, baby!

At eleven, they had the official Madison Craft Beer Week kickoff party at the East Side Club with a collection of brewers and their firkins in a tent in the parking lot. Last year, the party was out back on the lawn, but a wedding party had taken over on Saturday. Too bad. Would’ve been a perfect day to be out on the lawn.

No biggie. We found a seat in a small garden by the door and took turns getting refills so we wouldn’t lose it. This was a classic beer tasting: They gave us four-ounce tumblers at the gate that we could get refilled as many times as we liked. I tried one of each of the beers on tap, even the sour beers that are all the rage now. I don’t like them, no matter how often I try them. They’re all just a little too tart for my palate, or I’ve got a faulty palate.

Tim swung by the fest at three to pick us up and take us home, where we grilled bratwurst and watched a movie after dinner. The movie was Locke. The whole movie was Tom Hardy in a car calling people on the phone. It was not boring, but I’m not sure what it was. Maybe more about that later.

Sunday, out of bed at five. B had a quick shower, but I’m not as civilized, so I just threw on some dirty clothes. Besides, I knew we were going to be standing in line outside all morning, waiting to buy tickets for the Great Taste of the Midwest; who would be able to get a whiff of me? Nobody that I knew, that’s who.

There were 300 tickets available. Each person in line could buy two. At eight thirty, they started passing out wrist bands numbered one to one-fifty. I got number 148. B got 149. Just before they handed out the last numbered band to the guy behind us, he took a deep breath and said, “I think I’m about to cry.”

Once you have your numbered wrist band, you can step out of line and come back at eleven thirty to buy tickets. B and I went to breakfast at Stalzy’s. Probably didn’t need to, because we’d both just eaten the Lazy Jane’s scones we bought the day before, but it’s a tradition, born just last year, that we stop in for breakfast sammies after they hand out the numbers, so off we went.

After breakfast, we still had enough time to go home, where My Darling B had a nap. My tummy was too full, so I mowed the lawn. There, now I won’t have to think about it for a week!

Back in line at eleven-thirty; everybody started to bunch up at about eleven-fifty; ticket sales started at twelve and we got our tickets at twelve forty-five. Home again, home again, jiggidy-jog.

The last beer event for the weekend was the benefit for the pet rescue at One Barrel Brewing. Because nothing motivates people to save the doggies like beer. Well, nothing motivates me like beer, anyway.

Madison Craft Beer Week | 9:26 pm CDT
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Friday, April 17th, 2015

My Darling B snorted at me when I ventured the opinion that Where The Sidewalk Ends was a pretty good movie. She thought it was “too corny.”

“It wasn’t any cornier than Casablanca,” I replied.

“Hey hey hey, don’t be dissing on Casablanca,” she warned me, wagging a finger.

“I’m not dissing,” I said, “but c’mon. You don’t think Sydney Greenstreet was every bit as corny in Casablanca as Dana Andrews was in Sidewalk?” But she wouldn’t bite. I’d already gone where I shouldn’t have.

Where The Sidewalk Ends | 3:07 pm CDT
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Meru was the last film we saw at the Wisconsin Film Festival, which made thirty-two films in all, if you count the six-minute short film Little America and the two films we walked out of. I’m counting them, but My Darling B thinks it’s cheating.

The best dramatic narrative that we was was, no question, The Keeping Room.

The best documentary was a lot harder to pick. After counting out all the ones that we didn’t think were best, we were still left with a list of five, and couldn’t pare it down much further than that: Ballet 422, Capturing Grace, Clarence, Meru, Off the Menu, and Old Fashioned.

In years past, we’d be looking forward to three more days of films, but the film fest was shortened this year. Not sure if that’s going to be a permanent thing or not, but it worked out well for us this year: We’re just about all movied out.

Wisconsin Film Festival | 10:27 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Meru is the most technically challenging mountain climb in the Himalayas, and although many teams had tried to reach the summit, all had failed when Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk teamed up to climb it. Not only is this a hair-raising story, it’s got some of the most amazing eye candy ever, not least of which is at the top of the mountain, a blade of granite known to climbers as The Shark’s Fin that is so narrow, they had to straddle it with their legs to climb to the summit.

Meru | 7:32 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Anima is a blogger in Damascus at the time of the Syrian uprising who is reported missing and feared kidnapped by the Assad regime for her outspoken views. When fellow bloggers begin to network together to win Anima’s freedom, they learn that apparently nobody has met her and she was not seen at the meetings and protests she wrote about. The Anima Profile documents the unmasking of the hoaxer behind Anima’s blog posts.

The Anima Profile | 7:22 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Clarence is one of those souls who is seemingly indefatigable, always upbeat, and shares a kind word with everyone he meets. An 87-year-old veteran, Clarence decides to finish college and earn a degree now that his children are grown. He presses on even when medical problems threaten to stop him, and becomes the oldest graduate of UW-Milwaukee. A truly inspiring film.

Clarence | 7:16 am CDT
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Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Not sure exactly what we were supposed to get from the documentary Western about the sister cities of Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, in Mexico. I’m always happier when the director steps back out of the frame to let the people and their situations tell the story, but in this film the people and the situations did not complete the story and I was left wondering who they were or what they were doing.

Western | 8:27 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Where the Sidewalk Ends is a film noir classic directed by Otto Preminger and starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney. There. That’s all you need to know. My Darling B thought it was cheeseball to the Nth degree. I thought so, too, but that’s more or less what I was expecting.

Where the Sidewalk Ends | 8:22 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Best of the British Arrows is always a treat. The British Arrows are awards given out to the most creative television advertisements, and the Best Of reel is a collection of the first, second and third place winners, as well as some of the finalists. I often like the finalists better than the winners, but then I’m grading them more on the basis of how much they make me laugh rather than their creativity.

Best Of The British Arrows | 8:20 am CDT
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It’s confirmed! The awesome superpower of jumping to the front of the line is ours! We were told some days ago by a volunteer at the Wisconsin Film Fest that the all-festival passes we bought instead of individual tickets gave us head-of-the-line privileges, but we were a bit hesitant to try it out because we didn’t want to be torn limb-from-limb by the ticket holders who had been waiting in line for as long as an hour. But a couple days ago there were a couple of movies we wanted to see and there was a break of about fifteen minutes between then, so when we got out of the first one we found there were maybe a hundred people already waiting in line. There was no danger of not getting a seat, but we didn’t want to end up sitting in the front row with the screen practically in our laps and our heads cranked all the way back for two hours. “I’m just going to go check,” My Darling B said, stepping out of line to ask the volunteer at the door. She came back empty-handed. The volunteer didn’t know what B was talking about.

Same situation last night: Our last two movies were back-to-back, just fifteen or twenty minutes separated them and we stepped to the tail of a line that was already maybe seventy or eighty people long. This time, though, a volunteer came down the line, handing out ballots, saw our festival passes hanging around our necks and said, “Oh, you two can go to the front of the line.” It was getting cold, so we said thanks and walked up to the door. The couple at the front of the line didn’t seem to be too happy about it, but the volunteer at the door confirmed we could jump to the front of the line, so the ticket holders could only glare at us with expressions that said, “DIE IN A FIRE ASSHOLES!”

This was also the first time that we left our jackets on the backs of our chairs to reserve them, something else that a volunteer told us was absolutely fine but that some of the ticket holders were not very happy about. We knew we were coming right back to the same theater and we’d seen others do the same thing, so after we were seated I went to the volunteer at the door and started to say, “We’re coming right back to this very theater to see another movie after this …” and she jumped in to finish my thought: “So you’d better leave your jacket on your seat to reserve it!” Well, okay then, and thanks! And that very night there was a bit of a dramatic outburst, not directed at us but definitely triggered by the practice of reserving seats, that ironically came from a woman who had left her bag in a front-row seat to reserve it. Apparently she wanted to reserve more than one seat, but had only the bag to do it, and was not happy when other people sat in the seats alongside her bag.

So to recap, jumping to the front of the line is a pretty awesome superpower, but I would want to use it only when absolutely necessary. Same goes with leaving our jackets on chairs to reserve them. Good thing tonight’s the last night and we won’t have to worry about any of that.

superpower | 8:13 am CDT
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Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Wisconsin Film Festival 2015I’m not sure I’m ready to write about Almost There, but then I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready, so here goes nothing:

Almost There is a documentary about how filmmakers Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky discovered East Chicago artist Peter Anton and helped him exhibit his works. Anton is an artist of the “outsider” genre, a rough style of painting that appears to be very basic, almost amateurish, but is highly-regarded in some circles.

The filmmakers discover Anton painting portraits at a pierogi festival and take him up on his invitation to visit the artist in his home. What they find is that Anton lives in what was once his parents’ house but has become a hovel that is literally falling down around him. Anton has to fight with the door to open and close it. Mould hangs from the ceiling and walls and grows thick on the plastic cases of shelved video tapes. There are holes in the roof where rain pours in, soaking floor joists that are rotten through and caving into the basement. Anton lives in a far corner of the dank basement, sitting among shapeless heaps of wet, rotting junk and garbage that stink so badly, Wickenden and Rybicky are forced to retreat from it and return only after they’ve strapped surgical masks to their faces.

When they return, they take Anton to a restaurant for a hot meal where they try to convince Anton to move out of the house, but Anton insists that he will not move, adding some crap about how artists gotta suffer for their art and that he’ll be happy to die in that house rather than leave it. So they return him to his fungal infestation of a home and visit him over a period of years, occasionally delivering art supplies and canisters of Pringles, which Anton seems to subsist on.

This was not at all the documentary I thought it was going to be. Judging from the synopsis, I thought it might be about a charming eccentric who lived with maybe one too many cats in a time capsule of a house and painted brilliant works of art that had yet to be discovered. And from some point of view, that is more or less true. Wickenden and Rybicky interviewed many people who counted Anton as their friend and thought that he was, at one time if not now, charming. And he did indeed live with too many cats; I think he said he was up to 29 at one point before almost all of them died.

But also, just the opposite of all that was true: Anton was a lot crankier than he was charming; even people who had known him for years were now distancing themselves from him. The cats appeared to be feral and suffered from neglect as did the house he lived in. I don’t have the experience to judge his art but from what I could see, most of the most interesting collages that Anton collected on the walls of his house were already destroyed by the rot and collapse that had been going on for too many years.

The documentary that I saw was about the heartbreaking lack of some kind of social service that would have helped someone like Anton to improve his physical living conditions and emotional health. It was a very hard film to watch.

Almost There | 8:26 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015 I forgot to include Theeb in yesterday’s roundup of movies, mea culpa. Set in the later days of the first world war, Theeb and his brother Hussein are asked to guide an English officer through the desert to blow up the train tracks. Their mission doesn’t go well and Theeb is captured by a bandit. I’m not sure I got the point of this movie, but it was acted and directed well, and the scenes of the desert, not usually my favorite subject, were beautifully shot, so I gave it four out of five.

Theeb | 7:45 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Everybody I heard talking about In Order of Disappearance kept comparing it to Fargo. I can’t see what the two films have in common, other than they’re both comedies with a lot of snow, and a lot of people get killed. The film’s revenge plot, worthy of a Chuck Norris flick, revolves around Nils, a snowplow driver whose son gets killed by drug dealers. Nils spends the rest of the movie hunting them down and killing them one by one. That’s pretty much the whole movie. Plus jokes.

In Order of Disappearance | 7:42 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015In The Farewell Party, Yehezkel’s friend Max, suffering from terminal illness, asks Yehezkel to help him “get it over with.” Yehezkel, a tinkerer, builds a Kevorkianish euthanasia machine in his workshop, then with the help of Max’s wife and some friends, he slips it into Max’s hospital room on the QT, or so he thinks until other people start to approach him and ask for him to lend them the machine. A surprisingly light-hearted and touching film.

The Farewell Party | 7:29 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Jack is about a German boy, maybe eight or ten years old, who takes care of his younger brother, Manuel, because his mother is too busy partying and having a good time. After Manuel is hurt in an accident, because there’s always an accident, Social Services takes Jack into custody for a while. When Jack decides that’s enough of that, he makes his way home, but his mother’s not there, so he spends the better part of the movie searching for Manuel, then his mother. When he finally finds her, he has to make a decision, both for himself and for Manuel: Does he stay?

Jack | 7:22 am CDT
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Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Nobody does films that underline the utter futility of life the way the former Soviet-bloc countries do. The Lesson opens on a scene in a classroom where the teacher, Nade, is trying to expose a thief who she discovers only in the last scene by accident, after trying every principled argument she can think of to expose him all through the film. In the meantime, she struggles to prevent the bank from foreclosing on her house after her shiftless husband blows all their money on a broken-down motor home. In the end, what Nade discovers is that anyone, even she herself, will throw their most dearly-held principles in the gutter when things get desperate.

The Lesson | 9:10 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Last Seder? is director Mark Kornblatt’s documentary of a visit to see his parents to celebrate passover seder for what he fears will be the last time, now that his elderly father is losing mobility and his mother’s memory is lost to Alzheimer’s.

Last Seder? | 7:48 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015The first movie we saw yesterday, Off The Menu: Asian America, was a surprisingly heartwarming documentary about Asian-American food. Director Grace Lee starts by asking the question, What is Asian-American food, anyway? and while seeking answers (and eating lots of good-looking food!), she introduces us to the people she put her question to: Glen Gondo, a third-generation Japanese who has achieved such success in marketing Asian-American food that he’s known as the Sushi King of Texas; Jonathan Wu and Wilson Tang, chefs from New York city who have opened the Asian fusion restaurant Fung Tu on the lower east side of Manhattan; the the men and women of the Sikh temple in Milwaukee as they prepare and share langar, a community dinner; and the farmers at the M’ao Organic Farm in Hawaii. The answer Lee found? Asian-American food is whatever Asian chefs make that is inspired by their heritage, and that can be as ordinary as packaged sushi from the grocery store, or as original as the recipes that come out of the kitchen of Wu and Tang. But far from being a one-note documentary that’s trying to answer a riddle, Lee brings a sense of humor to her project, and presents a film about people who build a sense of community through the food they prepare for a meal or produce for a kitchen. Well worth seeing.

Off The Menu: Asian America | 7:35 am CDT
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Monday, April 13th, 2015

Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Wisconsin native Holly L. De Ruyter was living in Chicago when she made Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club by driving into Wisconsin on weekends. Over a period of six years, she collected archival footage, post cards and advertisements, and interviewed the owners of a dozen or so supper clubs across the state, then pieced together a documentary so fresh and fun that I wanted to go visit every supper club myself.

Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club | 9:07 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Tale Of The Spotted Cow is just what it says on the tin: The Great American Success Story of Deb and Dan Carey, founder and brewer of the New Glarus Brewery, one of the most successful craft breweries in Wisconsin and makers of Spotted Cow, a beer so sought-after that people from other states literally cross state lines to get some because New Glarus sells its beer only in Wisconsin.

Worth seeing if only for the scene where Deb tells the story of showing the guys from Anheuser-Busch out the door after they attempted to buy a minority interest in the brewery. (But the rest of the film is awfully good, too.)

Tale of the Spotted Cow | 9:00 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Little America is a fun behind-the-scenes look at Little A-Merrick-A, a kiddie fun park in Marshall, Wisconsin. Only six minutes long, you’re unlikely to see this outside a film festival, but a visit to Little A-Merrick-A to ride the steam train, ferris wheel and roller coaster might be a pretty good substitute.

Little America | 8:52 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015We suffered through twenty excruciating minutes of The Iron Ministry before sneaking out the door. New buzzword to watch for: any movie described as “experiential.”

The hour-long hole in our schedule gave us enough time to slip on down to Vintage Brewing on University Ave and gobble up a pile of nachos with salsa and cheese curds, and wash it all down with some tasty beer. Much better than watching eighty-three minutes of people sleeping on trains.

The Iron Ministry | 8:46 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Justin Peck is a choreographer for the New York City Ballet. Ballet 422 is the story of how he staged a new ballet for the company from start to finish: Selecting the musical score, dreaming up dance steps to express it, collaborating with the rest of the company to refine it through rehearsals, and that’s to say nothing of designing the costumes, figuring out the lighting, and the million other details that go into the finished project.

I’ve never been especially interested in ballet before, but I felt my heart rise into my throat each time the dancers leapt through their steps. How they make it look so effortless is nothing less than awe-inspiring.

Ballet 422 | 8:45 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015We had originally chosen to see Crack In The Mirror on Sunday afternoon, another Orson Welles film, but after suffering through Chimes At Midnight the day before, we reconsidered and saw Capturing Grace instead.

So glad we did. This documentary (we watched nothing but documentaries today!) follows a group of people afflicted with Parkinson’s disease who have made an amazing discovery: Dance focuses their attention on movement in such a way that they seem to regain control over their bodies while they’re doing it. Filmed over the course of a year, the group prepares for their first public dance performance with the help of professional choreographers at the Mark Morris Dance Group. This is easily one of the best films of the festival.

Capturing Grace | 8:32 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Director Kara Mulrooney spent An Evening At Angelo’s to record this slice of life about a piano lounge where the regulars and, occasionally, Angelo, the owner, takes the mike to belt out a few tunes.

An Evening At Angelo’s | 8:30 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Our second documentary of the day, In The Shadow of Ebola follows Emmanuel Urey, a UW-Madison student gone home to Liberia to visit his family when the Ebola outbreak reaches Monrovia. He manages to take one of his sons with him when he goes back to the United States, but is forced by the bureaucracy to leave the other behind until he can sort out the paperwork as the outbreak escalates. Scary stuff.

In The Shadow of Ebola | 8:23 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015The makers of Blood, a documentary about Russians who are so poor they literally beg to sell their blood to state blood collectors at the bargain-basement price of three and a half dollars, were apparently sitting around wondering: This movie isn’t bleak enough. How could it be even bleaker?

And then the nickel dropped: Of course! We’ll film it in black & white!

Perfectly bleak.

Blood | 8:15 am CDT
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Sunday, April 12th, 2015

Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Society is riddled with people who take advantage of their position, but sexual predators are dealt with more harshly than any of them. The documentary Pervert Park does an engaging job of telling the stories of sex offenders coming to grips with their crimes and learning to reintegrate themselves with society. Set in the tiny community of Florida Justice Transitions, a trailer park founded by the mother of a sex offender, men and women speak honestly about the horrors they’ve perpetrated, and the film frankly shows their struggle to deal with their crimes and get on with their lives. Although I appreciated how the film focused on the stories of the offenders, I would have liked to learn more about the community itself, how members joined it and how they eventually moved on. In spite of that, this is a good, and an important documentary.

Pervert Park | 7:27 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Set during the 70s when heroin was epidemic in Marseille, The Connection is a reboot of The French Connection with Jean Dujardin in the starring role. The police are after a drug kingpin. A new magistrate of police is brought in to get him. He does.

I guess I’m jaded: It’s every police versus drug dealers movie or television show I’ve seen already. Nothing new here.

The Connection | 7:13 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Chimes At Midnight is all the collected scenes from Shakespeare showing what a wit, what a wooer, what a lover of life John Falstaff was. I’ve never understood this. Falstaff has always been a drunken loser as far as I’m concerned who gets what’s coming to him in the end, and no more than Prince Hal promised him. Not even Orson Welles can convince me otherwise, and especially not with this film, which is probably as bad a staging of any Shakespeare as I’ve ever seen. Every time Falstaff speaks, crowds of people gather round him to laugh and applaud his every word. Anyone else who questions or contradicts him only jabbers and jumps like a caged monkey (except John Gielgud; Welles spared him). Now that I think of it, maybe this double-time fever dream was how the world looked to the perpetually drunken Falstaff, and Welles was genius enough to see it and put it on film. Hmmm.

Chimes at Midnight | 7:08 am CDT
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Saturday, April 11th, 2015

Wisconsin Film Festival 2015The Keeping Room is a story of survival: Three women are the only people left of what was once a rather grand farm that is standing in the path of Sherman’s army as it marches to the sea.

Two of the women have had to learn to live off the land. They stalk game in the wooded hills, or hoe rows of beans, potatoes and carrots wearing dresses made for entertaining, not work. The third woman was a slave, who has known nothing but work. Now they work and eat and sleep together, because they have nothing else but each other. All the men are gone off to war.

The film opens with a quote from Sherman: “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” As harsh and heartbreaking as this sentiment may be, it is no less true. The first scenes are of a pair of soldiers sent ahead of the army who have taken Sherman’s words as their license to be as cruel as human beings can be.

When the soldiers and the women inevitably cross paths, the women must figure out how to outwit men whose humanity has been demolished by battle. “Why do you come to us as if you want war?” one of the women asks one of the men, who answers, almost helplessly, “Don’t know how to stop.”

There is never a dull moment in this movie, never a scene when I didn’t feel these women were in peril, but also never a moment that I didn’t believe they would figure out how to save themselves from every newly-developing danger. I should’ve given this film a five. You should see it.

The Keeping Room | 11:19 am CDT
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Geon-soo is having A Hard Day: His mother died, his sister’s mad at him because he’s late for the funeral, and he just hit someone with his car. So, as you do, he shoves the body in the trunk and, while he’s nailing the lid on his mother’s coffin, cooks up a plan to dispose of the body. And he would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for that meddling (and apparently indestructible) cop, Park.

I think I may be slowly coming around to liking Korean movies. Maybe I was unlucky enough to start out with the craptastic ones. I was sure I wasn’t going to like this one, going into it, and I was on the verge of walking out at the beginning until the nickel dropped and I realized it was a comedy. A really dark comedy, but a well-played dark comedy. Then I enjoyed it, although I didn’t think it was as laugh-out-loud funny as the rest of the audience did. My Darling B was nearly in tears after a few of the gags. So maybe I only need to warm up to a few more good ones like this and I won’t be so apprehensive going in.

A Hard Day | 10:48 am CDT
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