One of the simultaneously challenging and exhilarating things about a film festival is that you have to have your flexibility hat ready to whip out at all times. Especially if you're volunteering to earn your keep (seriously, the most fun volunteer gig ever). Especially if your long-distance parent rolls through town the second night of the fest, other groups you have an affinity for schedule events during screenings, and if you're trying to keep some semblance of a workout regime going during those crazy 11 days. So sometimes movies run late, times get bumped, and you don't get to catch everything on your list. Sometimes you sacrifice a screening for some sleep.
However, I felt like the gauntlet was thrown yesterday when, after saying I'd caught eight screenings up until that point (it's ten now), I was met with a "that's all?" In fairness, at almost three hours, the Bollywood hit 3 Idiots should probably count for two screenings.
As for my original schedule? I've deviated greatly. I traded Breathless for Only When I Dance, which was a hard, hard decision, but a win-win either way. I traded the Irish crime-comedy Perrier's Bounty for the rant-worthy Who Is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him), and if you read my blog you know how that turned out (badly). Due to timing conflicts, I missed Gerrymandering (it started 30 minutes later) and Enemies of the People (ran up too closely to the sold out Waiting for 'Superman').
Although I'm took a break tonight to attend an incredible stage performance (review hopefully forthcoming), I plan to be back at it tomorrow. I'm also adding back in Wasteland, a run, or a nap, as I think it would be too ambitious of me to try and get over to the southside for the Banned: Taboo Books, Bites, & Libations event (sorry Burp! Friends).
Since I reviewed two films last night, here's my quick synopsis of the rest of my festival viewings thus far:
I haven't heard anyone rave that they loved this film, I can't say I did, but nor did I hate it with the passion that some folks have expressed to me. It was pretty much what I expected -- a portrayal of a dissolution of a marriage with excellent acting from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (if every movie could cast her or Samantha Morton as the heroine, I'd be happy). It was an uncomfortable film, but that didn't make it worthy of being trashed. I found it sort of ironic that I refuse to see the closing night film, Buried, because of my issues with claustrophobia, yet Valentine reached extremely claustrophobic levels of intimacy, emotions, and even cinematography. This was definitely a movie for the open-minded, the film lovers who don't mind squirming in their seats, and I suppose the voyeurs intrigued with the issues of others.
Am I being that big of a film snob by saying this movie isn't for mass public consumption? Probably not. Case in point, at the opening night party I was asked by a middle-aged couple what I thought of the film. While I was working on formulating an answer akin to the paragraph above, the man interrupted me, and said, in an accent/tone more appropriate for a South Milwaukee bar on Packer Sunday, than a gala at Discovery World, "Hows 'bout I tell ya what I tot of it, and then yous can give me your opinion and be honest?"
Me: "Ok, fair enough."
Him: "Well I hated it. It was probably one of the worst mooovies, I's ever seen."
Me: "Alright, why do you say that?"
Him (I couldn't make this up): "Well I ain't need to see no moooovie, with no guy, smokin', and drinkin', and havin' sexual relations the whole mooovie, then flashing back to when he was younger and doin' the same thing. Not that I gots anything against smokin', drinkin', or sex, I just don't need to see it in no movie."
Me: **jaw on floor** "Well, um, it is a film festival so the movies seem to be a little grittier than what you'd generally find at mainstream theaters."
Him: "Well everyone around us was complainin'...I don't know....I may have been confused because my wife here told me the movie was Blue Velvet, and I thought maybe it was a remake of the '80s movie with Dennis Hopper, y'know."
Me: "Ohhhh, well, uh, yeah, those are two very different movies. I suggest maybe flipping through the program book and hopefully you find something you like."
At this point I believe they realized how uncomfortable I was, and kindly let me exit the conversation.
Nope, not about the "film critic" above. This is apparently the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time, and unlike certain high-grossing American films, it actually earns the title with its great story, relevant themes, vibrant cinematography, and super fun musical numbers. Plus, it was freaking hilarious. Despite the fact that every time I watch a good Bollywood film, it makes me hate Slumdog Millionaire more and more, this movie made me want to go on a Bollywood marathon. Yes, it was cheesy and melodramatic in some parts, but those even seemed tongue-in-cheek, realizing that's just a requisite part of film structure, so why ignore it? Embrace it instead. I could probably watch this movie on a weekly basis (if I had 3 hours to spare a week) and be happy, I highly recommend viewing.
I really wanted to like this movie. Midnight screening, zombies, buddy comedy...what's not to love? I even had the privilege of chatting with the director beforehand, an affable fellow, who appreciated that at the Portland premiere, the audience turned up in full zombie costume (oh, Milwaukee, we could stand to get a little stranger). The film itself, unfortunately, just came up short for me. It tried to be both funny and scary and came up short on both. It delved into far too much pathos of the characters' relationships and the actors just didn't have the chops to pull that off, so it seemed too forced. I did like the "twist" at the end (won't give it away, but I coined the term "bombies" to describe it) and the homage to Boondock Saints, but this isn't one I'd recommend, nor rewatch. However, it was okay enough where I wouldn't deter someone from watching it.
One of my personal goals for this year's festival is to take in more "short" films. As Netflix broadens its reach for distributing indie films on DVD/Streaming, viewing shorts outside of festivals (even though a small percentage show up on YouTube or Vimeo) is a harder task. While my brother is a comic artist, I've never been as into animation as he, so I scheduled this in to remedy that. Another bonus is this year Milwaukee Film received funding to bring in tech specialists with fancy projectors, so the shorts are screening in top quality resolution, which for animation makes all the difference. The colors on some of these were spectacular.
My favorites of this package were: "12 Years" (quirky and hilarious), "The Little Dragon" (visually and literally awesome), "Tussilago" (I don't know if I've ever seen an entirely animated documentary before, but this made me want to see more), and "Wisdom Teeth" (any movie that contains the line "that sick bastard is eating babies" automatically wins in my book).
As I mentioned above, I had the difficult decision of watching the restored Breathless or this doc. Realizing that I'm more likely to watch Breathless on my own time than an obscure documentary, I opted for this. Luckily it didn't disappoint. Focusing on two ballet students from the Rio favelas, trying to use ballet as the ticket out of abject poverty, the story was heartwrenching, suspenseful, beautiful, and well-constructed. It was a Brazilian, dance-centric Hoop Dreams. The characters were massively complex. (I am still conflicted about the woman who ran the dance school. While she challenged the system to an extent and made concessions for some of the impoverished families, she also had a bit of a savior complex and universally accepted some of the dark parts of the dance world -- putting education second, unrealistic weight expectations, etc.) And the dance, the dance was incredible. I'm actually intrigued to know where the subjects are now, and without giving anything away, I'll say that the male dancer featured in the film was one of the most gifted artists I've ever watched.
At yesterday's FUEL Milwaukee Q&A with Milwaukee Film Executive and Artistic Director Jonathan Jackson, I asked him to elaborate on the exposure that this film festival gives to local filmmakers. I was actually pleasantly surprised to find that we're a rarity amongst festivals, in highlighting our homegrown talent alongside international heavyweights. (GO MILWAUKEE!) Because of this unique attribute, I make a solid effort each year to see as much local filmmaking as possible. Even if it's totally not up my alley. Even it's a waaaaaaaay out there double-feature of low-budget experimental madness/performance art. I want to see what the guy up the street (obviously in Riverwest in this case) is doing. I want to see the technical talent, even if the creative vision is a little out of my grasp.
Luckily, since I read the program booklet, I knew this one was going to be, uh, "weird." However, after Something Theater warmed me up with extreme weirdness, Rasmalai Dreams could've been a Sandra Bullock vehicle. Not to take off my critical hat, but the most obvious question for the Q&A for ST would have been "What drugs are you on and are they required for viewing this piece?" Apparently, this short has aired late at night on our local CW affiliate, which would probably certainly surprise someone flipping on expecting reruns of Gossip Girl. Unless there's some episode with Chace Crawford with an axe sticking out of his head, drooling at an animated raccoon, while slamming a Miller High Life, that I'm unaware of. That said, I can't let my bias toward plot and characters cloud my vision of the technical achievements of a piece like this. The montage and animation showed promise, and filmmakers should have the freedom to experiment with the bizarre, just like I do as a writer (I just keep those ones out of the public eye).
I have conflicted thoughts about the feature, Rasmalai Dreams. I suppose you could call it a documentary, as it featured Indian thespians (and wannabe thespians) doing readings for a fake (but actually real in a way) audition of an American feature film. Visually, it was fairly enticing, showing that indie films can integrate 3D technology (although I have issues with 3D paper glasses fitting around/under my regular glasses). I appreciated how the director and editor chose to overlay the performances upon shots of city life in India (with some stills of dioramas from the Milwaukee Public Museum thrown in for good measure). My issues with it are more from a cultural perspective. Essentially these individuals were "tricked" into providing footage for the film. In the Q&A it was fairly evident that most of them aren't ever going to know the film exists. Their performances, whether intentionally or not, were presented in a comedic light. I guess to me, it made me uncomfortable to laugh with worries that I may just be laughing at their culture. I mean, I laugh (or used to until it got old) at those American Idol bad auditions, but it's okay when it's Americans directing other Americans, right? Not to be too overly PC, but do we laugh because this is actually funny or because it's different? Would we laugh if the same monologue was read in English and directed by an Indian? Would the Indians in the film laugh?
Criticisms aside, this film is a perfect example of the importance of cultivating a film community in Wisconsin. The only reason it was actually made because the director worked on the more traditional film The Pool (by the Milwaukee-grown, internationally-respected, filmmaker Chris Smith). I also hope my mixed review doesn't deter you from checking out any of the other excellent locally-made films the rest of the festival, there's plenty left to screen!
Interesting fact, I learned yesterday, that director Davis Guggenheim is married to Elisabeth Shue. That's all I have to say about this film. Kidding.
Obviously like any documentary with loads of money and buzz behind it, taking on a highly-politicized topic, this is going to be both slammed and revered. I say watch it, but with a grain of salt. It definitely oversimplifies the issues at hand. It doesn't address poor parent involvement, nor does it profile (just brushes over them in statistics) good public schools and poor charter schools. As a product of both public and private schools, with a mother who has spent her career in suburban public schools (and recently just got screwed over by both her district and her union), I can understand the arguments from multiple sides of the aisle. At the end of the day, we do have to fix this mess we're in. Adults need to adopt change in the bureaucracy of the system. Bickering needs to be set aside. Good teachers need to be rewarded.
I did find the focus on the testing/tracking in the public education system interesting, especially since it was trumped up by the Bush Administration. I recall being in upper-elementary school during the waning days of the Cold War and being explicitly told how grateful I should be to attend American public schools where you can be anything you want to be and you aren't tested constantly and put on track when you're 7 years old that will determine if you're going to be a doctor or a carpenter. Apparently, that's not the case anymore, comrade. Oh, but this is Obama's fault right?
A movie like this reminded me why documentaries are so important. Not necessarily to tackle issues everyone knows exists (see above), but also to give a voice to those with a unique story. This was about a couple with Downs Syndrome that met in Adult Learning Class and got married. Luckily, the subject, Monica, in this film is lucky enough to have a talented filmmaker as a cousin, so the story of this extraordinary couple gets to be told. While my previously-viewed documentary showed me how a system has declined, this one showed what happens when a system succeeds. In the past few decades, the life-expectancy of people with Downs Syndrome has over doubled. That means these individuals are given a shot at living a life, one that you and I likely take for granted -- which includes falling in love, getting a job, traveling, living independently, etc. Monica & David wasn't just a film about the subjects and their relationship, but a focus on their whole family. It was funny, sweet, challenging. An excellent film. I wish I'd been able to stay for the Q&A, because one thing that wasn't really focused on in the film, just sort of accepted, was this family being Hispanic-American and bilingual. I was curious how that affected the family-dynamic and also if speaking two languages positively affects the cognitive development of people with intellectual disabilities.
I highly recommend this movie to all audiences. Locally, anyone who liked this film should check out the work of IndependenceFirst, a fantastic Milwaukee-based non-profit.
What have you seen? What do you recommend? Do you feel differently about any of the above?