<i>Paul Williams: Still Alive</i>. For more photos, click gallery, above.
The Wisconsin Film Festival had a shaky start this year, with online-ticketing glitches that provoked a flurry of consternation on Twitter. I suspect most of the unhappy tweeters won't hold on to their discontent, though. They just want to watch some films.
What to watch? The schedule is, as always, overwhelming. I can't vouch for every single film that will be screened in the fest, which runs April 18-22 at various downtown venues and, for the first time, at Sundance Madison. But here are 10 I know you'll like. Some screenings sell out, but rush tickets are almost always available.
Orpheum Theatre, Saturday, April 21, 7 pm
Sundance Cinema 1, Sunday, April 22, 2 pm
Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) is perhaps not a household name in the United States, but after World War II, he wrote a series of plays that made him a major figure in England. Filmmaker Terence Davies has crafted a superb film version of Rattigan's 1952 drama.
Like other Davies films (The Long Day Closes; Distant Voices, Still Lives), The Deep Blue Sea is set in 1950s Britain, and the war hangs over everything. Norms were shifting then - gender norms, class norms - and the film meditates on those changes as it tells the story of a sad woman, played hauntingly by Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz. Stuck in a loveless marriage with a kindly older man (Simon Russell Beale), a wealthy judge, she moves in with an attractive war veteran (Tom Hiddleston) who is not her social or intellectual equal. Disaster awaits.
Union South Marquee, Saturday, April 21, 3:30 pm
I half expected a documentary about Joel Gersmann, who guided Madison's Broom Street Theater for decades, to resemble the Platonic ideal of a play by that quirky company: passionate but rambling, with puppets. There is a puppet in Dan Levin's quite good film, but that doesn't keep it from being a clear-eyed look at a man who had a singular vision, and who is still provoking laughter and tears - and anger - seven years after his death.
Much of the film presents recent interviews with friends and collaborators. They praise Gersmann's dedication, even as some regret that his ambitions seemed never to extend beyond his tiny Willy Street stage. Curiously, most of these people aren't identified in the cut I saw, which seems like a mistake.
What makes this film a must-see, especially for Madisonians, is lots of well-shot footage dating to the early 1990s. That's when Gersmann, in typical fashion, took on a controversial topic with a provocative play: Sexy Priests, about pedophile clergymen. Scenes from the play are unsettling, and it's fun to watch Gersmann as he goes about his life in the city, trimming bushes, buying books, hanging out in the Exclusive Co.'s classical music section.
Chazen Museum of Art, Friday, April 20, 12:30 pm
Sundance Cinema 2, Sunday, April 22, 4:45 pm
This film, presented in the festival's New Iranian Cinema series, is deceptively simple. After his wife is killed, a Tehran ex-con (writer and director Rafi Pitts) gets no satisfaction from the police. He snaps, kills some cops, and flees into the woods. I say deceptively simple because of what is going on at the margins. The Hunter was filmed amid Iran's 2009 elections, and images of that year's unrest make this a tense political film, as well as a taut thriller.
Orpheum Theatre, Saturday, April 21, 11:30 am
How marvelous this documentary is. It's a riveting look at culinary excellence in an out-of-the-way place, a microscopic sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. First-time feature director David Gelb tells the life story of Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old proprietor of the eatery, which earned top honors in the Michelin guide.
Fascinating sequences show how the fish is bought and how the rice is made, and the close-up photography emphasizes the attractiveness of the sushi, pieces of which look like little works of art. The film is a stunning essay about an improbably wide range of topics - work, family, beauty, perfection, ecology. Jiro's restaurant makes me think of the pleasures of big cities, where little pockets of wonderfulness often are hidden away in the unlikeliest locations.
Bartell Theatre, Wednesday, April 18, 6:30 pm
Union South Marquee, Friday, April 20, 5:30 pm
Alrick Brown's harrowing drama takes place during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when up to a million people were murdered because of their ethnicity. There are multiple, overlapping stories, and the chronology is kaleidoscopic. Crucial to the film are imams who shelter terrified would-be victims in a mosque. This act of compassion is cause for hope. Not much else about this squalid history is.
Orpheum Theatre, Wednesday, April 18, 6 pm
This good-natured comedy-drama, part of the festival's New Quebecois Cinema series, centers on a kindly Algerian man (Mohamed Fellag), the title character. He steps in as a replacement when a Montreal schoolteacher dies suddenly.
The story is appealing and the child actors are cute, but what really sets this film apart is the way it gently satirizes contemporary education in North America. For reasons I won't disclose, Lazhar seems to base his pedagogical approach on the traditional French education he received decades earlier. That amuses and frustrates students and fellow teachers alike. In one memorable scene, Lazhar dictates Balzac to baffled 11-year-olds.
The film's overarching theme is the anxiety children feel when life is uncertain. One of the students, a girl named Alice (Sophie Nélisse), has a single mother who travels a lot. That and the personnel changes in the classroom make Alice particularly distraught, and she latches onto Lazhar as a source of stability. But for reasons related to his tragic past, stability may not be something he can offer.
Bartell Theatre, Wednesday (9 pm) & Saturday (1:30 pm), April 18 & 21
I usually recoil from documentaries that condescend to their subjects, and I definitely cringed at Stephen Kessler's uproarious profile of 1970s songwriter Williams ("We've Only Just Begun," "Rainbow Connection"). The film sometimes feels pointedly smug as it shows Williams responding combatively to interview questions or, in garish vintage clips, schmoozing with Johnny Carson and slumming on game shows.
But Kessler is funny and self-effacing in his narration (he's a full-blown character in this film), and underlying his sharpness is, I think, disappointment and perplexity. How could the talented Williams have spent so much of his time and energy on showbiz shlock?
Williams seems like a cool guy these days, sober and productive. He's fine with playing forlorn casino gigs, and he still draws big crowds in, of all places, the Philippines.
It's an unconventional documentary, and Kessler pulls it off. Williams' story is interesting enough on its own terms, though, and the best parts are when Kessler stops cracking jokes and just lets Williams talk.
Sundance Cinema 1, Thursday, April 19, 9:30 pm
Orpheum Theatre, Saturday, April 21, 9:30 pm
My favorite of these films, Sleepless Night is about a bad cop who's basically a good guy. Preliminary scenes in this French action thriller, directed and co-written by Frédéric Jardin, develop at a leisurely pace. A heist goes disastrously wrong. The corrupt policeman Vincent (Tomer Sisley) dotes on his young son Thomas (Samy Seghir) and converses awkwardly with his ex-wife.
Once the action shifts to a nightclub, Sleepless Night explodes. The club's owner (Serge Riaboukine), a mob boss, kidnaps Thomas, and Vincent tries to rescue him in a long sequence that unfolds frenetically, with shocking violence and dry wit. Remember how the heroes of The Blues Brothers are chased simultaneously by numerous agitated groups of people (cops, neo-Nazis, country musicians)? Sleepless Night is a little like that. Vincent matches wits with various gangsters, drug dealers, police officers and bar staffers, all while navigating a club thronged with oblivious revelers. It's an exhilarating tour de force.
Orpheum Theatre, Wednesday, April 18, 8:30 pm
Sundance Cinema 1, Thursday, April 19, 7 pm
This is one of many political, polemical documentaries that follow where Michael Moore has led. Like most such films, it's not as effective as Moore's are, mainly because directors Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce lack his keen show instincts, his cleverness as an interviewer, his knack for conveying complex ideas without overwhelming viewers.
But We're Not Broke has a juicy topic, one that will, I suspect, interest many Madisonians. The film's central claim is that thanks to quirks of the law, giant corporations get away with paying a fraction of the taxes they seem to owe, which costs the government zillions of dollars. The film doesn't do a great job explaining how this state of affairs came to be. Of more interest are scenes showing various grassroots activists, members of a movement called U.S. Uncut, as they organize and protest. In one discomfiting scene, protesters stage an impromptu teach-in at a mall's food court, where teenagers listen bemusedly before a mall cop shuts the happening down.
Union South Marquee, Friday, April 20, 3:15 pm
Sundance Cinema 2, Saturday, April 21, 7 pm
This wrenching, inspiring documentary is about country singer Chely Wright, who in 2010 very publicly came out as a lesbian. That put her in a tiny group of openly gay country artists.
Raised in a small Kansas town, Wright had a successful but not titanic run in Nashville. It peaked with her sole number-one song, 1999's "Single White Female." But she struggled in the closet as she maintained a secret relationship with a woman and took steps to commit suicide. When she finally decided to get honest, she did what any creature of the publicity machine would do. She mounted a PR campaign that included a People article and appearances on Today and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
This material really resonates with me. I grew up in Nashville, and I'm gay, and I dabbled in an alternative-country singing career. Proudly Christian and outspokenly patriotic, Wright is an unusual gay activist. I like that about her. The movement can only benefit from different points of view.
Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf's film isn't a masterpiece. It feels long even at 96 minutes, and the way it casts Wright's mother in a monstrous light verges on uncomfortable. But it tells a fascinating story about an important pioneer.