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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