Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

Woman goes into a big, dark house with creaky wooden floors and heavy doors that go boom when she closes them. Just your basic soul-eating house. Woman slowly wanders through every room of the house, doesn’t turn on any of the lights. Ghost appears. Of course it does. I mean, what did you think was going to happen? Woman doesn’t see the ghost at first, because it always materializes in the air behind her somewhere, then fades away. Then, when it’s time to really scare the piss out of her, it … turns on a faucet. Yeah. Ghosts have the awesome power to disappear, float in the air, walk through walls, make spooky noises. This one can turn on faucets.

This was the ghost in a movie we saw at the Wisconsin Film Fest. The movie was “Personal Shopper,” and the woman was kind of pointlessly looking for the ghost of her brother, who died earlier that year. The woman says she’s a medium, and she eventually sees the ghost in the spooky house, but she’s the kind of medium who gets her information about ghosts from, just to name two sources, a movie about a seance, and the internet. Because where would you possibly get better information about the realm of spirits?

The first time the ghost turns on the faucet, it was kind of scary because I didn’t know what that noise was at first. The woman had to wander through most of the rooms in the house to find the tap that was running, because it was just a thin trickle and a bit hard to hear. Then the ghost opened the bathtub spigot all the way, and I was thinking, “Okay, he’s really good at turning on the water. What else can he do?” I mean, it’s not an especially malevolent activity, is it? It’s not even scary, after the first time. First time was, Oooo, what’s that noise? And the second time, meh.

It turned out the ghost did have a few other tricks up his sleeve: he could scratch the table, and he could tear up a piece of paper. Really scary stuff. (Full disclosure: I walked out halfway through the movie, so maybe it got a whole lot better after that. My Darling B stayed; she said it didn’t get any better. I trust her.)

all wet | 7:31 pm CST
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Sunday, April 9th, 2017

The Freddie Fender ballad “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” has been playing on a fucking loop in my head for the past 48 hours. I loathe this song in capital letters: LOATHE. I can’t say why; it’s one of those gut reactions that makes me instantly change the radio station. I think I can say with a high degree of confidence that I have loathed this song since it was released in 1975. I would’ve been fifteen years old then, growing up in a tiny rural town that was smack in the middle of Wisconsin. The local radio station played just about anything, but music by the likes of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash were featured prominently. I remember hearing “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” and “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” what seemed like every fucking day, although I’m sure now that’s an exaggeration. Although maybe not.

I have just learned that Freddie Fender was born with the name Baldemar Garza Huerta. That’s about the coolest name I’ve heard in my life. I can’t imagine why he wanted to change it. I want to have a son right now just so I can name him Baldemar. Also, Fender was in a band called Los Super Seven, another very cool name, and another band named Texas Tornados, which is a cool name but not as cool as Los Super Seven.

“Before The Next Teardrop Falls” is stuck in my head because I watched a documentary film about a guy with Aspberger’s who sang through his nose in that atonal way just about all of us do when we want to sing but there are a lot of people around so we try to make it look like we’re not singing by not moving our lips and by looking out the window pretending to be interested in the clouds. This guy wasn’t pretending not to sing, though. That’s just the way he sang. He knew all the words to “Before The Next Teardrop Falls,” even the ones in Spanish, and he sang them with such deep, emotional feeling that I couldn’t help but be touched by it.

I still hate that song, though.

That’s not the only song that’s been stuck in my head this weekend. Another is “La Marseillaise,” the national anthem of France, and it’s because of another film I saw this week (I was at the Wisconsin Film Fest with My Darling B last week, so I saw a lot of films; bear with me) called “Frantz,” about a young French soldier who travels to Germany to meet the family of the German soldier he killed during The Great War. It was “great” in the sense that it was really big, not in the sense that everybody thought it was a lot of fun and we should have another one again as soon as possible, even though we ended up doing just that. This is why choosing the right name is so important. “Baldemar” — good choice. “The Great War” — not such a good choice.

Back to the film: One of the principal characters of the film, a young German woman who was engaged to the German soldier who was shot by the French soldier I mentioned earlier, travels to Paris to find the French soldier because … it’s complicated. Anyway, she’s in a cafe in Paris when a couple of French soldiers come in for coffee and everyone stands up and sings “La Marseillaise” because what else would you do, right?

If you’ve seen “Casablanca,” you saw almost the same scene: Victor Laslo leads the customers of Rick’s Cafe in a rousing verse of “La Marseillaise” to flip the bird at the Germans who are after him. What they didn’t do in “Casablanca” was subtitle the words to the song, I guess because they figured everybody knew what it meant back then. I didn’t, and I never looked it up, either, thinking it was the usual stuff of national anthems: “We’re the best, you guys suck, our country is better than your country.”

But the version of “Frantz” we saw was subtitled, and they went on subtitling the words to the anthem during the cafe scene, so this is the first time I’ve heard it and known what they were singing about:

Arise, children of the fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, tyranny’s bloody banner is raised,
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!

To arms, citizens!
Form your battalions!
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood soak our fields!

The camera kept flitting from the puffed-up French people singing their yoo-rah-rah song to the uncomfortable face of the German woman, who spoke fluent French and knew just what they were saying. And there were a few disgusted-looking women in the crowd who did not stand up and did not sing; I assumed they were mothers of French soldiers who didn’t go for all that yoo-rah-rah crap.

“Kind of a different effect when you know the words to the song, don’t you think?” I whispered to B, who agreed.

While I’m on the musical theme, the last song I want to tell you about isn’t a song at all. It’s a kind of music: jazz, sort of. One of the duds we saw at the film fest was a musical review called “The King Of Jazz,” featuring the Paul Whiteman band. The final number was how they imagined jazz was created: a whole bunch of white people from Russia, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and every other northern European country sang ethnic theme music (“Every laddie has his lassie” for the Irish people, that sort of thing) as they descended into a melting pot. Paul Whiteman gave the pot a stir, the sides of the pot swung open, and for one terrifying moment I thought the musicians and dancers were all going to come out in blackface singing “Mammie”! Instead, they sang what I guessed was supposed to be a jazz number, which was about as jazzy as any song can be when there isn’t a single African-American involved.

musical | 10:11 am CST
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Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

I was on the sofa with a book this morning, curling up into a ball, tighter and tighter, for more than two hours before I realized why the house was so goddamned cold: It’s Tuesday. I’m not normally in the house on Tuesday morning. I’m usually at the office, more’s the pity, so the smart thermostat at home is programmed to turn the temperature down to sixty-seven degrees after seven o’clock and keep it there until four, when it cranks the heat back up in anticipation of our return home. I’d forgotten to turn the thermostat up when I got out of bed and that’s why I was curling up into a ball so tight that I would’ve collapsed into my own gravity well if I hadn’t figured it out when I did.

I’m at home — well, not right now; right now, I’m in the library writing this drivel because they’ve got a damn computer that works and I don’t — because it’s day six of the Wisconsin Film Festival, so instead of going out into the world to be a productive member of American society, I’ve been slouched in the chairs (benches, medieval torture devices) of various darkened movie theaters around town, watching more movies in one week than I’ll probably watch the rest of the year. We’re shooting for thirty this year (B counts it as thirty, but it’s really more if, like me, you count the shorts separately, because they’re stand-alone films, right?), a slightly less ambitious schedule than last year when we saw something like thirty-five films, even by the weird way of counting that B uses. We used to arrange our schedule so that we crammed in as many movies in a day as we possibly could; this year, we’re taking it easy and today, like yesterday, we’re seeing just four films, when we could have probably squeezed in five or six a day if we wrestled with the schedule for hours. We didn’t feel like pulling our hair and gnashing our teeth this year, hence our more relaxed schedule.

We were at the Sundance Cinema from eleven in the morning until ten at night yesterday, which is nice inasmuch as we didn’t have to dash across town, hunt for a parking space, trudge through the rain or go without food or beer (Sundance has a concession stand that sells hot sandwiches and several brands of beers from local breweries; the downside is that the prices are just this side of extortion), although I have to say that being cooped up in one theater all day long leaves my head foggy at the end of the day. When I have to run from one theater to the next, at least it gets my legs moving, my blood pumping, and I have to blink at the sunlight a little more often, which is not a bad thing.

This has been a good week to stay inside all day. We’ve had rain for three, maybe four days *shrug*? So we’ve been invoking our head of the line privileges, a benefit of buying the all-festival pass instead of getting individual tickets for each showing, which is a royal pain in the neck when you’re trying to buy tickets to thirty-plus films. Actually, it’s typically a pain in the neck to buy tickets to just a handful of shows, because the on-line ticket-selling vendor is almost always instantly overwhelmed by the volume of people trying to log in and buy tickets the day they go on sale. We had pretty good luck the first year we did it that way, not so much the next year, and the year after that we threw our arms in the air and got the all-festival passes. It turned out that cost less than buying the individual tickets anyway. We found out about head-of-line privileges later but only invoked them when the line captains all but twisted our arms to take us to the front of the line, leading us past dozens of grumbling ticket-holders who’d been waiting to get in. But this year, waiting in line outside the Barrymore, I watched as people butted in line ahead of us, clustering around others who held a place for them, or crowding in behind friends who waved them over, shouting, “YOOO-HOOO! Join us!” After seeing at least a dozen people do that shit, I went up to the line captain, showed her my pass, and asked her how that head-of-line privilege worked. And we’ve been jumping to the head of the queue ever since, which came in especially handing last night because all the films we wanted to see were in theaters where the line was outside. We were warm and dry even as the rain fell all through the day.

Another plus to the Sundance theaters is their seating: big, plush chairs with so much leg room that you don’t have to stand up to let people get by and you can stretch out during the movie, a sharp contrast to, for instance, the clamshell seats in the Chazen Theater where my knees are firmly butted up against the back of the chair in the next row in front of me. God help you if you have to excuse yourself to the washroom from a seat in the middle of the row during the show. At Sundance, there’s enough room to walk past them without turning to one side and standing tippy-toe. There’s even a tier of seats in the middle of the theater with a handrail you can put your feet up on; the competition to snag those is fierce, with many a harsh word spoken between people who seek them and others who “reserve” seats for friends who aren’t actually present in the theater yet. I’ve never had the moxie to try that. A woman at one of the showings last night was holding at least half a dozen seats (I couldn’t tell exactly how many she was laying claim to with her outspread arms) and had to absorb more verbal punishment to do it than I could have withstood in a year; the resentful glares alone would have reduced me to a withered husk.

in the dark | 10:01 am CST
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Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

“Valley of Love” followed Gerard Depardeau and Isabelle Huppert playing the divorced parents of a son they have recently learned has committed suicide. The day before, we had seen Isabelle Huppert in “Louder Than Bombs,” a movie where her character committed suicide. Although she’s a wonderful actor, I’m kinda apprehensive about seeing another Isabelle Huppert movie now.

Just before the son killed himself, he wrote a letter to each of his parents, beseeching them to visit one of several different tourist spots in Death Valley over a period of a week. If they did this, he promised that they would see him.

His mother seemed to believe in psychics and visitations from beyond. His father flat-out didn’t and plainly said so, but went along with it, apparently to make his mother happy.

The first two-thirds of the movie painted a sincerely honest and endearing portrait of the mother and father as they tried to come to terms with the death of their son. In the final third of the movie, however, it turned into kind of a stupid ghost story, and everything that came before was pretty much ruined. We were so disappointed coming out of this movie. Three out of four.

We had about an hour and a half to while away between “Valley of Love” and our next movie, “Under the Sun”, so B and I walked across the street to have a beer on the patio at the Great Dane. Among the other things we talked about (what a beautiful day, isn’t this beer delicious, etc), I made sure that I told B, “You know what? If I ever off myself — and I’m not thinking about it, just so you know — and I leave a note or a letter behind, please just burn that shit. Don’t read it to find out why I did it or to find out if I had any last dying wishes. Just toss it.”

I wasn’t kidding. Because there’s no explanation for a suicide, and it seems to me that anybody who wants one is probably looking for assurance that they weren’t the one that tipped him over the edge. It’s the only way the question, “Did he leave a note?” makes sense to me. If you didn’t know a person well enough in life to know why he decided to kill himself, a note’s not going to bring you up to speed. The only way it’s going to help is if it says, “It’s all on me, not on you or anybody else. I love you. Good-bye.”

Valley Of Love | 7:00 am CST
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Thursday, April 21st, 2016

“Sunset Song” was a period piece about the hard life of a young Scottish woman. That’s pretty much it. Looks great. Story’s well-written. Liked the acting. Gave it four out of five.

The documentary “In Transit” was interviews with several random people traveling cross-country on an Amtrak passenger train. Three out of five.

“Sergio Herman: Fucking Perfect” was a documentary about one of those chefs who owns several restaurants that are so popular you have to call years in advance to book a table. Going to one of them is not a meal, it’s an event, and the chef spends hours a day hunched over each and every dish, carefully arranging sprigs of rosemary around thinly-sliced beef. This guy is more into food than anything else, probably even more than his family, but his wife seems to be okay with that, until about midway through the film when chef announced that he would be closing one of his restaurants. In a brief clip, his wife says something like, This will be great, he’ll have time to spend with the children and help me around the house. My first thought was, Clearly you do not know this guy as well as you think you do. I’ve been watching him for barely and hour and I already know he’s not going to let up on the gas at all. And sure enough, in the scenes that follow he opens another restaurant in what looks like a great big church and as the film closes, he’s bustling around the kitchen. I’m not a foodie so I didn’t care much for this film, and gave it three out of five. B happens to be a foodie, but she thought it could have been better, and gave it the same.

“Operation Avalanche” was a found-footage comic documentary that followed two new recruits to the CIA who learn, pretty much by accident, that NASA won’t be able to figure out how to land on the moon until 1971 at the earliest, so they hatch a plan to fake the moon landing. I just know that some day footage from this film is going to be used in a moon-hoax conspiracy video. Four out of five.

WFF Final Day | 10:00 pm CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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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 CST
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B&O at the moviesNow you see him, now you don’t.

shades | 11:07 am CST
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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 CST
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Love At First Fight started with what I guess was meant to be a meet cute: Amaud’s friends rope him into participating in a demonstration of hand-to-hand combat with Madeleine, a characteristically nutty survivalist who trains herself to join the toughest regiment in the Army by swimming with a backpack full of rocks and drinking smoothies she makes from raw sardines. The story quickly loses steam when they go to a summer Army boot camp, and falls apart after they ditch the Army and go camping in the forest where they do pretty much nothing at all.

Love At First Fight | 8:52 am CST
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015Spartans is a documentary about Yvan, a mixed-martial arts champion who grew up in the projects of Marseilles, France, coaches boys and girls from his neighborhood with the hope of teaching them enough discipline to keep them in school and out of trouble. It starts out promising, but by the middle of the film I’d already had enough of Yvan’s lectures and tough-guy talk. I guess I have to accept that “If you don’t stay in school and respect your mother, I’ll tear your head off!” can be effectively motivating to somebody, because it seemed to be working on these kids, but it got old pretty fast. Way too much of Yvan talking, not enough of Yvan getting results.

Spartans | 8:11 am CST
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Friday, April 10th, 2015

My Darling B experienced a sustained moment of panic last night when she discovered that she couldn’t shut off her smart phone. B is a stickler for rules, so when the theater captain asks everyone to “shut off” their phones and I’m only silencing mine, B shuts hers all the way down – power off, cold as a stone, needs to boot up to make a noise or flash any lights.

But last night when she tried to shut her phone off, it wouldn’t respond. The screen remained blank, although a little blue flashing life-light kept blinking, so obviously it was powered up. I tried calling her and texting her, and even though I could hear it ringing through my phone, her phone gave no clue at all that I was trying to contact her. She sat through the movie with the phone in her hand, terrified that it would light up and start bleating in the middle of the show. It never did, so she got lucky. The guy sitting next to her, though, had a phone that made a noise so crazy loud that he just about jumped out of his skin trying to shut it down.

We did a hard reboot to it later by pulling the battery, waiting a minute or two for it to completely die, then reinserting the battery and powering up. Works like a charm now.

smartypants | 10:29 am CST
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015I feel pretty lucky that My Darling B talked me into going to see Uncle John, the second film we saw at the Wisconsin Film Festival this year. Uncle John is a heartwarming story about death and murder and the grim determination to hide your dark secrets no matter how many people you have to kill. And family. Togetherness. New love.

Really a well-made movie, it was shot mostly in farm country just north of Madison and looked it. The cinematography was top-notch, the casting was superb, the story was intriguing and suspenseful and the writing was engaging. Rarely does a movie as dark as this one hold my attention any more.

Uncle John | 7:49 am CST
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Wisconsin Film Festival 2015I feel really awkward about not liking Results, the first film of the Wisconsin Film Festival. I was so bored with it that I came close to walking out on it two or three times. Then the audience would laugh at something they thought was pretty funny but went right by me, and I’d sit there wondering, Now why didn’t I get that?

And they did that a lot. It didn’t all go over my head. There were a few moments where somebody did something that made me smile. For the most part, though, it was like watching a crowd. People came in, they did stuff, some of it was interesting, occasionally it was funny, and then they left. I like people watching. I do it all the time. And I have to say that it’s more interesting than this movie was. I think that’s because people-watching is supposed to be random, but I think this movie was trying to tell a story. Or maybe not. I could be wrong about that.

Whatever. Not my cup of tea.

Results | 7:40 am CST
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