Wisconsin Film Festival 2015: A time capsule

The arrival of the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival marks a full year since I moved back to Madison, my undergraduate stomping grounds. Just four months in, 2015 is off to a promising start: Not least, I have gotten to see several of my longtime idols in-person (Tavi Gevinson, Edward Tufte, David Dobbs, and PHOX) as well as a few new ones (Ta’Nehisi Coates and Alvvays). There are also several trips on the horizon: Kansas, NYC, Eau Claire, Malawi, and, hopefully, Cambridge. Here’s to wanderlust and new adventures!

At this year’s WFF, I was able to attend three showings, plus one that was not technically part of the festival. As always, the week-long event made me grateful to live in such a film-friendly community.

“Too Much Johnson”

Watching “Too Much Johnson” at the UW Cinematheque was much more than seeing a film: It was wholly interactive and funny, and a one-of-a-kind historical experience.

For background, “Too Much Johnson” is a mid-career Orson Welles film that was lost for almost 70 years before its recent (inexplicable) discovery in a theater in Italy. The film, an extension of a then-popular stage comedy, was painstakingly preserved by international experts over the past few years.

Other than his notorious “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, Welles (a Wisconsin native) is perhaps best known for directing, producing, co-writing, and starring in “Citizen Kane,” a black-and-white film (and film noir forerunner) about the tumultuous life of a wealthy newspaper publisher — widely thought to be the greatest film ever made. To see a film that Welles had written, directed, and acted in just three years before “Citizen Kane” was thrillingly educational, especially with the commentary provided throughout the film by archivist Jared Case, who helped with the film’s preservation.

Although there is some obvious “vinegaring” in some sections — one of Case’s favorite scenes (8:40) could have been lost forever if repaired incorrectly, he said, but thankfully was not — the film is in watchable, if not entirely pristine, condition. (My favorite scene (17:00) can be summed up in one word: CRATES.)

The 1894 play, “Too Much Johnson,” written by William Gillette, is about a womanizing lawyer who tries to cover his tracks by running away to Cuba. The title is drawn from the fact that multiple characters have the surname Johnson (thus confusion, and hilarity, ensues). Welles’ film is meant to be a prologue, in three acts, that fills in some of the plot holes of the original (not having seen the play, and given the disrepair and lack of dialogue in the film, I’m still a bit hazy on the overall storyline).

Case explained that, based on visible landmarks and natural formations, preservationists were able to pin down where in New York City each scene was filmed, including the precise quarry where the Cuba scenes were shot. One chase scene, they found, was filmed on the site of the new World Trade Center.

In places, viewers will catch a glimpse of a stray hand or face that slipped through the editing process. Similarly, the “Cuban” palm trees are clearly rented, and the walls of our main character’s love-nest are perilously flimsy — all of which add to this film’s charm.

Not only is it always interesting to see how early filmmakers approached stuntwork, editing, and so on within technological limitations,  but it was fascinating to place “Too Much Johnson” in the context of Welles’ other films, and speculate about parts of the film (experimental camera angles, etc.) that may have influenced his later works. Other than Welles, one other “Too Much Johnson” cast member (Joseph Cotten) would go on to act in “Citizen Kane,” playing the major role of Jedediah Leland.

Other than Case’s narration, and the sheer historical novelty of the film, the best part of this experience was the accompanying score, which was completely improvised on-the-spot by Chicago-based silent film pianist David Drazin.

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“Polyester” (in Odorama!)

This boundary-pushing John Waters dark comedy was another interactive film experience, this time via a scratch-and-sniff card handed out to viewers before the show (the so-called “Odorama”).

The tie-in to the plot is that the main character, Francine Fishpaw, has an acute sense of smell. Francine (played by drag icon Divine, who has starred in multiple Waters films) is unhappily married to the owner of an X-rated movie theater, and usually bears the brunt of community outcry against it. Other characters in the film (including her stuck-up mother, obnoxious daughter, and pervy, glue-sniffing son) also treat her cruelly based on her looks. Her only friend is a mentally disabled former housekeeper who has struck it rich, and (temporarily) a love interest. A series of events causes Francine to spiral into alcoholism and depression, before the film’s ludicrous “happy” ending.

Like Waters’ later and most notable film, “Hairspray,” the film is set in Baltimore, where both Waters and Divine grew up. In addition to confronting issues such as female beauty and aging, “Polyester” uses morbid humor to criticize suburban conservatism, especially as it relates to sexuality.

Given the bleak nature of the film, its accompanying smells are appropriately horrifying (not to mention that, due to the somewhat poor quality of the materials, they all smelled like burnt rubber after the initial sniff).

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“Girlhood”

I wasn’t sure if I would be able to secure a spot at this showing (regular tickets were sold out, so I had to line up early for a “rush” ticket) and, once I got in, it was not the film I had been expecting.

I had been told “Girlhood” was an award-winning film about girl gangs in Paris, but my first mistake was not really knowing what a girl gang is. I had this idea in my head of Kate Nash’s Girl Gang, a grassroots feminist organization that exists primarily on social media and the British pop singer’s L.A. garage.

The gangs in “Girlhood” expanded this definition significantly, though. For one, theirs are violent — partaking in physical, one-on-one fights with girls from other gangs. By befriending a group of tough girls, the main character, Marieme, gets a sense of belonging, protection, fierceness, and independence that is absent in her home life (and refused to her at school).

While I thought that the plot was a bit scattered, went on for too long, and left some characters underdeveloped (especially Marieme’s family members, and her gender identity) the film was eye-opening, moving, and enjoyable.

My favorite scene takes place in a motel room, where Marieme’s gang often hangs out. The girls have shoplifted party dresses, and are getting ready to go out for the night. The gang’s ringleader, Lady, has given Marieme a necklace bearing her new nickname, Vic, for “victoire” (victory). “Diamonds” by Rihanna starts playing, and, as the girls laughingly dance along, I gain a new appreciation for this song I’ve heard a hundred times.

The lyrics (“shine bright like a diamond … you and I, we’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky”) perfectly describe Marieme and her fellow gang members, basking in each other’s infinite beauty and strength.

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“A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night”

I fell in love with this feminist twist on a black-and-white horror film (or spaghetti western, as it has also been called) from the get. Set in Iran, and directed by Iranian-American independent filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” takes viewers on a sometimes suspenseful — but, more commonly, comical — cinematic trip, leaving them with an internal debate about blind justice.

The title of the film sets up a familiar narrative, but, rather than any number of dreaded outcomes it might suggest, the girl in question is a vampire who feasts on her would-be assailants’ carotids.

The lead role, who is silent throughout most of the film, is played by Sheila Vand (“Argo”). Something of a loner, she spends time listening to records and putting on makeup — when not skulking around her fictional city at night. Vand’s co-star, relative newcomer Arash Marandi, plays her troubled, wannabe love interest, who must come to terms with his beloved’s dark secret (and, in turn, his father’s fatal addiction).

Above all, this film was beautifully shot. Some of the best scenes, IMHO, feature our young lady vampire rolling down a deserted street on a stolen skateboard, cape flapping in the breeze. These shots were actually acted out by director Amirpour, who is a lifelong skateboarder.

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Read my round-up of last year’s WFF (and 2013 film rankings) here.

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Mid by Midwest: Four flicks from the Wisconsin Film Festival + yearly recap

The week-long Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison, Wisc. annually presents a variety of foreign films, documentaries, old black-and-whites, small-release and independent films alike, several of which regularly sell out in the first few days — this year, attendance surpassed 28,000 (the Cap Times made a fun “by the numbers” infographic with more stats). Time and financial constraints limited my participation to four films: “Memphis” on Friday night, “Happy Christmas” Saturday afternoon, and two French films, “Macaroni and Cheese” and “Young and Beautiful,” on Sunday.

Photo: Sarah Witman
Photo: Sarah Witman

Memphis

“Memphis” is as much about a city as it is about a singer, said the film’s director, UW-Madison alum Tim Sutton, during a Q&A session after the screening. Sutton had visited Memphis previously, and wanted to capture the city’s ability to seem simultaneously past and present, urban and wilderness. Viewers will notice that there are no iPhones shown in the film; the film could have taken place in the 1960s or 2013.

The film is ultra-impressionistic: It’s more about creating moods, beautiful portraits of people and places, using cinematic visuals and sound, than an actual storyline. Sutton said he wrote a full screenplay in order to get his vision across and generate funding, then scrapped it on location, simply telling his actors, many of whom are untrained, to do their own thing, ultimately shaping the course of the film.

This is, presumably, why the fictional main character, Willis Earl Beal, so closely resembles the real-life musician, Willis Earl Beal, who portrays him in the film (in manner only; Beal is from Chicago). It’s interesting to think that, had Sutton cast a different artist as the film’s lead, it would have been a different film entirely — “Memphis” was not necessarily written with Beal in mind, much like “Being John Malkovich” could have starred a variety of leads.

Sutton said he feels Beal’s music is truly innovative and modern, much like how early blues greats were making music people had never heard before that time. I first saw Willis perform in Chicago’s Union Park, for Pitchfork Music Festival. I was instantly enthralled by his ability to take classic blues sounds and make them his own.  At the time, I wrote in a post that “Beal has a voice that makes it clear to any listener that he is someone who has known sorrow. Yet, all that he brought to Pitchfork attendees during his set was pure joy. His was a siren song for wandering souls… And while the electronic beats of some other artists could barely be heard above the din of people, Beal’s singing carried across the grounds. In one of his last songs, he invited everyone in the audience to join in by clapping along. He assured us, ‘Anyone who can cry can clap. If you’ve never cried, don’t clap.'”

It’s difficult to describe the lazy simplicity of “Memphis,” and even harder to explain why it works. It was one of my favorites from the festival, yet I briefly fell asleep during it. There are also parts that seem sinister, such as when one character, whom Sutton calls Willis’ “one-legged guardian,” drives through town after his back window has inexplicably been smashed, while the camera remains fixed on shards of glass falling to the pavement.

“Memphis” has surprisingly little music for a film about a singer. It also has a high level of character development for having so little dialogue. One of my favorite examples is a mostly mute boy that the fictional Willis spends time with, almost like a younger version of himself. Sutton explained that their relationship is intended to be a friendship that simply transcends age, rather than a son or brother figure. In one inspired, spontaneous scene, the camera takes a long shot of this character riding his bike, circling through puddles acrobatically.

Loosely, “Memphis” is about a musician who descends into madness, Sutton said, but he later revised this statement, saying the film is about someone on a spiritual journey. The setting of Memphis lends itself well to Willis’ mystical, spiritual, almost supernatural persona.

Person to Person (short)

This short film, set in New York City, played before “Happy Christmas” started. It is based upon the idea of the morning after a party: There’s usually plenty of rubble to clean up, people to thank for attending, real life responsibilities to sleepily attend to — and, occasionally, an unplanned overnight guest. In “Person to Person,” that guest is a stranger, female, passed out on the host’s living room floor. His mood goes from amused to indignant as she refuses to leave his apartment for the entirety of the day. Their characters are simple and believable, and leave out just enough details to let the audience fill in the blanks about who these people are. The music is grainy and wonderful. Apparently, “Person to Person” won a prize at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival and was featured at Sundance and SXSW this year.

Happy Christmas

This was the only film I attended that sold out right away. Before the film started, festival volunteers started giving away unclaimed seats to people on a waiting list, ensuring a packed house. This came as no surprise: The film stars Anna Kendrick (“Pitch Perfect”) and HBO’s “Girls” creator Lena Dunham.

Kendrick, who also appeared in director Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies,” plays the part of Jenny, a woman in her twenties who is fresh off a hard breakup and clearly does not quite have her life together. She goes to live temporarily with her older brother (played by Swanberg), his wife (Melanie Lynskey, “Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and their toddler, Jude (Swanberg’s real-life son) in Chicago. As is wont to happen, she gets blackout drunk on her first night, causing annoyance and tension in the normally stable and playful household.

This film is best at capturing complicated relationships, such as the one between siblings growing to see one another as adults for the first time. The parents are not present, or really mentioned in the film, making their relationship the focus as they learn to coexist, understand and repeatedly forgive one another. Also, the platonic female friendship is well illustrated through Jenny and her sister-in-law, as they grow closer throughout the course of the film.

Most interesting is how “Happy Christmas” purports to be about a girl working through her problems with the help of her brother’s family, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that they need her just as much, as she injects a dose of fun and perspective into their lives. I was also impressed that the film ends with Jenny’s relationship status still unresolved (unheard of for what is essentially a romantic comedy) further emphasizing that romance was merely a backdrop to a more important story about family.

Overall, this film is many layered, well-paced and funny — Jude, the toddler, who has the stature of a miniaturized Michelin man, steals many scenes with his ridiculously adorable personality. Dunham is also a great fit, in her smallish role as the supportive and laid-back best friend. Audiences even see up her skirt in one scene, in true Lena Dunham fashion.

Macaroni and Cheese

“Macaroni and Cheese” bridged the gap well between “Happy Christmas” and “Young and Beautiful,” as it was marketed as being a French version of Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” I haven’t seen the show, but “Macaroni and Cheese” was a fun trip. The three lead characters, Camille (Camille Genaud), Carole (Carole Le Page) and Sophie (director Sophie Letourner), are, perhaps autobiographically, filmmakers attending an independent film festival.

“Macaroni and Cheese” craftily jumps between the festival scenes and shots of the three main characters, after the fact, reminiscing about their escapades (as their favorite comfort food, collectively, bubbles away on the stove). Carole is sophisticated, chic and somewhat domineering, while Camille is cute but sloppy, and hopelessly devoted to an uninterested greaseball. Sophie is the only one who seems to have a career-based reason to be at the festival, but she has an unrequited obsession to distract her, too: film star Louis Garrel, who is also at the festival. C’est intéressant to watch her fantasies get closer and closer to reality.

The film ends with a close-up shot of the macaroni and cheese tossed, uneaten, into the trash, forming a pile in the shape of a heart.

Jeune & Jolie (Young and Beautiful)

Although both films were in French (and, strangely, both featured club scenes accompanied by M83’s “Midnight City”) “Young and Beautiful” was a jarring departure from the offbeat and uplifting “Macaroni and Cheese.”

Broken up into four seasons, the film follows a 17-year-old girl who, after losing her virginity one summer, continues to explore her sexuality — or lack thereof — by working for an online escort service. One pivotal scene takes place on a beach; the camera shows Isabelle facing away from her companion, while a mirage of herself stands a few feet away, watching the scene from afar. There are several interpretations of this scene, which alter how one reads the rest of the film: 1. The main character, Isabelle, has sexual trauma in her past, causing her to distance herself from the act. 2. Her disappointment in her first sexual experience (her male companion is, at best, disinterested during their encounter) leads her to experiment with using sex to her advantage in other ways. It becomes a valuable skill, a game, where she can earn money as well as a sense of power.

Everything comes to a head when one client, a compassionate but troubled elderly man, dies while in her company. The audience must watch, painfully, as Isabelle’s family tries to help her rebuild her psyche and return to the life of a normal high school student. Interestingly, it is the widow of the deceased who is present when, finally, Isabelle seems to find inner peace.

In all, I enjoyed the four films I chose to see. Had I the means, I would have wanted to check out a few others, such as “Joe,” starring Nicolas Cage (“The Frozen Ground”); “Dom Hemingway,” with Jude Law (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”); “Le Week-End” with Jeff Goldblum (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Jim Broadbent (“Cloud Atlas”); and “Burt’s Buzz,” a documentary about the man behind the beard who founded the popular lip balm brand, Burt’s Bees. There was even a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” One I’m not sad to have missed, though, is “Coherence,” to which a friend of mine went and promptly vomited due to the shaky camera effects employed.

Beyond WFF

Outside of the Wisconsin Film Festival, so far in 2014, I have seen two films, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Lego Movie,” neither of which disappointed.

The former — which I thought excelled in its visual artistry and quirky characters, dampened only by its confusingly impressionistic plot — even inspired a revision of my ongoing ranking of Wes Anderson films, which is now as follows: 1. The Royal Tenenbaums, 2. Fantastic Mr. Fox, 3. Moonrise Kingdom, 4. Rushmore, 5. The Grand Budapest Hotel, 6. The Darjeeling Limited, 7. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (I have not seen “Bottle Rocket”).

Looking ahead, there are a number of releases that I am anticipating in the upcoming year; among them are “Godzilla,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Gone Girl” — while I had my share of issues with the novel of the same name, I am interested to see what Ben Affleck and David Fincher do with the material.

Finally, just for grins, here is my ranked run-down of films from 2013:

1. 12 Years a Slave. This chef d’œuvre was not without its flaws, but told its horrifying story with necessary finesse and realness.

2. Dallas Buyers Club. This film is truly worth its weight in golden statuettes. As makeup specialists Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews pointed out in their acceptance speech, this film illustrated the early days of AIDS to audiences who may not have been around to see them firsthand. 

3. Philomena. I thought this was the most underrated of Oscar-nominated films, even considering that it got a Best Picture nod. It is an emotionally epic and personal story that deleves into a variety of important  historical, religious, social and political issues.

4. Frances Ha. This black-and-white film starring Greta Gerwig perfectly captures the point I am at in my life, and I am fully aware that is why I enjoyed it so much. If nothing else, it is one of the most insightful films about white, privileged creatives in their twenties that I have seen, which is saying something.

5. The Place Beyond the Pines. The soundtrack alone sets this film apart, as well as its superb development of each character. Also, I love a good plot twist.

6. Her. This sci-fi masterpiece by Spike Jonze is a timeless film about romance and relationships more than it is a futuristic cautionary tale. The music, acting and visual effects leave almost nothing to be desired.

7. Gravity. Alfonso Cuaron made a film that rivals “Avatar” in visuals, and outdid itself in sound editing as well. The storyline itself had little there, though, which is why “Gravity” did not make my top five.

8. Inside Llewyn Davis. This Coen brothers film, especially its soundtrack, was deserving of far more Oscar recognition than it received (which I hope was due more to timing than anything). The fictional story of a struggling singer in New York felt entirely historical and believable, and, not surprisingly, was filmed impeccably.

9. Mud. It’s been a while since I saw “Mud,” featuring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, but I remember leaving the theater wondering if it would be one of my favorites of the year. Its screenplay captures the coming of age story completely, highly comparable to a Tom Sawyer tale. Nature is the characters’ playground: limitless, wild and exciting — and dangerous.

10. Prisoners. Although it has rightfully been called by many an elongated episode of “Law & Order,” I was gripped by the story of “Prisoners,” in which it becomes clear that each main character becomes a prisoner in varying ways. Jake Gyllenhaal plays an intelligent, determined investigator — essentially, the same role he played in “Zodiac,” but managing to achieve a completely different character than in that film.

11. The Great Gatsby. That this film was so highly anticipated yet received few Oscars says quite a bit, and as such is also not in my top 10. I think Baz Luhrmann’s take on the classic novel is the best adaptation that will be made in my lifetime, but, that said, spectacular costuming, visuals, acting and a catchy modern soundtrack somehow do not revive a story I have heard one too many times.

12. Nebraska. I had the privilege of seeing this film bookended by an introduction and Q&A by the director, Alexander Payne. This was Payne’s first film that he did not write; he said it was the first time he really connected with a script. His name has become pretty synonymous with Nebraskan film. The dark comedy drew many laughs, especially Oscar noms June Squibb and Bruce Dern, who played the aging parents. That it was shot in black and white made perfect sense with the landscape and repetitive, tinkling score.

13. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I enjoyed the direction taken with this film, in particular the unnecessary but happy inclusion of original songs from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book. All the LOTR films are some of my favorite book adaptations, and this “Hobbit” installment was no different.

14. This is the End. This film made me laugh far more than I would have thought from something thrown together by a group of well-paid male comedians celebrating one another’s careers. Would recommend and re-watch.

15. The Spectacular Now. I was impressed by the way this film approached the range of problems faced by real-world teens, in a way that is innocent but not entirely naive. It could have used some major help in terms of character development, but it is an artfully made, emotional film.

16. Side Effects. This psychological sci-fi film was unexpected, and well-directed, but was hardly believable.

17. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. What this film lacked in plot, it made up for in production design.

18. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. One of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s final films, this “Hunger Games” installment was entertaining but fell flat in terms of carrying on a logical, meaningful storyline. I am continually disappointed by films based on dystopian young adult novels because of (fact) how much better the books always are (read: Divergent, City of Ember).

19. American Hustle. I was on a different planet entirely than The Academy when it came this film, though I did think it had some redeeming qualities (none of which are named Jennifer Lawrence).

20. Elysium. As with MANY science fiction movies, in my opinion, this film had a great premise but did not deliver overall. Unfortunately, the film had no idea where it was headed, which became clear midway-to-3/4 of the way through.

21. Admission. Although there were funny moments, and a generally poignant message, this comedy is pretty forgettable.

22. Monsters University. I saw surprisingly few children’s movies in 2013 (yes, three is few) so it was difficult to compare this film to the others on my list. I was generally satisfied with the places this prequel went, though, comically and thematically.

23. Don Jon. I give Don Jon points for innovation and casting, but ultimately it didn’t contribute to conversations about relationships and technology in the ways I had hoped it would.

24. 42. As someone who appreciates baseball as an effective historical lens, I couldn’t get past how inconsequential this film managed to be. Clearly the filmmakers’ idea of racial injustice is limited to minor inconveniences and mean looks.

25. Oblivion. Another of those science fiction films summed up by “It was a cool idea but…”

26. Oz the Great and Powerful (read my full thoughts on this film here.)