The 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival, March 30-April 6, screens more than 150 films, running the gamut from homegrown documentaries to rarely seen films by international auteurs. Isthmus got a peek at several promising offerings (see page 27). Note: As of press time, some films are “rush only.” See 2017.wifilmfest.org for info on Q & As with filmmakers, tickets and updates on sold-out shows. In our experience, even it it’s sold out, it’s worth showing up anyway. You might get lucky.
A giant in world cinema, Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds, Man of Iron) passed away last October, shortly after the premiere of his final film, Afterimage. Wajda brought a lifetime of experience navigating art and politics to this portrait of avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński (Bogusław Linda), whose work and theories fell out of favor in the early 1950s as Soviet Realism became the state-sanctioned style of art with ideological utility.
Some might find it ironic that Wajda produced such an easily accessible political drama about an artist who resisted easily accessible art with an ideological agenda. But Wajda’s chilling, clear-eyed portrait of Strzemiński’s professional and personal decline at the hands of the cultural administrators warns against history repeating itself.
Strzemiński’s removal from the Łódź art school that he co-founded (now named after him) and the dismantling of his “Neoplastic Room” at the Muzeum Sztuki unfortunately will remind the audience of legislators questioning syllabi and politicians removing climate change material from science websites. Perhaps Wajda’s warning has arrived too late.
— James Kreul
The well-intentioned Egyptian drama Clash dramatizes a day in the conflict between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood after the removal of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The police detain Adam (Hani Adel), an Egyptian-American Associated Press reporter, in a police truck during the protests. He soon finds himself joined by both pro-army and Muslim Brotherhood protesters. Conflict ensues, both inside and outside of the truck, starting a cycle of stasis and violence that repeats for the duration of the film.
This is essentially Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, if Tallulah Bankhead were the Muslim Brotherhood. Clash alternates between insightful snapshots of deep-seated social, religious and political divisions and disappointingly contrived melodrama. On balance, there’s more of the former than the latter, which makes Clash still superior to Hollywood representations of the region.
— James Kreul
David Byrne (Talking Heads) has an eye — and ear — for identifying up-and-coming talent. This Byrne-produced doc turns its lens to an unusual concert, a 2015 event he produced at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Composers and pop stars (St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado, Zola Jesus) deliver original, experimental works illustrated by 10 spectacular color guard teams chosen from around the U.S. and Canada. Color guards, which normally perform on football fields, are a fascinating youth subculture — a haven for LGBTQ and youth of color. Dressed in sparkles and spandex, the young people perform intricate dance routines with flags, rifles and sabers. Contemporary Color is a blend of behind-the-scenes footage (some very meta scenes involve Ira Glass from This American Life) and performance video. The music and the routines start to blend together after a while, but the passion the young people show for their art is palpable.
— Catherine Capellaro
I, Daniel Blake
In this deeply moving portrait of poverty and human dignity, director Ken Loach illustrates the suffering and resilience of the working poor. Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a genial carpenter in Newcastle, is getting the runaround from the British bureaucracy. He suffered a major heart attack and his doctors say he’s not ready to go back to work. He is denied unemployment benefits, but while he awaits an appeal hearing with “the decisionmaker,” bland state workers shuffle him into a job-seekers program. A fracas in the office leads to him befriending Katie, a desperate single mom (played by an excellent Hayley Squires). In several painful scenes, Blake struggles to adapt to modern technology and navigate online applications; there are also humiliating interviews and workshops. “Give me a plot of land and I’ll build you a house,” says Blake. “But I’ve never been near a computer.” Blake’s quiet journey from compliance to defiance will grab you by your collar, whatever its color, and shake you.
— Catherine Capellaro
In this Nigerian drama, Kaleche Kati (Nyokabi Gethaiga), a young woman with amnesia, finds herself at a mysterious lodge. The inhabitants explain to her that she has died, just like they have, and they must remain in this resort-like limbo. Mixing science fiction, ghost story and folk tale, director and co-writer Mbithi Masya creates a world with rules that Kaleche and the viewer must learn in order to understand its dreamlike logic.
Kaleche’s main guide is Thoma (Elsaphan Njora) the de facto leader of the residents, who has organized activities to pass the time but remains just as trapped as the others. Gradually we discover that all the residents still bear burdens from their lives that they need to address before they can move on to the afterlife.
While leisurely paced, Kati Kati benefits from the vibrant performances of the photogenic cast. The dramatic reveals in the last act don’t quite have the impact they could have because some are telegraphed and others deliver too little, too late. But the world created here remains compelling throughout, especially as characters face ghost-like manifestations of their past lives.
— James Kreul
Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry
Look & See begins with shots of lush forests, giving way to bulldozers and machinery lopping the tops off Kentucky mountains as Wendell Berry reads from his poem, “A Timbered Choir”: “Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling. For I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake of the objective.”
The film is more of a visual poem than a documentary, which is fitting, because Berry is a poet/farmer/activist/essayist who has devoted his life to collapsing distinctions. “I have grown or aged into difficulty in distinguishing between art and life,” Berry says, over black-and-white images of fields, forests and streams. “When we make our art, we are also making our lives.”
Berry, author of dozens of books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, is also an outspoken critic of industrial farming and mining practices that have ravaged the culture and environment of Henry County, Kentucky, where he has lived since 1965. Industrialization and mechanization have replaced small farms, and farmers became trapped in cycles of debt and expansion, losing connection to the fruitful land. Through the visuals and Berry’s words, the film makes a plea for healing both the physical land and the rural communities. The film’s focus on Berry’s neighbors and family is a deliberate and powerful choice.
“Things that our parents thought were important for us to notice, they told us to notice,” says his daughter, Mary Berry. “Look at this, see this, and know that it’s good.”
— Catherine Capellaro
Filmgoers are deeply divided on the issue of Kristen Stewart. She’s either one of her generation’s greatest talents, applying a brilliant less-is-more approach to her craft, or a one-trick pony who brings enough energy to the set to maintain consciousness.
If you are on the fence about her, Olivier Assayas’ haute couture ghost story, Personal Shopper, gives you plenty of opportunity to decide. The camera rarely strays from Stewart as she wanders Paris buying clothes for her celebrity boss while searching for signs from her dead brother. I was uncertain about her myself, but with Shopper, I found myself amazed by her naturalistic verbal tricks; she sounds like a jazz vocalist, subtly revealing pent-up emotions. She also plays pauses well, thankfully, since she spends most of the movie alone and/or silent.
But then there are moments where I just wanted to scream: Do something, woman! Try just a little!
Like its star, Personal Shopper is ethereal, inscrutable, striking, eerie and confounding. Assayas and Stewart lull us into a familiar — and occasionally dull — dream state so that we lower our defenses. Then they remind us that this is a story about dead things, and dead things are scary, and when someone as cool as Kristen Stewart gets scared, you should be, too.
— Craig Johnson
The micro-budget comedy Sylvio hits all the biopic beats. It charts a hero’s humble beginnings and dreams, sudden cult success, near self-destruction, sell-out, scandal, crisis of conscience, comeback, revealing flashback, redemption. It’s a tale told thousands of times, so how do you make it fresh? Put the artist in a gorilla suit, that’s how. Sylvio Bernardi is an “ape” who achieved viral internet fame (half a million followers) in a series of Vine videos titled “Simply Sylvio.” In this film, he is an artist living in Baltimore who just wants to create, but instead finds fame in destruction, smashing household items on public access television.
The movie’s success comes not from the story, but from the telling. It begins, like many twee indie movies, with a melancholy tone. Before long, you see that the film is parodying twee indie along with biopics. Genuine comedy emerges from the deadpan hero’s legitimate sadness.
Sylvio charms with its lo-fi effects, bargain-basement production, purposely stilted performances and, of course, the blatantly fake gorilla suit that would fit perfectly in a Three Stooges short. But this is not a sloppy film; it’s just dressed up that way.
And for those still traumatized by the cheap-o gorilla comedy at last year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, don’t worry: Sylvio has nothing in common with Aaaaaaaah! Sylvio is as innocent as that British comedy was prurient. The hero doesn’t even act like an ape.
Albert Birney, who co-directed this oddity with Kentucker Audley, will do a Q&A after the screening on March 31, and if there’s any justice in this world he’ll be selling “What’s the Ape Gonna Break?” T-shirts like the ones in the movie.
— Craig Johnson