Movie madness has come around to Milwaukee again for the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival, and I'll be checking in here every day through the end of the festival on Thursday, October 10 with capsule reviews and other updates. In the 5 years since it started, the Milwaukee Film Festival has grown to be bigger than even Chicago's, featuring some 240 films from 44 countries. (I will not be reviewing all of them.)
Ratings out of 5 appear for each film, and correspond to what I voted on the ballot for the Allan H. (Bud) and Suzanne L. Selig Audience Award. Please see more of the great artwork above and other highlights of the festival at their official website, and you can see my capsule reviews from last year's festival here.
Brothers Hypnotic (Dir. Reuben Atlas) – 4/5
Brothers Hypnotic introduces viewers to the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a group of 8 brothers and half-brothers raised by influential Jazz musician Phil Cohran who have been playing together on the streets of New York and Chicago for years. The film follows them as they record albums on their own label, go on tour in an effort to reach a broader audience (for a time they play under an alternate name with Mos Def), and talk about what keeps them together and playing music.
The movie was especially exciting to see at an early members screening shortly before the festival, as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble played at the opening night party on Thursday. What makes the documentary work is the chemistry between the brothers, who bicker and fight as siblings do, but also seem to have a deeper bond rooted firmly in their music that keeps them going. It's a badly worn cliché to hear about artists who resist commercial success and its trappings because it will “compromise the art,” but the brothers here paint a picture of musicians for whom the music truly is the only thing.
In the House (Dir. François Ozon) – 4/5
A fascinating mix between absurd comedy regarding voyeuristic shame and suspense that teeters on menace, In the House plays very directly with how we experience movies and how our own expectations shape our understanding of stories. The basic plot concerns a literature professor (Fabrice Luchini) who encourages his students to write brief narrative accounts of their weekend. When an enigmatic student (Ernst Umhauer) turns in a much-better-than-average story that cynically picks apart the home life and socio-economic class traits of a fellow student he spends time with, the teacher encourages him to continue, (unsuccessfully) towing the line between trying to help him become a better writer and exploiting this utter and often sensational invasion of the family's privacy.
François Ozon (director of 2003's Swimming Pool), uses this plot device to cleverly reshape events we've already seen whenever he wants to introduce a new conflict or toy with our sense of where the story will go. As the teacher becomes more and more frustrated with the “plot points” of the student's narrative (allegedly real events occurring in these people's lives), In the House becomes an absurd commentary on how we use stories to make meaning of the world around us. Somewhat unsuccessful at times because of the sudden vacillations between drama, comedy, and suspense, it's nonetheless a distinct achievement worth seeking out.
House With a Turret (Dir. Eva Neymann) – 2/5
I was especially excited for House With a Turret, as it was based on an autobiographical story written by Friedrich Gorenstein, screenwriter behind Tarkovsky's Solaris, and I was curious to see if it could factor into our larger current conversation here on the site on the late Russian director. The debt to Tarkovsky is immediately apparent in the early scenes, as the film presents us with stunning black and white images of a late-WWII Russian village mired in destruction and despair. A lengthy series of shots wordlessly documenting a makeshift marketplace in the square was alone worth sitting down in the theatre for.
The opening pieces of the film are so good, in fact, that a sudden shift in tone and setting of the 2nd half completely derails the movie. Director Eva Neymann presents the war as simply a condition of life for the young boy at the center of the story, who for the first act is searching for his sick mother after she is taken to a hospital during their journey by train to his grandfather's. There is no context, no overarching political purpose given for the war, because what would that matter to a child? Instead, we get scenes like one where the boy is asked by a little girl if he wants to be friends, the games she's playing with her dolls a sobering reflection of the circumstances around her. Or when he wakes constantly in the hospital throughout the night to check on his mother, to see if she is still breathing.
The second part of the movie plays out in a train in close quarters with some characters that seem too fictional and “literary” to fit with the starkness of the opening. Attached to a separate movie, it may be interesting, but played out as the ending to the story established up front, it seems like a random detour. If you can find this on Amazon or Netflix, check it out for the first part, which is incredibly powerful — otherwise there are better similar efforts out there.
The Institute (Dir. Spencer McCall) – 3/5
The Institute is an entertaining documentary about a fascinating subject. I wish it had been more interested in some of the deeper questions it raises, but you can't fault a movie for having different goals than you'd have liked. “The Institute” of the title refers to the Jejune Institute, an enigmatic corporation with unmarked offices in San Francisco's financial district and flyers all over the city for bizarre, super-hippie “open your mind”-esque programs. When calling the number on any of the flyers, you get a cryptic message giving you the address of the office and telling you to go there, where upon arriving a secretary gives you a key with directions through the building to locked room. Once you enter the room, a video starts playing and shit gets real weird.
Thus starts The Institute, a documentary that follows the path of the “alternate reality game” at its center in ways that may or may not be manipulations that are part of the game itself. We never quite know if the people being interviewed are telling the whole truth, are “in character,” or are really relaying their actual experiences (one encounter is almost certainly real, and hilarious, and ends with the statement “and then the sasquatch handed me the transcript”).
The movie brings up questions of authorial responsibility in games—especially in a culture where the line between games and reality is increasingly blurred—as well as an issue of ethics when it comes to creating a “game” that very literally becomes part of the fabric of people's everyday lives. Unfortunately (from my perspective), it's more concerned with relating the mechanics of the game and the “plot” of the overarching story (the game lasted 4 years) than delving deeper into these questions. That said, it's still incredibly interesting viewing, and I've had some better conversations following the screening than with any other film I've seen at the festival so far.
A Hijacking (Dir. Tobias Lindholm) – 5/5
For my money, A Hijacking is easily the best film I saw during the festival's opening weekend (see note regarding Upstream Color below). As an account of the months-long negotiations between a shipping company and the pirates who've taken one of their ships hostage, it wrings an impressive amount of intensity out of the repetitive nature of what are essentially basic business exchanges with higher stakes. Søren Malling captivates with what seems like minimal effort as the CEO of the company who, partly as a matter of responsibility and partly of hubris, takes charge of the negotiations himself. The ship's crew go through various stages of despair and adjustment dealing with their captors, and Pilou Asbæk, who takes center stage as the lowly cook, maintains a powerful level of deep-seated fear as the situation grows more and more desperate.
A Hijacking isn't a movie that has huge emotional fluctuations and a big payoff—this is about the literal business of dealing with a terrible situation, and how personal responsibility takes new and awful weight in the process. With Paul Greengrass' similarly-themed Captain Phillips coming out soon, I was interested to see a lot of the same techniques here that he used to such effect in films like United 93—a washed out newsreel look, unobtrusive but effective handheld cinematography. I'll be curious to compare the two later this month.
Upstream Color (Dir. Shane Carruth) – 5/5
I've seen Upstream Color twice in theaters and own it on Blu-Ray (and you can watch it on Netflix), so I opted out of the screening on Sunday. I'm giving it a quick mention here though because A.) it will likely be the best film at the festival, and B.) see it by any means possible.