We hope you've enjoyed these brief reviews from Kyle at the Milwaukee Film Festival. Andrew and Kyle will be back next week with Akira Kurosawa's The Lower Depths!
Everyone in Our Family (5/5)
Everyone in Our Family is a tense, quickly moving, and involving Romanian film that takes a kind of Breaking Bad approach in a shorter form. By that I don't mean that it focuses on similar subject matter, but rather that it presents us with a man at the beginning who by the end has transformed into someone very different. Here one may argue that how we see him at the end of the film is how he has always been, and that throughout the course of the story we see a carefully managed facade disintegrate to reveal his real nature. The plot concerns Marius (Serban Pavlu) going to pick up his 5-year-old daughter from his ex-wife's house so that he can take her to the seaside for a quick vacation. We gather through initial conversations between Marius and his father that he is only allowed 10 days per year with his daughter, with the implication being that he was taken advantage of during the divorce proceedings.
The film causes us to empathize with him at first, presenting the girl's mother as careless and manipulative; when she refuses to let him take the girl—claiming that she is sick even though she seems cheerful and ready to go—Marius becomes more and more desperate, revealing both the psychological toll the whole situation has had on him as well as the depths to which he will stoop to get his way. The film manages to be both darkly humorous regarding Marius' unwillingness to recognize the escalating severity of his own situation and devastatingly intense as the two ex-spouses choose vindictiveness and personal attacks over the wellbeing of their daughter, who is simply a casualty of a toxic domestic situation.
Found Memories (5/5)
A woman walks down a hall with a lantern lighting only the upper half of her torso, which seems to be floating through the darkness. As she moves closer, the light hits more of the things around her, gradually expanding the frame. She reaches a table in the foreground, so close only her hands and the table's contents are visible, and here she methodically begins to bake bread by candlelight. This sequence takes several minutes, and it is this sort of deliberate, meditative space Found Memories inhabits. It may be my favorite film from the whole festival.
The structure of the movie follows essentially the same parts of the woman's day over and over: she gets up while it's still dark to make bread, opens a small cafe with a friend who may at first be mistaken for her husband, goes to church, places flowers at the front gate of the closed and locked town cemetery, attends an outdoor dinner with the other 7 or 8 inhabitants of the village, and ends her night by writing a letter to her husband, who we learn is deceased. This cycle is repeated many times throughout the film, but with the routine changing and expanding each time to reveal more of not only her life, but her fellow townspeople as well. Soon, a young woman backpacking in the area arrives looking for a place to stay for a few days, and her presence in the village brings subtle but important changes to the routines of all those living there, in part because she is so young—mid-20s or so—and they are all upwards of 70, with a sad commonality being that many of them seem to have lost children early on in their lives.
There is no plot to speak of, but the way Found Memories carefully reveals brief glimpses of the few characters' backstories, lingers on the implications of these new revelations, and then folds the information into atmospheric and sometimes surreal depictions of life in the village creates a sort of thematic narrative so involving you don't even notice it unfolding. Likewise, the final scenes have a logic to them that the film arrives at without ever signaling that's where it was heading. It leaves you with the impression of a particularly effective ghost story, and its subtle look at the unpredictability of life and the roles we play is worth multiple viewings.The Sessions (4/5)
The Sessions is a rare film wrapped in a deceptively mainstream package. John Hawkes—who could play any randomly selected role in any randomly selected movie and instantly make it better—plays Mark O'Brien, a journalist confined to an iron lung for all but a few hours a day due to being stricken with polio in his youth, who now in his early 40s wishes to lose his virginity. For this he hires a sex surrogate named Cheryl, played by Helen Hunt, who explains to him upon first meeting him that while she essentially has sex for money, the difference between her profession and that of a prostitute is that, unlike a prostitute, she doesn't desire his return business—rather, she wants to help him become more comfortable and familiar with something he will hopefully one day share with another person.
There is a goal-oriented professionalism about their relationship that takes any possible sensationalism out of the sex scenes. By breaking all of this down into a blunt, awkward, funny, and open series of events, director Ben Lewin de-mystifies the way so many Hollywood films treat sex, which consequently allows him to show how moments of such basic human interaction work to address fundamental needs for both Mark and Cheryl (and, as a subtle running joke, how Mark's priest, played by William H. Macy, lives somewhat vicariously through his friend). At times the movie verges on melodrama, but these moments mostly feel earned, and in the end it sticks to its guns by refusing to provide any neat and tidy solutions to the emotionally complex relationship that grows between the two main characters. You don't need any reasons to see a movie with John Hawkes' name on the poster, but there you have them.
This is a moving, enthusiastic, and surprisingly entertaining look at the current economic plight of Detroit. Documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady do an incredible job of interweaving stories and conversations from a number of city residents from all walks of life, presenting a comprehensive view of the city's history, its current problems, and a few hints of its possible future. Combining footage shot over the past several years—it doesn't give exact dates, but seems to begin right around the time of the auto bailouts—Detropia effectively captures not only the discouraged and often desperate current climate, but also a sense of the magnitude of the city's decline. Footage from a mayor's meeting with city planners outlines in clear terms the drop in population and the way this drop has caused a geographically spread-out city to develop pockets of incredibly low population density. We are shown entire blocks with only one or two inhabited houses as demolition crews work to tear down nearly 100,000 abandoned homes citywide.
A visual medium is perfect for this story, as Ewing and Grady are able to transpose interviews with those affected most by the manufacturing crisis with shots of a stark and abandoned landscape that at times seems straight out of post-apocalyptic fiction. The visceral impact of the film is undeniable, but it doesn't simply pander to easy emotional responses—it carefully explains how such unbelievable circumstances could be visited upon what was at one time the fastest growing city in the world, and it ties these problems into the current economic situation of the country at large in a way that manages surprising optimism. Optimism may be the wrong word here, but by the end we're left with a feeling that while the city may never return to what it once was in the manufacturing sector, it will and must recover—which speaks volumes to the pride and resilience of those who live there.