Wisconsin Film Festival 2014
Even if you have all the money in the world, you'll never have enough time to explore every corner of the globe. Luckily, you can travel vicariously through the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival, which transports you to the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and a perplexing orgy in France. It also tells stories from parts of Wisconsin you may never have seen, including Wausau, Green Bay and even the Capitol during the 2011 protests. Consider this a passport to just a few of the places you can visit April 3-10.
Romance in France
You and the Night
Sundance Cinema 5, Monday, April 7, 8:45 p.m.
Sundance Cinema 5, Tuesday, April 8, 9:15 p.m.
A bunch of French people get together for an orgy. So far, so good. But guess what they do at their orgy? They talk. And talk. And talk. And get rid of the cops when they show up. And play music on a magic jukebox that senses moods. That's a more or less a complete synopsis of director and writer Yann Gonzalez's loopy, absurdist sex comedy You and the Night.
After a stylized intro, we meet the couple hosting the affair (Kate Moran, Niels Schneider), as well as their trans housemaid (Nicolas Maury). Then the guests arrive. They are known by nicknames: the Star (Fabienne Babe), the Teen (Alain Delon), the Slut (Julie Bremond). There is also the Stud (Eric Cantona), who is called that because of -- to use Teri Garr's phrase from Young Frankenstein -- his enormous schwanzstucker. It is seen for a considerable period of time, as are other schwanzstuckers.
One by one, the guests tell their stories, in proceedings that may make you think of a Breakfast Club for very grownup grownups. In flashbacks, we see a man getting flogged as he crawls around on all fours in his underwear, and we learn why that one guy wears a jaunty eye patch. (Hint: War is hell.) We also learn that the housemaid possesses a very useful skill. You and the Night might puzzle you, but I'll bet you won't be bored. Know what's great about film festivals? Movies like this. (Kenneth Burns)
Scientific discovery in Switzerland
UW Union South Marquee, Saturday, April 5, 11 a.m.
Sundance Cinema 6, Sunday, April 6, 3:15 p.m.
Film isn't a great medium for conveying complicated ideas, especially if they involve abstruse mathematics. I mention this by way of telling you that if you don't understand much about theoretical and experimental physics, you probably won't understand much more after you see the lively documentary Particle Fever. You will know, if you didn't already, that a few years ago, researchers were eager to prove the existence of something called the Higgs boson. You may be at a loss to say what a boson is.
Mainly, you will know more about physicists -- in particular, the ones who work at the Large Hadron Collider, the massive installation in Switzerland where people who are a lot smarter than me are working on experiments I will never comprehend. You will learn such details as the fact that when one young physicist straps Velcro strips to her pants legs before bicycling, she does so one at a time, just like you and me. Also: There are passive-aggressive cleanliness memos posted in physicists' break rooms, just like in yours.
Director Mark Levinson doesn't get into too many details of the science, which is fine with me. He conveys the magnitude of what is at stake by including animations of equations flying around. There are dramatic moments, as when the collider has to be shut down and repaired following what appears to be a successful debut.
The men and women of the Large Hadron Collider claim their work could change humanity's understanding of the universe and the nature of reality. I believe them, and I am awed. But do you know what else awes me? Footage of a physicist who, nearing retirement, laments that he may never know whether his work meant anything. I'll bet he also puts on his Velcro straps one at a time. (K.B.)
Sports and sexuality in San Francisco
The Rugby Player
UW Elvehjem Building, Friday, April 4, 6:30 p.m.
Sundance Cinema 1, Saturday, April 5, 11:45 a.m.
All these years later, video of Sept. 11 has lost none of its terrifying, shattering potency. In the documentary The Rugby Player, once again the twin towers collapse, people panic in the streets, and the Pentagon smolders -- as does the Pennsylvania field where United Flight 93 crashed after heroic passengers overpowered the hijackers. One of the passengers aboard Flight 93 was the young, gay businessman Mark Bingham. His friends and family are convinced he was one of the heroes.
They make a good case in director Scott Gracheff's moving film about Bingham, a garrulous giant of a man who loved the intensely physical game of rugby, and who didn't back down from a fight. Raised by a single mother, Bingham was, I gather, a home-video nut who meticulously documented his 1980s adolescence in California, mullets and all. Much of that tape is seen here, including a cringe-inducing scene in which a teenage Bingham uses harsh homophobic language. Alongside the old footage, there are recent interviews with loved ones who recall Bingham's too-short life with sadness.
After playing rugby at the University of California, Bingham joined a gay rugby team in San Francisco. Much of The Rugby Player documents the world of gay amateur sports, a fascinating subculture that challenges certain received notions of what it is to be queer. Bingham was a rugged athlete, a fraternity brother, a heavy-metal fan -- and a proud gay man. So much for received notions.
Bingham's mother, Alice Hoglan, is interviewed extensively, and her experience as a flight attendant lets her speak with authority on the nuances of commercial aviation. I am moved by her love for Bingham, and her acceptance. Bring a handkerchief. (K.B.)
Coming of age in Eastern Europe
Chazen Museum of Art, Friday, April 4, 9:15 p.m.
Sundance Cinema 1, Thursday, April 10, 2:15 p.m.
The place is Tbilisi, Georgia, and the time is shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. There is war in Abkhazia, the Georgian republic, but the dingy capital, Tbilisi, is calm -- not counting outbursts of street violence.
This is the setting of the excellent In Bloom, a subtle, anguished coming-of-age drama about the teenage friends Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Marriam Bokeria). Like adolescent girls you may know, they argue with their families and make a little trouble at school. They also have bigger problems. Eka's father is in prison. Bullying hoodlums roam the neighborhoods. A friendly young man gives Natia a handgun, and both she and Eka seem to be prepared to use it.
In an appalling development, after Natia turns down a man's less-than-romantic marriage proposal, he and a gang of thugs kidnap her. Incredibly, this outrage appears to be socially acceptable. After the abduction, friends and family gather for a wedding, complete with feasting and reveling. Eka watches all of this warily.
This material is alarming, but co-directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross don't overplay it. They let their story build slowly, organically, and they get marvelous performances from their young leads. I'm especially moved by Babluani, who performs a lengthy solo dance during the wedding scene. It's mysterious and heartbreaking. (K.B.)
Humor amid crisis in Mexico
The Amazing Catfish
UW Elvehjem Building, Friday, April 4, 2:30 p.m.
Sundance Cinema 5, Saturday, April 5, 4:45 p.m.
A young woman emerges from solitude in this quirky, generously entertaining Mexican comedy. Department store employee Claudia (Ximena Ayala) appears to be self-sufficient, and not very happy. Then a brief illness lands her in the hospital, where she meets the noisy, eccentric clan headed by Martha (Lisa Owen), a warmhearted matriarch who is dying of AIDS. Martha invites Claudia into the household, and she is grateful. But she also is uncertain, because she occupies an ambiguous position in a family struggling with a crisis.
Tinged with pathos, The Amazing Catfish grapples with tricky themes like grief, long-term illness and family dynamics -- but with an appealingly light touch. (K.B.)
Life in small-town Greenland
Village at the End of the World
Overture Center's Capitol Theater, Sunday, April 6, 1:45 p.m.
Sundance Cinema 6, Thursday, April 10, 6 p.m.
This documentary by Sarah Gavron and David Katznelson explores Niaqornat, Greenland, population 59. The filmmakers mix the micro and macro nicely, explaining how life is lived in the village and suggesting how a community as small as this one fits into the national and global economy. Village at the End of the World suggests how the survival of the village depends on larger economic factors, from government subsidies for supply ships to the profitability of a local fish factory. When the factory closes, residents must band together to find a way to reopen it.
But this film's greatest strengths are its depictions of personal relationships and group dynamics. These are best exemplified in some great shots involving Lars, a lonely teenager. One is taken from above the village. Lars points down to three locations: his grandparents' house, where he lives; the house of his mother, who gave him to her parents when she was 19; and the house of the mayor, Karl, who happens to be his estranged father.
Later we see Lars serving Karl at a store where he works. Niaqornat is so tiny that there's no way to escape uncomfortable encounters like this one. But the most important lesson here is that most villagers do not want to escape. They will fight to keep the community alive. (James Kreul)
Growing up in Laos
UW Union South Marquee, Saturday, April 5, 3:30 p.m.
Sundance Cinema 6, Wednesday, April 9, 2 p.m.
The Rocket follows Ahlo, a 10-year-old boy from a small Laotian community. The government decides to remove his family from the village due to a dam-construction project. This leads to many hardships and some happy moments as well. Ahlo meets a cute young girl and her enigmatic, James Brown-obsessed uncle, who seems to have an innate understanding of unexploded bombs and land mines. Their troubles can apparently be solved by entering and winning a rocket-building competition in a neighboring village.
While The Rocket is certainly entertaining, it is a good example of how the echo chamber of the festival circuit occasionally brings some films more accolades than they probably deserve. The story's mostly harmless fun, though (unless you're offended by its somewhat cavalier attitude about land mines), and it begins with an interesting premise. (J.K.)
Spiritual journeys in Scandinavia
A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
Sundance Cinema 5, Friday, April 4, 2:15 p.m.
Sundance Cinema 5, Sunday, April 6, 8 p.m.
"I think the mistake that is quite often made is that people give responsibility away when they are in [a] community."
That line resonated with me as I reflected on A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a hybrid experimental documentary by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell. I offer it here because I want you to go see this film, which features trips to Norway and Finland, but I don't want you to read much more about it. I discourage you from reading the complete description in the festival guide, which outlines the structure of the film. When an experimental film invites you to discover its structure in the course of viewing it, such an outline is worse than a narrative spoiler. So for now, simply start with the concept of community. Then go to the screening and let the images and sounds happen.
The challenge for most viewers will be the stylistic audacity of the film's final third, though those familiar with musician Robert AA Lowe might not struggle as much. Audience members will start asking themselves, "Is this what the last 20 minutes are going to be?" Spoiler: Yes. As viewers discover this, there will likely be walkouts, but the good kind -- the kind that leave you with fellow travelers at the screening's end. (J.K.)
Art and drama in Wisconsin
Chazen Museum of Art, Friday, April 4, 7 p.m.
Sundance Cinema 5, Monday, April 7, 2 p.m.
If you visit the place you grew up, it might not be anything like the place you left behind. That's what Prof. Ben Hardin (Robert Longstreet) finds painfully clear in Sabbatical, a Madison-made film written and directed by UW Ph.D. candidate Brandon Colvin. Ben returns to his rural Wisconsin hometown to care for his mother (Rebecca Koon), who is losing her memory after suffering a stroke. The house is devoid of life, his old girlfriend (Rhoda Griffis) has a new guy, and a longtime buddy (Thomas Jay Ryan) doesn't have much to share except beer. Plus, Ben's younger brother (Kentucker Audley) seethes with silent resentment. He's been standing in Ben's shadow for most of his life.
Colvin emphasizes the lack of connection among the characters with minimal dialogue, deliberate pacing and nuanced performances. Long two-shots show the characters looking up and down -- anywhere except at each other. Artfully filmed and constructed, Sabbatical is a somber study of despair. Even the bright Midwestern sunlight seems turned down a few notches. (Phil Davis)
When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose
UW Cinematheque, Saturday, April 5, 4:30 p.m.
UW Cinematheque, Sunday, April 6, 4:30 p.m.
Stephen Schallert's 1983 documentary recounts and re-creates how the 1914 silent film The Lumberjack was made in Wausau, Wis. The Lumberjack's creators were Paragon Pictures filmmakers who went from town to town making "home talent" movies to showcase each city. Schallert draws on original footage from The Lumberjack, interviews with family and friends of its impromptu cast, and a conversation with Louise Elster, a talented pianist who accompanied many of the silent films that came through town.
Elster gives Tulip an evocative, period-styled soundtrack and provides a mini-tutorial on how a silent movie's accompanist would enhance the visuals with keyboard flourishes, stylistic cues and swatches of chordal innuendo. The film also offers fascinating then-and-now glimpses of a Wisconsin town. (P.D.)
Shooter and Whitley
UW Cinematheque, Friday, April 4, 6:45 p.m.
Chazen Museum of Art, Sunday, April 6, 3:15 p.m.
Director Laura A. Stewart is interested in the line between narrative and documentary. For Shooter and Whitley, a film about biker culture in Green Bay, she built a narrative from the personal experiences of her subjects. While most of the details are true to life, Stewart admits to creating a romantic relationship for the film's center. "Until I tell people, nobody who sees the film realizes that Shooter and Whitley are not in a relationship," she says of the bond between the title characters.
I disagree with the decision not to make that fiction explicit. There are films that do this and still blur lines, like Mitchell Block's classic No Lies. But Shooter and Whitley has many strong qualities beyond this flaw, and the romance is a good discussion topic for a post-screening Q&A sessions with Stewart.
Somewhere between a home movie and a dream, the tone of Shooter and Whitley becomes apparent as Whitley hangs out at the Sky-lit Motel, with its buzzing neon sign at the side of the highway. In voiceovers, bikers discuss their relationships but change the names of the people they're involved with. The effect is much like Gerard Malanga replacing his friends' names with the word "Bufferin" when reading from his diary in Andy Warhol's Bufferin. We don't have access to the actual names, but we do have access to the actual emotion in the voice.
I found the technique particularly effective with the character of Speedy, an older woman who has left the biker lifestyle behind. Her former relationship with Shooter isn't real, but her insights into the lifestyle are genuine. (J.K.)
UW Elvehjem Building, Saturday, April 5, 1:15 p.m.
Director Sam Mayfield found plenty of drama in our state in 2011, when citizens occupied the Capitol and took to the streets protesting Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill, which undid 80 years of Wisconsin labor law and stripped workers of collective bargaining rights. The documentary potently expresses the disbelief and anger over this unexpected, Machiavellian power play.
Walker's well-planned attack on labor made him an immediate national figure. Progressives fought back, forcing a recall election. Though Walker won, there's no denying what Mayfield has captured: the protesters' willingness to go to battle in what's been called the largest sustained workers' resistance movement in history. (P.D.)
See TheDailyPage.com/movies for interviews with Wisconsin filmmakers Marc Kornblatt, Laura A. Stewart and Brandon Colvin, plus previews of a dozen more movies being screened at the Wisconsin Film Festival.