Sunday, April 12th, 2015

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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Saturday, April 19th, 2014

Just last night we saw a trailer for le week-end, one of the movies we watched at the film festival. The trailer made it look like a feel-good rom-com about a couple on an impulsive weekend in Paris where they reignite the flame of passion for their long marriage. I have rarely seen a more misleading movie trailer.

In the actual movie, the husband scurries after the wife, pathetically begging her for sex while she points out at every opportunity just how pathetic he is and occasionally cussing him out for no really good reason other than, I think, they’ve been married so long that she can get away with it.

If there was a high note in the film it was Jeff Goldblum, who seems to be more and more Jeff Goldblumian in every new picture I see him in. Here he packed a full-length feature film performance into only fifteen or twenty minutes of screen time, quite a feat even at the frenetic pace only he can manage.

le week-end | 11:42 am CST
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Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Mother, I Love You was our wildcard pick of the film festival offerings. It could have been bad, it could have been good, we had no idea. It was from Latvia. What does anybody, besides Latvians, know about Latvia? Definitely European, kind of Soviet, maybe bleak, maybe not. We went in not knowing what we were getting into.

The film was about a kid who appears to be spoiled rotten. His mother has a good job at a hospital, they have a nice apartment but it doesn’t seem to register on the kid that he’s got it good even though his best friend is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks.

Eventually the kid does something really bad and lies to his mother about it, and I have to tell you that in the last half-hour of the movie I really didn’t care what happened to this spoiled little brat. I was half-hoping to see him run over by a truck in the last fifteen minutes of the film. But he wasn’t. And what he did turned my ideas all the way around about whether or not I cared about him or this film. I gave it three out of five stars when I left the theater and almost immediately regretted not giving it more. By the time we’d finished dinner I was sorry I hadn’t given it five out of five. I’m still bugged that I didn’t. Really, this was a film I couldn’t stop thinking about. Nicely done.

Mother, I Love You | 8:46 pm CST
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Saturday, April 12th, 2014

We walked out of just one film at the film festival, and it was called Macaroni And Cheese, although we would’ve walked out of The Congress if we’d stopped saying to ourselves, “It can’t get any worse, it can’t get any worse…”

Macaroni And Cheese was three young women reminiscing about the time they went to a film festival. They apparently went not to watch films but to hook up with young men, and not just any young men but instead the young men they had no chance of hooking up with. One of the women wanted to hook up with a hot young celebrity actor whom she told everyone who would listen she met accidentally not long ago when he gave her his phone number. One of the women keeps throwing herself at a young man who obviously has no interest at all in her but will probably sleep with her because it doesn’t require much effort. And the third woman wants a man, any man, to suck her face but – and I never did believe this – no one wanted to except the skeevy-looking guys.

We walked out because we had already seen this movie – not in a theater, but in grade school, then in junior high, and again in high school, and it wasn’t that interesting back then.

Macaroni And Cheese | 4:42 pm CST
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The Obvious Child is a Rom-com, but it is not what you’re thinking of right now, if in fact you’re thinking of the Hollywood template for a rom-com with its whacky characters, meet-cute situations, misunderstandings and happy resolutions. This movie has all that, but it does all those things on its own terms, unconventionally, true to itself. It’s one of the most original romantic comedies I’ve seen in so many years that I wonder how it’s taken this long.

It also salvos the audience with f-bombs and is pretty frank when it comes to the way some people talk about sex: the movie opens with Donna in her stand-up routine describing the way a woman’s vagina looks through her panties, then segues into how panties look after they’ve been worn. The audience I was in cracked up big time for it, but I could see another audience going stone-cold silent.

Jenny Slate plays the role of comedian Donna Stern as if she was born for it. Ditto her best friend and roommate Nellie, played by Gaby Hoffmann, whose face tickled at my memory for the longest time until I finally remembered her as Jessica, the girl who helps Jonah get to New York city in Sleepless In Seattle. I wonder if she’s sick of being identified with that role yet.

Donna’s boyfriend dumps her at the opening of the movie, right after she has a killer night doing her stand-up routine in a neighborhood comedy club. I have to confess that what I liked most about this scene was that I not only understood the comedy, it also made me laugh, two things that normally don’t happen when I try out modern comedians. I don’t know what it is about modern comedy that doesn’t connect with me. The last modern comic whose routine didn’t go right over my head was Louis C.K. No, wait, it was Jim Gaffigan. Whoever. Diana’s routine was funny, but although I could appreciate her snark about her sex life as much as the rest of the audience did, her boyfriend very definitely didn’t. Exit boyfriend.

After the near-obligatory scenes of Donna drunk-dialing her ex-boyfriend and bombing with a “my life sucks” stand-up routine, Donna meets Max, an IT guy who’s not at all the guy you’re thinking of right now. He has a sense of humor just sharp enough to parry Donna’s jokes, yet he’s just gallant enough to let her land a few jabs, and even to pretend that he didn’t just see her crash and burn on stage. After trading jokes curled up in a heap on a bench, followed by what might possibly be one of the funniest scenes of public urination ever filmed, they go back to Max’s place where they dance the rest of the night away.

Donna sneaks out in the morning while Max is asleep and apparently neither one of them tries to call the other for several weeks, which seemed a little odd to me. Do people really just leave each other hanging like that? When Max finally does drop in again at the bookstore where Donna works, she can’t bring herself to tell him she’s pregnant, and Max interprets her reluctance to talk to him as standoffishness, so he backs out graciously.  This scene and the one where they meet at the comedy club felt so fresh and natural that they gave me hope that the rom-com is not a genre with no hope of ever recovering. I liked them both, I cared that things might work out for them, I cringed when it looked like things might not work out and I cheered when they did work out. And not once did the characters seem unbelievable. A little bit too quippy at times, maybe, but some people are really like that.

I just loved Donna’s circle of friends, a great support network, from her roomie Nellie to her father, a perfectly-cast Richard Kind, and even to her mother, who starts out rather shrewish before revealing her warm, cuddly and, inevitably I suppose, supportive side. I’ll be scouring YouTube for recordings of Gabe Liedman, who plays the comedian introducing Donna in the movie and absolutely kills with the one-liners he uses to warm up the audience.

Jake Lacey, the guy playing Max, looked awfully familiar to me, but now that I’ve had a chance to google him I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen him before. I sure hope I do in the future; he was great. Jenny Slate has been in all kinds of things; we looked up an episode of Parks and Recreation to see what she was like in that but couldn’t watch more than ten minutes. It’s that thing with modern comedy going over my head again. Went over B’s, too.

Anyway, five out of five for The Obvious Child. It was a great movie to end the festival on.

The Obvious Child | 9:19 am CST
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Thursday, April 10th, 2014

It’s official: Singing every word of dialogue is stupid.

The characters in the Jacques Demy film A Room In Town sing all their lines, and it just doesn’t work for me. They’re not singing songs, they’re just singing ordinary conversation. It’s distracting and it seems inane to hear people sing lines like “Give me a cigarette.” “Sorry, I’m out.”

My Darling B thought it was “operatic.” I don’t think it came close to the majestic vocal power of opera, so it didn’t work for me from that perspective, either.

As far as the story behind A Room In Town, that was stupid, too. Guilbaud, a striking pipe fitter, lives in a room he rents from Margot Langlois, a former baroness trying to keep up her hoity-toity lifestyle on the pension of her dead husband, a colonel. In the opening scene, Guilbaud and Mme Langlois sing about the riot in the street that Guilbaud just took part in, then Guilbaud establishes that he’s a douchebag by telling Mme Langlois that he can’t pay the rent he owes her but he’s not moving out and what’s she gonna do about it, huh? Later, Guilbaud meet his girlfriend Violette who’s an absolute sweetie and they have a nice time, but then Guilbaud tells his friend Dambiel that he’s thinking of dumping her because it’s not a good time to marry her, what with the strike and all, and besides, he just doesn’t feel any passion for her. Suddenly he remembers he forgot his hat at the Baroness’ house (the line is something like, “Shit, I forgot my hat!” which naturally he sings. Just try to tell me that’s not inane. Lah-lah-lah I can’t hear you!) and while he’s on his way back to get it, he runs into Edith, who sashays through all but the last scene in the movie wearing nothing but a fur coat. She flashes him some skin and says something like, “Do I shock you?” He gives her A Smoldering Look, they exchange two or maybe three more lines in song and then get a room where they go at it like rabbits. This is love! This is passion! They were meant to be together! And other such nonsense that’s supposed to make sense when you sing about it in a movie. (Doesn’t work. Have I mentioned? Oh, I have. Sorry.) Guilbaud cements his cred as a douchebag by dumping Violette in the next act right after she tells him she’s expecting his child. Then he gets clubbed to death in the next riot and, because Edith cannot live a moment without his love, his passion, his embrace and his kisses, she shoots herself right through the heart. Give me a break. What a stupid mess.

A Room In Town | 10:28 am CST
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Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

The other Jacques Demy film we saw at the festival was Lola, a prelude of sorts to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in that it provides the backstory to a character who appears in both films, Roland Cassard. Beautifully shot in black and white, this was Demy’s first feature-length film and, like Umbrellas, another story of star-crossed lovers, but thank goodness none of them sang. Well, Lola did, but just one song and then only because she was a dancer in a cabaret show.

I just loved it. B didn’t. She thought it was hokey the way Cassard fell in love with his childhood sweetheart at the drop of a hat. I thought that was an odd thing for her to say because he did the same thing when he fell in love with a shopgirl in Umbrellas. I love hokiness in old movies, especially black and white films, so that’s probably why I enjoyed Lola. 

Later this week we’re going to see The Young Girls of Rouchefort, Demy’s follow-up to Umbrellas. I’ll be very interested to see how each of us feels about that one!

Lola | 10:23 am CST
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The film festival is featuring several films by the French director Jacques Demy and there was quite a lot of buzz going around about them, so we got tickets for two: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lola. Umbrellas was the first one we saw and is apparently considered to be Demy’s best film; Jim Healy, the director of programming at the film fest, went so far as to say it was one of the best films ever made. We were really looking forward to watching these films.

One quirky thing about Umbrellas is that all the dialogue is sung by the cast. It’s not a musical; they’re not singing songs. They have lines of dialogue, just as in any other movie, but while the movie’s playing there’s a soundtrack of pop songs that never stops, and the cast members sing their lines as if they can hear the soundtrack. It would be as if you were having a conversation while the radio was playing in the background, and instead of merely saying what was on your mind, you sang each and every sentence you uttered to the tune of whatever song was on the radio at the time. I’ve never seen that done in any movie before.

Umbrellas has the look of a musical; everything is not only very colorful, but exaggeratedly so, as if a teenager who has just discovered a love of decorating was given free reign and a bottomless purse to redo every room in the house. All the cast members move quickly in and out of each scene as quickly and precisely as choreographed dancers, rushing in to hit their marks, delivering their lines with pep, then rushing away. Even the opening credits – well, especially the opening credits have the glitz and glamour normally reserved for a musical. It was a gorgeous-looking movie.

Unfortunately, it turns out that what I thought might be a quirky yet engaging way for the actors to deliver their lines felt more like an inane gimmick to me. Actually, by the end of the film it felt a lot like torture. So when My Darling B asked me, “Well, what did you think?” I had to tell her, “That is probably the dumbest movie I’ve ever seen.”  (Two hours later, as we were exiting the theater where we saw The Congress, I had to repeat myself.) B was astonished. She just adored it. She can’t wait to see it again. So it was apparently quirky yet engaging for some people, just not for me.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg | 8:39 am CST
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Monday, April 7th, 2014

On a scale from one to five, a three-star movie would be an okay movie, meaning I would feel okay recommending it. I would not feel okay recommending a two-star movie. And a one-star movie is a movie that’s so bad I would lay in the road in front of your car to try to stop you from seeing it.

The Congress is a one-star movie. I hope you’re not thinking about seeing it. Please don’t make me lay in front of your car.

Based on a Stanislaw Lem story that must’ve had something to do with the consequences of taking psychoactive drugs (I haven’t read it yet, I’m just taking a wild guess based on all the drugs they snorted in the film), the writers of The Congress mixed up the original idea with a story about how Hollywood celebrities are commodities to be bought and sold. Then the film makers filmed half the movie as live-action and animated the other half and tried to tie them together. Unfortunately, I wasn’t taking the same recreational drugs they seem to have been on, so it didn’t come together for me the way it would’ve for them.

The Congress | 11:00 pm CST
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A school where the students are given control over everything: they make up and enforce the rules, the curriculum, the teaching, everything. That’s the situation documented in Approaching The Elephant. If you imagine it would turn into Lord Of The Flies, you’re not far off. It had a bit less violence but made up for it with a lot more screaming. So if you’re interested in watching 90 minutes of kids screaming at each other, to say nothing of coming perilously close to sawing their own fingers off (several times), this would be a great film for you.

The thing with the saws was actually a pretty good example of what I thought was wrong with what sounds at first blush like a great idea. What’s wrong with giving kids the tools to learn? Why should we impose rules on how they should use those tools?

Well, here’s a few things to think about: During what they very broadly referred to as wood shop, the kids seemed to prefer using a coping saw, no matter what they were cutting or why. Nobody explained to them how to use one, which would apparently have been too preachy. A coping saw is a C-shaped bow with a very thin, very sharp blade strung so tightly between the arms that it’s notorious for breaking easily. If you use one without wearing safety glasses, you’re just begging to lose an eye, but if you let 8-year-old kids use one without wearing safety glasses, that’s criminally irresponsible. Or am I just too old-fashioned?

Approaching The Elephant | 10:51 am CST
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So, let’s say you’re Josef Mengele. Just hypothetically speaking. And you’re hiding out somewhere in South America because there are quite a lot of people who want to put your head in a noose. Which would you do:

a) Use the Nazi gold you smuggled out of Germany to buy a villa high in the mountains of Argentina and pass the rest of your days fly fishing.

b) Take a suspiciously unhealthy interest in the 10-year-old daughter of your traveling companion, then suggest you be allowed to inject her with animal growth hormones.

c) Check into the most well-known hotel in Cartegena where you can swan about in the saloon every evening, introducing yourself with businesses cards printed with “Josef Mengele” in gothic German script and steering conversations toward the subjects of racial purity and human vivisection.

If you picked b), congratulations! You could be the main character of the film The German Doctor. No surprises here. It’s just what it says on the tin: Creepy Nazi Does Creepy Stuff.

If you chose c I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t make a movie about it, so don’t bother.

The German Doctor | 9:45 am CST
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Saturday, April 5th, 2014

I’ve got to hand it to the guys who made The Immortalists:  I wouldn’t know where to begin making a documentary about a couple of guys who sincerely believe they can live forever by not only stopping the aging process, but even reversing it. How do you talk to people who talk like that without rolling your eyes?

But that’s only the first layer of craziness. The second guy, a marathon runner, at least explains his theory for halting the deterioration of DNA in a way that’s simple, direct, and makes some kind of sense. He might have been selling snake oil, but he sounded like a genuine medical doctor while doing it. The first guy, a Rasputin look-alike who gave every indication of being pretty much hammered throughout movie, spoke the kind of technobabble they use in Star Trek when they have to explain how the captain mutated into a lemur. Perversely, the marathon runner couldn’t convince his investors to keep giving him money and went bankrupt, while the drunken Rasputin made enough to set up a laboratory in Silicon Valley, buy a big house in the mountains and collect a harem of mistresses.

The Immortalists | 11:50 pm CST
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People who don’t know George Takei as Mister Sulu from Star Trek might know him from his popular Facebook posts, or from his work to promote marriage equality, or from his role in Allegiance, a musical about the internment camps where Japanese-Americans were held during the second world war. There are many ways To Be Takei, and this documentary puts them all together very handily.

But what made me enjoy this film enough to give it five out of five was George Takei himself. For an actor primary known for his work on a pretty hammy TV show, he is surprisingly good at delivering his message. He’s always on, but he’s not in your face, and even though his ever-present smile is very obviously a carefully-crafted part of his always-on personality, it’s never false; he genuinely seems to be enjoying the hell out of whatever he’s doing.

A very enjoyable film.

To Be Takei | 10:49 am CST
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Intruders is probably the best thriller I’ve seen in years. A young screen writer retreats to a secluded cabin in the mountains to finish the script he’s working on.  Ironic, right? If anyone should know what will go wrong in that scenario, it should be a screen writer. This tightly-made movie doesn’t take one wrong step building up to the conclusion that had me eagerly anticipating each successive scene. Five stars.

Intruders | 10:36 am CST
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Eka and Natia are 14-year-old girls in Soviet Georgia during the 1990s rebellion there. That’s it. That’s what the film In Bloom is about, and it’s as drab and awful as it sounds. Old women fight with the girls over a loaf of bread. The girls find a moment of happiness in an afternoon get-together around a piano with their friends, and the song they sing goes something like, “Life is hard, life is bitter, it will crush you like a miserable little bug…” This is a coming of age film you’re not going to walk away from feeling good. Just saying.

In Bloom | 10:29 am CST
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Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

The first films of the Wisconsin Film Festival will be shown tonight. We’ll see two of them, then we’re both off all day tomorrow, as well as all of next week, to attend the rest of the festival. In all, we’ll spend almost sixty hours in the dark watching 28 films.

My Darling B took the day off from work today to psyche herself up for the kickoff. For whatever reason, I was sure I didn’t take today off. I thought I was off tomorrow and all of next week. I even asked one of my coworkers if I could ride in to work with him today. Then, while I was setting up my out-of-office messages, I happened to look at my calendar and noticed that I was off Thursday and Friday. Thinking I might’ve punched in the wrong date while I was blocking out my calendar, I went back through the messages in my inbox until I found the leave request I sent to my boss: It said I was off on Thursday, too. And she sent it back approved.

It was like finding a twenty in an old pants pocket. A bonus day off! I got to sleep in as late as I wanted this morning! Well, as late as the cats would let me, anyway.

bonus day | 2:06 pm CST
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Sunday, March 9th, 2014

buying ticketsMy Darling B, poised & ready to buy tickets to the Wisconsin Film Festival on the first day they were available. You would not believe how anxious she was …

tickets | 10:26 am CST
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Saturday, April 20th, 2013

I am never going to understand conspiracy theorists.

Room 237 was a documentary about people who have watched Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and have become convinced that it’s about anything but a remote, haunted hotel that twists a man’s mind and makes him want to kill his wife and son.

One person watched the film and saw that it was about the genocide of American Indians.

One person said it was about the holocaust.

One person said it was about the myth of the Minotaur.

None of these people explained why Kubrick would decide to make a movie about genocide, or a Minotaur, and then devise an obscure patchwork of code to hide that movie behind a movie about a haunted hotel.

One person said it was Kubrick’s admission that he helped the government fake the video of the moon landing. That one sort of made sense, from the point of view that Kubrick had a message that had to be hidden, although this conspiracy theorist, like the rest, hung his entire premise on just one thing.

  • The guy who thought the movie was about the genocide of American Indians started from a scene in which he spotted a can of Calumet baking powder in the background. That was it. Can of baking powder equals genocide of American Indians. A rock-solid theory, really. Don’t see how I could dispute that.
  • The guy who said it was about the holocaust started with the number 42, based on the idea that 1942 was the year that the Nazis decided on the ‘final solution.’ I just love theories based on numerology because they never make any sense at all. If it was about the holocaust, and the year 1942 was the key, then wouldn’t you expect to see the number ‘1942’ everywhere?
  • The gal who claimed it was about a Minotaur got that from one scene where a poster of a skier in a classic bent-knee pose looked a little like a bull, if you stared at it for hours and hours, or you were drunk.
  • The guy who said it was about the moon landing based his theory on one scene where Danny was wearing a sweater that had a rocket and the words ‘Apollo 11’ across the front. The movie came out in 1970, the year after the landing. Every kid had a sweater like that.

What makes conspiracy theories so hard to swallow, though, is that they’re not convincing. At all. The theorists could babble for hours and hours, I’m sure, but all they were doing was babbling. Not one of them made a coherent argument. I’m always interested in hearing a good moon landing hoax theory, but that guy’s was the least convincing theory I’ve ever heard. And Minotaurs? What the hell has that got to do with anything?

So, yeah. Weird film.

Room 237 | 10:07 am CST
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I somehow managed to remain upright and awake all through the day yesterday after staying up way past my bed time every night last week during the film festival. I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to bed before 11:30 on any night, and several nights I was up past midnight, only to have to get up bright and early the next day because I took only the afternoons off work to conserve my leave time. My Darling B, the smart one, took the whole week off from work. Not that it helped her get any more rest than I got. She just didn’t have to face going to work every morning. That’ll have to be my plan, too, next year, so I don’t turn into a staggering zombie by the end of the week.

made it! | 7:43 am CST
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Thursday, April 18th, 2013

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing was our final film of the festival.


Twenty-seven films in seven days!

tickets! | 11:27 pm CST
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Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Anfang 80 is the story of Rosa and Bruno: how they meet, how they fall in love, and how they die, all in the space of just a few months.

I really wanted to like this movie. In fact, I really did like this movie a whole lot, even though I felt very strongly that I shouldn’t because Bruno was a married man when he met Rosa. He left his wife of fifty or sixty years by simply walking away from her. Didn’t seem right, and I wanted not to like the rest of the story because of that, but I had to. Relationships are complicated, no less so when they’re someone else’s.

Anfang 80 | 6:33 pm CST
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We had to duck out of Computer Chess, too, except that My Darling B was the one to tap me on the shoulder this time. I didn’t hesitate to grab my jacket and scurry out of the theater right behind her, though. Whatever kind of humor they were using in that movie, the audience was sitting up and begging for more of it, but it was a whistle only they could hear.

B had one other objection: “I couldn’t sit and watch a whole movie that was out of focus,” she said. “I thought maybe it was just an introduction and the picture would eventually get better, but I don’t think so now.” The way the movie was shot mimicked the look of the earliest low-rez home video.

We punched out of that movie pretty early, leaving us plenty of time to fill, so we crossed the street to Sushi Muramoto and passed the time sampling flights of sake. Well, we had to do something.

Computer Chess | 6:04 am CST
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We saw two really good films today, the first one at the beginning of the day and the other one at the end of the day, that sort of bookended the day and made it worth going out for.

And we saw two stinkers. One of them stunk so bad it took under thirty minutes for us to get up and leave. The other one, Comrade Kim Goes Flying, took me a little longer than that to figure out.

I thought at first it must have been a joke. The actors were all so gosh-darned Beaver-Cleaverishly wholesome that I figured it had to be satire. Some of the people in the audience were laughing, but other than sounding weird, I though all the jokes fell flat. I nodded off before I could figure it out.

When I woke up, quite a lot of the dialogue made me think that maybe the movie was a straight-up propaganda piece, although the audience was still laughing. Maybe they thought propaganda was funny in an ironic way, but I still didn’t get it. I nodded off again.

I only stayed with it after that because I figured I’d already stuck it out so far and there wasn’t anything to do in the lobby, but after another fifteen minutes of that awful dialog I felt that staring at the wall would be preferable, so I patted B on the shoulder and said, “I’m out. See you in the lobby after.”

I’d been waiting barely ten minutes when I got a text from B: “Where U at?” I caught up with her as she was coming out of the ladies’ room.

“You couldn’t put up with any more either?” I asked her.

“I was asleep when you poked me,” she admitted. “You woke me up!”

So neither one of us gave Comrade Kim high marks.

Comrade Kim Goes Flying | 12:02 am CST
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Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

The Wisconsin Film Fest still has a few more days to run, but all those shows will be out at the Sundance movie theaters, which makes this as good a time as any to make a few interstitial comments about the festival in general:

We started going to the WFF because we love watching movies, but we didn’t start taking time off from work until we experienced the fun of wringing as many films out of the schedule as possible. We did that by making a list of must-see movies, then puzzle-piecing them together as tightly as we could. This often required dashing from one theater to another. Sometimes the theaters were almost next door to one another, but sometimes we ended up running from the university campus to capitol square. One year we had to trot all the way from the Union theater to the Bartel and didn’t miss the start of the movie. I’m still well-chuffed about that.

The films are still wonderful and we still take the time off to watch as many as possible, but this year the nature of the festival has changed fundamentally. I don’t know what it was like in the beginning, but when we started to attend in earnest, it was a walking festival. We would park the car in a lot downtown, walk to the first movie and wouldn’t return to the car until the end of the day, strolling from theater to theater, or running, as the case may be. When we had time between screenings we would do a little window shopping, or actual shopping, or step into a restaurant for a meal.

That element of the festival was gone this year entirely. Most of the films shown over the weekend were on campus at the Chazen, the Cinamateque or Union South, far enough from State street to keep us from wandering over there, to say nothing of capital square. The rest of the films were at the Sundance theater in Hilldale, which is not a bad theater at all. I like it quite a lot, not least because of the comfy seats, all that legroom and the fact that I can buy a beer and nachos and take them into the theater with me. But the location rules out walking much.

So it’s not a walking festival any longer, and that bums me out just enough to mention it here. Last year and the year before that, and the year before that, we had quite a lot of fun walking back and forth across town from one theater to another. This year, we spent a lot of time driving to theaters and, not incidentally, paid quite a lot of money for parking. Which is not to say we won’t do it again next year. The films are really good, after all. But I miss the old festival. Just saying.

A different film fest | 11:39 pm CST
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Another favorite from the British Arrows, the best of television advertising for 2012: Madness singing a much more relaxed rendition of Baggy Trousers than I’ve ever heard before. Been stuck in my head all day.

Just in case your memory needs refreshing, here’s a link to the original version.

Baggy Trousers | 12:12 am CST
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The best movie I saw all day today was The Moo Man, a documentary about a dairy farmer in Britain, because cows. Who doesn’t like cows? Not people who I want to talk to, that’s for sure.

I’ll bet you can watch this documentary on Netflix. If you can’t, you should get it somewhere else, because cows. Really, go watch it right now. I’ll wait here until you get back.

The Moo Man | 12:00 am CST
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Monday, April 15th, 2013

I am not nearly clever enough to completely understand what was going on in Tiger Tail in Blue, our second-to-last film on this, the third day of the Wisconsin Film Festival.

The film focuses on Christopher, an Aspiring Writer who waits tables on the night shift at a Chicago restaurant to bring in some money. He comes home in the wee small hours of the morning to find his new wife Melody waiting on the sofa for him. Sometimes she’s awake, sometimes she’s nodded off because her job as a teacher keeps her working all day.

Brandy is a woman on the wait staff at the restaurant where Christopher works. Working together in close quarters, they develop a relationship that brings them closer together day after day until, almost inevitably I suppose, they’re nearly as close as a husband and wife.

And here’s the thing I’m not nearly clever enough to understand: Brandy happens to look a lot like Melody. So much alike that, for the first thirty minutes or so, I thought this was going to be one of those movies where the guy’s living in two alternate universes and we were headed for a Twilight Zone-type ending. And it almost went there when Melody showed up at the restaurant to give Christopher a ride home. He took the ride, they went home and then, when they got there they sat in the car for many long minutes flirting with each other and it didn’t become apparent that somewhere in the drive home she was Brandy and not Melody until finally Christopher got out of the car but she didn’t, and she drove away. Maybe. I’m still not sure what happened in that scene.

Just about the time I wanted to grab My Darling B’s arm to ask her if she thought that maybe Brandy and Melody looked a little too much alike, there was a scene near the end of the movie where Brandy sprouts kinky hair. REALLY kinky hair. Practically an afro. I honestly thought I had missed that little detail before.

I didn’t find out until after the movie, from My Darling B, that Melody and Brandy were played by the same actress until that final scene.

So, this is my confusion: What was so important about making Brandy and Melody look and act exactly alike that required confusing the shit out of me? I’m not getting it.

Add to that a technical gripe: I was never quite sure that the two women looked exactly alike because quite a lot of the movie was so badly lit that I couldn’t make out what was going on. One scene that went on for minutes was just a blank, grayish washout. Quite a lot of other scenes were so glaringly backlit that for long stretches all I could make out were profiles and some bright lights in the background.

In short, the whole “one woman playing two people” gimmick was lost on me. It wasn’t a bad movie; it was pretty good, in fact, but that gimmick is just about all I can think about and it distracts me from anything else that might have been going on. Unless that was the only thing going on. If it was, I would have to change my vote from “pretty good movie” to “just a so-so movie propped up by a gimmick.”

Tiger Tail in Blue | 11:53 pm CST
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We watched The British Arrows last night. It was an hour-long collection of the best television advertisements of 2012. This one gave me the best belly laugh of the evening!

Aldi tea advert | 9:28 am CST
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Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Between movies, we had time enough to drive up to Brasserie V to check out some of the imported beers and fill up on some delicious pub food!

Photobomb! | 11:22 am CST
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I’m not sure what I can say about Dragon Inn that would do it justice. A classic chop-socky film that goes great with a bag of popcorn and a bottle of beer, I didn’t expect anything from it but lots and lots of kung-fu action, and that’s exactly what I got. It had an evil overlord with almost godlike powers, it had dozens of henchmen who were clever, skilled fighters until they were required to be dumb and oafish, it had a mysterious stranger who could catch flying daggers with a pair of chopsticks – you name it, this movie had it in spades. Sit back and enjoy.

Dragon Inn | 11:18 am CST
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What if I told you that Terrance Stamp could not only play the lead in a movie about a devoted husband dealing with the loss of his wife to cancer, but that he could melt your heart doing it? You’d say I was nuts, right? And I’d expect you to say that, because until last night all I’d ever seen Terrance Stamp play were psychopathic killers, when he wasn’t horribly miscast as, say, an astronaut looking for God on Mars.

And to be sure, I’m thinking the makers of Unfinished Song cast Stamp because they needed a crusty curmudgeon and that’s somebody everyone would instantly believe Stamp would play. So it surprised the hell out of me even more that he could not only convincingly play the tender parts, but that I cried my eyes out through most of the movie.

Bravo, Terrance Stamp.

It would be utterly wretched of me not to mention what a great performance the rest of the cast turned in as well. Bravo as well to Vanessa Redgrave, Gemma Arterton, and Christopher Eccleston, to name just the principles. My hankie was soaked. Nicely done.

Unfinished Song | 10:14 am CST
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Talk about lost in translation: M, a 1931 murder mystery from Germany about a psycho stalking and killing the children of Berlin, was remade in Hollywood twenty years later in such a hamfisted way that you can’t help laughing at the goofy lines and the clownish acting. That’s not just my opinion, that’s an observation. As we watched the 1951 remake last night, most of the audience was laughing, not just snickering, but laughing full-blown belly laughs at clumsy lines of dialog and scenes that were so wildly staged as to make them practically slapstick. It made me cringe to hear people laughing at a murder mystery about a killer stalking little girls, but it was a wholly understandable reaction to such a goofy film.

My Darling B’s one-word review said it best, I think: Disappointing. The way the guide to the film fest described M, I was expecting one dark, sinister scene after another.

Before he was blacklisted and exiled to Europe, LaCrosse, WI native Joseph Losey made five deeply personal features in Hollywood, including this surprisingly potent and original remake of Fritz Lang’s classic 1931 thriller, reset in Los Angeles. Giving Peter Lorre a run for his money, the intense David Wayne plays a compulsive murderer of children. When the police begin harassing every gangster, prostitute, thief and gambler in a desperate attempt to find him, the underworld gets organized and forms its own network of spies and a kangaroo court to stop the menacing killer. Aside from Wayne’s nerve-jangling performance, Losey’s version is distinguished by classic film noir atmosphere, some remarkable fast-paced cutting, and excellent use of familiar and seedy L.A. locations, especially the oft-used Bradbury Building where the final pursuit of the killer takes place. Originally banned in eight states, Losey’s M remains very hard to see in the U.S. and is still not available on home video. Don’t miss your chance to see this rare 35mm print from the collections of the British Film Institute.

I’ll give it this: David Wayne turned in a surprisingly good performance in the final scene, but it wasn’t enough to save M.

M | 9:48 am CST
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The longer I think about Cheap Thrills, the last movie we saw yesterday, the less I understand the entertainment value of it. I realize that people seem to think shows like Fear Factor and Jackass are entertaining, but I don’t understand that, either. And maybe I’m just as gullible as the guy, but I’d like to think that, if a stranger invited me over to his table in a bar and started throwing fifty dollar bills around, challenging me to do this or that dumb trick, I’d excuse myself and get as far away from him as I possibly could.

But maybe not. Maybe I’d encourage him to put down money for one stupid bar bet after another, jacking up the payout as each bet became more self-destructive to my dignity until I had none left and I was fighting like a dog for the privilege of doing things so outrageously humiliating that I would never be able to face myself or my family ever again. I suppose that could happen.

And the acting was not unbelievable. And the videography looked good. I toyed with as many rationalizations like these as I could stand, trying to find technical reasons to like this movie, or at least not to hate it, but in the end I couldn’t do it. This is a revolting movie. My initial one-word review of it was ‘repulsive,’ but now that I’ve had time to think about it, ‘revolting’ is a much more suitable adjective. And I guess if that’s what the writers and the director were going for, then thumbs up, good job, nicely done. You made a movie that was thoroughly revolting. May you make many more. There seems to be an audience for it.

Cheap Thrills | 9:21 am CST
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Friday, April 12th, 2013

My Darling B has challenged me to come up with a one-word review for each movie we see during the Wisconsin Film Festival. The only word I could think of to describe In The Fog was: Russian. The word B came up with was “bleak,” which is the same kind of vibe but “Russian” is “bleak” times one thousand. At least one thousand.

The movie is set during World War Two. The German army has occupied Belorussia, and the natives who have not been able to fade into the background have become either collaborators or partisans. Over the course of the movie, we meet all three kinds. For each one of them, life is bleak, has no meaning, and ends in pointless death. “Doomed” is the most optimistic way to describe each of the characters.

The final scene of the movie sums everything up best. All three of the principal characters are in it. Two of them are dead. The one remaining alive, the only one who has retained his humanity, is left holding a pistol in his hand as a heavy fog rolls in to envelop him. Most other directors would have ended the movie as the fog completely obscured him, leaving his fate open to conjecture, but this is A Russian Film. The sound of a gunshot is the only way to be sure that his fate is sealed.


In The Fog | 10:48 pm CST
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My one-word review of Brewster McCloud: Stoned.

In fact, Michael Murphy, one of the principal actors, introduced the movie by explaining that “there was an awful lot of this going on,” and then pinched his forefinger and thumb together in front of his puckered lips and made a sucking sound, the universal sign of doing a spliff. “That’s the prism you should view this through.”

If only I’d ever gotten stoned even once in my life, I might have been able to understand this movie. I guess that’s just not going to happen, though.

Brewster McCloud | 10:40 pm CST
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My one-word review of Gideon’s Army, the second movie we saw at the Wisconsin Film Fest last night, would be: Inspiring. It’s inspiring to know that there are people like public defenders out there, if ‘inspiring’ is the word to describe the way they made me want to get a law degree and fight for the rights of the indigent. I wonder how long it takes to get a law degree?

Gideon’s Army | 11:02 am CST
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There was a moment about midway through our viewing of Blancanieves when I thought to myself, There’s no way this movie can possibly have a happy ending. So even though it’s called Snow White, don’t think Disney, think Grimm.

The film opens with the champion bullfighter, Antonio Villalta, in his final match against half a dozen bulls at the ring in Seville. Just before he’s about to slay the final bull, he turns to his wife in the stands and tells her, “This one’s for you, sweetie, and that darling baby you’re carrying.”

Turning to My Darling B, I whispered in her ear, “Well, this guy’s a goner, for sure.” You never turn your back on a bull to say to your woman, “This one’s for you, babe.” It’s like the foxhole rule: Never show your buddy a picture of your girlfriend if you both happen to be in a foxhole on the front lines, because if you do, you’re going to die in that scene. Everybody knows that.

After the inevitable happens, things go downhill pretty fast. Villalta and his daughter Carmen end up in the clutches of Encarna, a scheming woman who got into nursing for all the wrong reasons. By the time she finally got her comeuppance, I felt cheated that they only implied her gory death on the horns of the biggest bull in the pen. The movie showed Villalta getting the stuffing kicked out of him by a bull. The least they could have show us was Encarna getting torn limb from limb. Oh, well.

After the movie, B asked me to review the movie in just one word. “Tragic” was the only word I could think of, particularly in light of the ending. Carmen plays the part of Snow White to the very end, but it’s not the ending you think it will be. “After the way that ended,” I told B on the way out of the theater, “I’m going to need a stiff drink.” But they didn’t serve Harvey Wallbangers at the Union South (do they still serve them anywhere?), so I settled for a beer.

Good movie. But a total bummer.

Blancanieves | 9:09 am CST
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Sunday, March 17th, 2013

We got our tickets for the Wisconsin Film Festival, and it only took thirty minutes this time. Last year, we were struggling for more than an hour to buy tickets on-line because of some awful glitch in the software that took so long to process payments that it kept timing out. We were ready for the same sort of shenanigans this year, though: My Darling B had her tablet and I had my laptop and each of us had a short list of must-see films that we went for the minute tickets went on sale. But aside from a short panic I hyperventilated through when I couldn’t remember my user name to log in, neither of us had any problems buying tickets. Thirty minutes and done.

The first show to sell out this year was Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. We wanted to see it as much as anybody else, so it was the first set of tickets we tried to buy. My Darling B snagged a couple first but then ran into trouble trying to pay for them. I was checking out with some must-see tickets so I snagged a couple for Much Ado. That’s when they asked me for my user name and I hyperventilated and cussed my way through the process of trying to recover it. It only took five minutes or so, but felt like forever.

Once we’d gone through the process once, going back for more tickets was so easy that, when we were done, we had that irrational feeling that we’d forgotten something. B went through the list of films I was supposed to buy tickets for and I checked them off against the I had, reading from the confirmation e-mails. And this time her obsessive-compulsive tendencies paid off: She found a film that I missed, dove back into the web site and bought them in a minute.

When we finished, we checked the film festival’s Facebook page and Twitter feed to see how things were going with all the other on-line tickets buyers. Everyone seemed to be happier than last year, although by then there were lots of disappointed Joss Whedon fans.

tickets | 6:34 am CST
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Friday, March 15th, 2013

It’s our custom every year to retire to a booth at The Roman Candle pizza parlor and choose the films that we want to see at the annual Wisconsin Film Festival. In years past, the festival’s schedule has been published a week before tickets went on sale but this year, along with all the other changes to the festival that I don’t like, the schedule was published on Thursday and tickets were set to go on sale the following Saturday, giving us less than 48 hours to make our selections. Just in case anybody from the WFF is reading this: That’s really bogus, guys.

We took our usual booth, ordered a 14-inch Supreme and a couple beers, and set to work. A little more than an hour later, we had our first choices.

There were surprisingly few movies that reached out and grabbed me, but then I feel I didn’t have enough time to think about my choices. B, on the other hand, came up with a long list of movies she wanted to see. Reconciling our two lists was a quick and relatively painless process.

Somehow, B ate all but one slice of her half of the pizza and regretted it almost right away. “Ate. Too. Much. Pizza,” she moaned over and over, wondering how she was going to get through the night. I stopped a slice and a half short of finishing my half and somehow escaped the indigestion that plagued her until I ate the rest for lunch the next day, when I was stricken with the Oh My God Trots almost immediately. TMI? Sorry about that.

choices | 7:06 pm CST
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Monday, May 7th, 2012

The Deadly Affair was probably one of the most enjoyable spy thrillers I’ve seen in a long time. Based on a book by John le Carre, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring the incomparably British James Mason, I enjoyed every scene and can’t wait to get my hands on a second-hand DVD so I can watch it again to get all the dialog I missed the first time around. The film was a restoration and I think they had some trouble getting a good sound recording. And then there was the music.

It was, hands-down, the most improbable musical sound track I’ve ever heard. Not that it was bad, just that the pairing of a Brazilian bossa nova with a British spy thriller seemed way too strange, as if the movie’s makers were trying to be so deliberately weird as to dare viewers to hate it. I didn’t, but I’d welcome a release of this movie without the musical sound track.

The Deadly Affair | 12:23 pm CST
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Monday, April 30th, 2012

Michael is kind of a quiet guy with an office job selling insurance, keeps to himself, has a six-year-old boy locked in a room in his basement whom he violates sexually every night after they eat dinner and clean up the kitchen. You know, ordinary.

Whenever one of these stories surfaces in the news I give it about one or two minutes to rattle around in my brain before I have to shut it down and never think about it again. What’s it like to hold a six-year-old captive in your basement for immoral purposes? Not something I want to dwell on very long.

But the film fest is all about going to movies that I might not ever consider watching otherwise, and I have to admit, this was a well-made movie. Well-written, well-acted, good cinemaphotography. I also have to admit that I admire the film’s makers for their decision to avoid going for an easy ending. Although the bad guy got what was coming to him, in a matter of speaking, the police didn’t break down the doors, no curious neighbor tipped off anybody, and there were no heroes to save the day. It started out with what appeared to be an ordinary guy, and it ended with the ordinary guy’s mother looking through the basement for some extra hefty bags. What happened to the boy? It would have been easy to answer that question with a tearful reunion scene, but this wasn’t an easy subject, so neither was the ending.

Michael | 9:41 pm CST
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Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

The best thing about going to the Wisconsin Film Fest is taking a whole week off to do nothing but sit in darkened theaters watching films, then hanging out in restaurants between films to relax with a glass of wine and share what we liked most about the film, or try to figure out what it was about.

The worst thing about taking a whole week off to go to the Wisconsin Film Fest is returning to work after. *sigh*

I had about 150 e-mail messages waiting for me when I logged in to my computer that took me almost an hour to cruise through, answering the ones that were easy and flagging the ones I’d have to do some work on before I wrote an answer. I’ve still got about two-dozen flagged messages waiting for me.

There were 20 or 30 voice mail messages on my phone, but about a third of them were hangups and five or ten were repeats. I answered them all by the middle of the afternoon, but then I got 30 calls during the day, so I’m not sure whether or not I came out ahead.

And there are piles of files and other paperwork mushrooming all over the top of my desk. Can’t even see the desk, really. The paperwork looks like it’s magically floating beside my computer.

Won’t get to answer many e-mails, voice mails, or finish much of that paperwork today, either. I’m helping one of the other supervisors interview applicants to fill a vacancy in her office.

*heavy sigh*

return | 5:54 am CST
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