2014 Milwaukee Film Festival Reviews | Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

2014 Milwaukee Film Festival Reviews – Heli, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, and We Are the Nobles

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The 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival has been going for a few days now, and as it gets raging in full gear we'll be updating Can't Stop the Movies with capsule reviews of the films I'm able to catch, along with any other cool news from the festival. I'll be checking in every few days or so, and the ratings given (out of 5) correspond to whatever rating I gave the movie—or would have in instances where I forgot to turn in my ballot, as in the case of the emotional slash and burn that is Heli (see below)—as part of the “Allan H. (Bud) and Suzanne L. Selig Audience Award” (last year's winner was The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete). You can check out our reviews from last year's festival here.

Here's a look at what I checked out during the opening weekend:

Manuscripts Don't Burn

Mohammad Rasoulof's Manuscripts Don't Burn

Manuscripts Don't Burn – Dir. Mohammad Rasoulof (4/5)

Rasoulof's last film, the dread-drenched and haunting Goodbye, showed at the 2012 Milwaukee Film Fest, and it's lingered right underneath my mind since. Made in the months leading up to Rasoulof's arrest in Iran for propaganda against the state—fellow filmmaker Jafar Panahi (This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain) was also arrested and banned from making films for 20 years—Goodbye showed an almost dystopian Iran, characterized by its protagonist's ill-fated attempts to leave the country and persistent paranoia of government agents always lurking somewhere in the shadows.

Manuscripts Don't Burn is less raw in its tension and broader in scope, but no less severe, or critical. Here Rasoulof—still making films awaiting the execution of his year-long jail sentence—follows several different threads of characters, from persecuted “intellectuals” (read: writers) to the same vaguely government-employed thugs we get only glimpses of in his previous movie. One of the great strengths of the film is the way it shows how its government not only oppresses those who don't fall in line with accepted thinking, but also how it strips the humanity from those it employs to carry out its dirty work.

Manuscripts Don't Burn often has the structure of a thriller, but Rasoulof keeps the action rooted in the (sometimes horrifyingly) mundane procedural details of its two central hit men's daily activities, and in doing so makes the events of the last half of the film all the more disturbing because there is no possibility for a conventional climax, or resolution.

**While Goodbye remains, sadly and bafflingly, unavailable on DVD or streaming services, you can rent Manuscripts Don't Burn via Amazon Instant Video currently.

We Are the Nobles

Mexican Jason Schwartzman and Mexican Ryan-From-The-Office star in We Are the Nobles

We Are the Nobles – Dir. Gary Alazraki (2/5)

It makes me sad that We Are the Nobles is part of the Passport: Mexico program at this year's festival. There have to be better Mexican films available right now, smaller films more in need of exposure—films that exceed the quality of a middle-of-the-road Adam Sandler vehicle (albeit with a better cast, whatever that distinction is worth) that would be a better fit for a festival setting. If We Are the Nobles is on TV sometime, and you start watching it, and at the end you realize you're still watching it, you probably won't be too terribly upset, but that's all I got. (Trailer here, in case you'd like to know more: http://mkefilm.org/we-are-the-nobles/).

Heli - Amat Escalante

Amat Escalante's Heli

Heli – Dir. Amat Escalante (3/5)

Heli's last shots are a perfect encapsulation of the film: they have a stunning, painterly beauty to them despite the harsh, drained color palette—the images have such a strong effect that for a minute you forget how empty they actually are in context. While I'll admit this is a movie that may grow in my mind over time, I left the theater feeling like I'd seen something unfinished. That's undoubtedly part of the effect director Amat Escalante is going for with his story, which centers around Heli, a young man who comes to know firsthand the effects of cartel violence and the corrupt ineptitude of the bureaucracy claiming to combat them.

There's a fatalism to the story as we watch Heli's family fall victim to a range of brutal attacks and intimidations following a stupid choice made by his younger sister's tough-guy boyfriend. The cinematography (which is gorgeous) often emphasizes the vast open spaces around Heli's town, and in fact the people—even the police—deal with what befalls them with impotent anger quickly covered by resignation. The horrific violence committed by the cartels is enough to inspire fear when it's reported on the news, but Heli's reaction to it in his own life is muted, as if he can't accurately filter what he feels without further violence.

Heli has a kind of neorealist feel to it, but the story and compositions are too well-crafted for it to ever truly seem to be documenting the characters' daily realities (or Heli's plunge into the nightmare world of others'). There are also touches that border on the surreal, such as an unexplained scene where Heli walks out his front door to stare down a massive pickup truck with a Gatling gun mounted and manned by a masked militant in the cab. Escalante won best director for the film at Cannes, and undoubtedly it has an impressive and unique effect—I just question what we're able to take from such an often unrelenting experience after the fact.

Next Update (Friday, Oct. 3) – Human Capital and the Nick Cave pseudo-documentary 20,000 Days on Earth!

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Posted by Kyle Miner

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