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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