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2016 Milwaukee Film Festival: Eric Beltmann’s Top Five

Kirsten Johnson examines her career in documentary filmmaking in "Cameraperson," Eric Beltmann's favorite film of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival.

Kirsten Johnson examines her career in documentary filmmaking in “Cameraperson,” Eric Beltmann’s favorite film of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival.

Each screening at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival began with a chuckle, as Alice Cooper reminded filmgoers that it’s actually pronounced “Mill-e-wah-que,” which is Algonquin for “the good land.”

That beloved sound bite from “Wayne’s World” was included in the festival’s sponsor trailer, which ran before every movie. It was a discordant choice, since this year’s trailer—think of it as an annual short film that thanks the festival’s major backers—otherwise used a timely election theme to celebrate the city’s arts-and-commerce scene: With Cooper’s rock standard “Elected” blaring on the soundtrack, Milwaukeeans headed to fictional polling places to pull the lever, presumably, for their favorite local philanthropists.

There was something felicitous about how the trailer weirdly fused corporate sponsorship with the 2016 election, a 1992 comedy, and a 1972 radio hit, especially since “Elected” exists as a sweeping reinvention of an earlier Cooper song. All those moving, repurposed parts coalesced to become a fitting emblem for this year’s event. After all, many of the best movies at the 15-day Milwaukee Film Festival, which ended Oct. 6, were acts of strange and exciting synthesis.

The Top Five

I’m still grooving on what Kirsten Johnson achieves in “Cameraperson,” which can be categorized as a documentary but is closer to a personal, poetic memoir. For two decades Johnson has labored as a camera operator on notable nonfiction projects (“Citizenfour,” “The Invisible War”), and here she mines her archive for marginalia that have unusual beauty, raw intimacy, or private resonance. By presenting these snippets sans context, Johnson is able to assign them new meanings and re-consider them as artifacts of her own travels and experiences.

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2016 Milwaukee Film Festival: Week Two Picks

The subjects of "Almost Sunrise," the Centerpiece film at this year's festival, undertake a 2,700 mile march from Milwaukee to Santa Monica.

The subjects of “Almost Sunrise,” the Centerpiece film at this year’s festival, undertake a 2,700 mile march from Milwaukee to Santa Monica.

One of the hottest titles at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival is coming to West Bend, and the wait won’t be long.

“Almost Sunrise,” the festival’s Centerpiece Film, concerns two Iraq veterans now battling depression, anxiety and guilt. Together they embark on a 2,700-mile mental health march from Milwaukee to Santa Monica. Along the way, the former soldiers reveal their traumatic war experiences and meet other anguished veterans. The documentary plays the festival Oct. 1 (Oriental Theatre, 7 p.m.) and Oct. 2 (Oriental Theatre, 10:30 a.m.), but seats are scarce.

The good news? On Oct. 3, director Michael Collins will bring “Almost Sunrise” to West Bend for a 7 p.m. screening at UW-WC’s Theatre on the Hill. Both Collins and Anthony Anderson, one of the film’s subjects and a West Bend native, plan to answer questions from viewers after the movie. Tickets are $10 at the door.

Anderson, who served two tours in Iraq, is proud of how the film honestly represents the struggles that many veterans experience as they try to reintegrate into normal life.

“My hope is that the people of West Bend will learn from the film and consider the impact military service has on service members, their families, and the communities they come from,” Anderson said in an email. Continue Reading »

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2016 Milwaukee Film Festival: Scheduled Guests

Film critic Eric Beltmann covers the 2016 Milwaukee Film FestivalWho knew Bud Selig likes fabulist movies spoken in Farsi?

There he was, sitting directly behind me during a 2010 Milwaukee Film Festival screening of Shirin Neshat’s “Women Without Men,” a work of magic realism about four Tehran women.

I’ve often had the good fortune of bumping into public figures at festivals—Harold Ramis, Susan Sarandon and Alex Gibney, for starters—and never felt especially starstruck. Selig, though, was another story. After all, the Milwaukee native wasn’t just the MLB commissioner. He was also the person most responsible for bringing major league baseball back to our city in 1970, and therefore responsible for my eternal obsession with the Brewers.

That handshake was special, I confess.

Such moments are part of the pleasure of a film festival. Movies, of course, are the main draw, but the unique convergence of diverse people with only one thing in common—movie love—can yield spirited conversation or even lasting relationships. For example, three years after meeting her while standing in line, I remain friendly with a documentary filmmaker from Iran.

Nearly 50 visiting filmmakers are scheduled to appear at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival, supplying ample opportunities for attendees to make their own red-letter memories. Continue Reading »

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Introducing the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival

Film critic Eric Beltmann covers the 2016 Milwaukee Film FestivalTopping my Netflix queue today are “The Forbidden Room,” an absurdist ode to early cinema from Canada, and “Winter Sleep,” a prizewinning drama from Turkey.

If we scroll past the blockbusters, the relentless, rotating inventories of streaming services remind us that unique movies are always being made all over the world—and that filmgoers seldom have a chance to see them on the silver screen.

The central paradox of modern film distribution is that the switch to digital has narrowed rather than expanded choice in American cinemas. By killing off the physical media market, digital has robbed distributors of a lucrative second revenue window, which means they now must take fewer risks with the theatrical window. In the late ‘90s, for example, I could see a German import (“Run Lola Run”) and a Spanish-language documentary (“Buena Vista Social Club”) the same afternoon at a Brookfield multiplex, but today those screens are preoccupied with surer bets like superheroes and sequels. Even the local niche theaters now book only the most mainstream independent titles.

Everything else is squeezed out, doomed to be needles in the online haystack.

Starting Sept. 22, though, the eighth annual Milwaukee Film Festival will bring vetted world cinema and unusual regional films to neighborhood screens. The 15-day festival will showcase 119 features and 163 shorts from 51 countries, a provisional oasis for parched cinephiles in southeastern Wisconsin. Continue Reading »

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Review: “Cell”

Samuel L. Jackson prepares to fire his shotgun in the movie "Cell."

In the years since George Romero singlehandedly created the zombie genre with 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” he befriended and partnered with horror fiction magnate Stephen King for 1982’s “Creepshow,” a delightfully cheesy and colorful chiller anthology. And though King has gone on to write and even direct more movies, he never tried his hand at the zombie film until “Cell,” based on his 2006 novel. It seems like King has taken precious little from his friend’s apocalyptic masterworks, penning a script (with Adam Alleca) that’s nearly devoid of the satirical wit and claustrophobic dread that made “Night,” “Dawn,” and “Day” horror classics.

The zombies in “Cell” come about not through a virus or radioactive dust, but through cellular signals that scramble the brains of anyone who uses a mobile phone. This sends graphic novelist Clay (John Cusack), whose smartphone ran out of juice moments before “the pulse” turned people into psychotic killers, fleeing a bloodbath at the Boston airport. He quickly teams up with Tom (Samuel L. Jackson), a capable transit employee and Vietnam veteran, and Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman), a teenage neighbor, in a trek to New Hampshire to rescue his son and estranged wife. The trio expands as they encounter other survivors, and contracts when events cull them off. Aside from a death that’s surprising for both being unexpected and handled with moving solemnity, the plot points move along predictably, at least until an ending that suggests King doesn’t realize that ambiguous is usually the wrong way to go with genre pics.

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Preview: 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival

"All the President's Men" kicks off the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood tonight, with subject and Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein in conversation with "Spotlight" scribes Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer before the feature presentation.

“All the President’s Men” kicks off the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood tonight, with subject and Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein in conversation with “Spotlight” scribes Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer before the feature presentation.

In his compulsively readable new book “Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies,” film critic Owen Gleiberman recommends limiting one’s intake at film festivals to three movies per day. Four movies or more, Gleiberman contends, is just too many, and keeping one’s slate to three “guarantees you won’t fail to respond to the nuances in that final movie of the day—and therefore wind up punishing it—all because your system is literally fed up with images.” But what about at the TCM Classic Film Festival, which runs tonight through Sunday, where there are more than three movies a day that one will likely never, ever be able to see on a big screen again, especially if one doesn’t live in Los Angeles or New York?

It’s a delicate balance, I find, because Gleiberman’s conception of a saturation point of cinematic images for the human nervous system undoubtedly still applies to a festival of older films, but at the same time, I also find that some contact with the movies may be better than no contact at all. At Sundance or Toronto or Telluride, you know you’ll have some opportunity for future big screen viewings of most, if not all, of the movies in the coming year. But at TCMFF, you’ve often only got one shot, one opportunity, as Eminem crooned in “8 Mile.”

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Review: “Meet the Blacks”

Mike Tyson and Mike Epps star in "Meet the Blacks," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.While I cannot recommend the new comedy “Meet the Blacks” on artistic grounds, as it almost completely falls flat in the humor department, a part of me hopes that it does well at the box office. Why? Because if the film makes any commercial waves, it will more likely than not initiate an important discussion on what, exactly, constitutes a parody in an era in which the line between “fair use” and lack of originality has become problematically muddled.

In case you haven’t seen a single trailer for the film—I had not, and I’m exposed to dozens of the suckers per week—I should explain that it’s modeled after the “Purge” franchise (yes, the movies in which all crime becomes legal for one night, once a year). I use the generic term “modeled” because “Meet the Blacks” is not actually a spoof, insofar as it does not make fun of anything in particular about “The Purge” or its sequel. It’s just another movie centered around the same idea that happens to also contain jokes, albeit ones that fall miserably flat.

I’ll summarize further. Mike Epps plays Carl Black, who moves his family cross-country from the South Side of Chicago to the considerably ritzier Beverly Hills (well, a less appealing Northern California city standing in for Beverly Hills) on a questionable mortgage deal. No longer haunted by the daily sound of gunfire and his past associations with gang members, Carl is convinced that he will finally experience a peaceful, uneventful Purge Night behind the pearly gates of his new 90210 community.

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Review: “God’s Not Dead 2”

Jesse Metcalfe and Melissa Joan Hart star in "God's Not Dead 2," the Christian film directed by Harold Cronk.The end credits of “God’s Not Dead 2,” similar to those of its smash-hit predecessor, begin with a detailed text scroll of court cases, both federal and local, that supposedly informed its legal-themed narrative about a high school teacher on trial for invoking Jesus in the classroom. Blink and you’ll miss them, as they fly by at a speed that is barely legible. But this seems to be quite deliberate on the part of the filmmakers: they rattle off the laundry list of cases to provide the illusion of credibility, without actually allowing the viewer the necessary amount of time to interrogate how relevant the cases actually are to the material at hand. Suspecting that this block of text was coming, having watched the original “God’s Not Dead” just last night, I paid extra careful attention. And it is with little surprise that I can report the only thing that most of the cases share in common with the fictional one depicted in “God’s Not Dead 2” is the presence of educators and some element of Christianity. Their existence lends little credence to the film’s story, which exists, quite plainly, in a fantasy realm.

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Review: “Eye in the Sky”

Helen Mirren stars as Col. Powell in Gavin Hood's "Eye in the Sky," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.After exploding onto the international film scene with the virtuosic 2005 debut “Tsotsi,” made in his native South Africa, director Gavin Hood gave the term “sophomore slump” new meaning by ignoring filmmaking elementals in favor of blatant Bush-bashing in his 2007 crossover picture “Rendition.” Now, after big-budget forays into the fantasy realms of Marvel Comics and young adult sci-fi, Hood is back for more topical political storytelling with “Eye in the Sky,” which confronts the role of drones in the West’s ongoing war on radical Islamism. Given the cast of Hollywood elites, from Helen Mirren to Aaron Paul to the late Alan Rickman, it would not be unreasonable for one to expect more bleeding-heart propaganda. But Hood clearly learned from his mistakes on “Rendition,” crafting an issue movie that largely retains an objective perspective.

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Review: “Knight of Cups”

review of knight of cups, knight of cups movie review, review knight of cups, knight of cups film critic, christian bale knight of cups, knight of cups danny baldwin, knight of cups terrence malickAt what point does an auteur’s “signature style” cross over into becoming a game of directorial Mad Libs? That’s the question I wrestled with for most of Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups,” a typically gorgeous effort from the reclusive filmmaker that nonetheless employs his trademarks—shots following characters from behind and hushed voiceover the most recognizable among them—to such excess that it feels utterly mechanical. This is not to say that Malick has not been steadfast in his approach before, just that “Knight of Cups” may represent the point at which his song goes from sounding catchy to being overplayed.

To a degree, “Knight of Cups” is the victim of timing. If Malick has made the film before “To the Wonder,” the prior effort in which he doubled down on his stylistic conventions, then perhaps I would be raving about its artistry. Following the career-high “The Tree of Life,” which was an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of a movie, the filmmaker’s aesthetic and aural fixations felt fresh when applied to the considerably more intimate story of one man’s romances. “Knight of Cups,” about another man’s romances, lacks the same sense of re-contextualization of Malick’s formal innovations, and as such, come across as the opposite of innovative: gnawing, even self-parodying at times.

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