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Review: “Justice League”

Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot, and Ray Fisher in "Justice League."

“Justice League” is a milestone in American cinema: the flop with a $94 million opening weekend. That’s a lot of money for a flop to earn over a few days, but “Justice League” came with a high price tag ($300 million and change) and even higher expectations. It’s the DC Cinematic Universe’s answer to Disney’s Marvel films, and even though this one even shares a writer/director with “The Avengers,” it’s a half-as-fun movie that made less than half the opening weekend money.

Set shortly after 2016’s “Batman v Superman,” the latest entry sees Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) assembling a superhero squad to fight an invasion by a gigantic alien digital effect. Meanwhile, they yearn for Superman (Henry Cavill), who was killed in the last film but is assured a resurrection here because superhero deaths are about as permanent as a sunset.

A superhero crossover film is only as good as its heroes. As Batman, Affleck looks like he feels out of place. He fared much better in “Batman v Superman,” where his Caped Crusader vibrated with rage, malice, and paranoia. But as the wisecracking leader of a group of godlike heroes, he’s profoundly awkward, not just in the story, but to the viewer. The film makes the best character in comics a chore to watch, which is unforgivable. It’s not hard to see why Affleck is reportedly ready to bail from one of cinema’s most coveted roles.

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Conversation: Critics Eric Beltmann and Shelly Sampon React to the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival

The Oriental Theatre on Farwell Avenue is the main hub for the Milwaukee Film Festival. Photo by Jennifer Johnson for Milwaukee Film.

The Oriental Theatre on Farwell Avenue is the main hub for the Milwaukee Film Festival. Photo by Jennifer Johnson for Milwaukee Film.

The ninth annual Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed Oct. 12, hosted a record-breaking 84,000 attendees, 101 sold-out screenings, and nearly 200 filmmakers and guests participating in talkbacks. The conversation continues below, as Critic Speak contributor Eric Beltmann and The Cinemaphile blogger Shelly Sampon discuss why “The Blood Is at the Doorstep” deserved its Audience Award for best feature, why too many other documentaries stumbled, and why Haley Lu Richardson’s dancing about architecture was among the festival highlights.

Eric Beltmann: Even though I caught more movies than ever before—my final tally was 50 features and 24 shorts—I still left the Milwaukee Film Festival lamenting what I missed. Chief among my regrets are Nanfu Wang’s “I Am Another You,” John Ridley’s “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” and Julian Rosefeldt’s “Manifesto,” which I know you loved. The fact is that it’s impossible to see everything. There has to be a whittling down, and I always start with the 10 movies that are non-negotiable and then build a schedule around them. My preferences usually steer me first to the Competition section and new works by major international figures, but I try to indulge some hunches, too. If I’ve learned anything after 14 years of covering film festivals, it’s that the “sure thing” often isn’t and the uncharted work often proves to be the little movie that could. Once my plan is printed and taped inside my trusted notebook, every other screening no longer exists—otherwise I might go mad from fear of missing out. Shelly, how do you choose what to see? And do you think you made the right choices this year?

Shelly Sampon: Wow, 50 features and 24 shorts—that’s incredible! I managed 35 features this year, which actually was my highest in the last couple of years. I’ll admit to being a bit behind this year—I’m normally pretty organized and get my schedule together a couple of weeks early but I didn’t get a chance to set my schedule until a few days before the festival began. That’s one blessing with having a press pass—you don’t necessarily have to worry about capacity as long as you’re there with time to spare. Once I did get my stuff together it was business as usual; one of the several program guides I use was littered with post-it notes on every page with the marginalia of a deranged person and a general idea of what’s going to happen for the next two weeks.

You are a lot more intrepid than I am, and I try to avoid chaos as much as possible. I usually stick to theaters like the Fox-Bay, Avalon and Times Cinema (which is about two minutes from my house), so I do miss some of the spotlight and high-profile films that mainly screen at the Oriental and Downer Theatres. But I’m generally okay with that because there’s usually a lot of other films to see, and there’s always Netflix in the future. I had to laugh the other day when I was going through my exhaustive Netflix queue because at least 70% of the films on it were past festival films I either never got around to seeing or want to watch again.

Did I make the right choices this year? I definitely regret missing “Lucky.” That was a film I wanted to see even before the festival slate was announced. I also wish I had seen “I, Daniel Blake,” but I was really slowing down by the time that came around and decided to just watch it after the festival on Amazon. I do try to be a little more well-rounded and see films from each slate, but I only got around to one Cine Sin Fronteras film, “Divinas Divas,” which could just as easily have been in the Documentary Favorites program.

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2017 Milwaukee Film Festival: Top Five

“Faces Places,” a collaborative cine-essay by filmmaker Agnès Varda and photographer JR, took two years to complete.Choosing “Faces Places” as the best movie in this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival might be a bit of a cheat.

The latest work by Agnès Varda, a collaboration with the shades-wearing artist JR, wasn’t listed anywhere in the program book. No announcements were made. No tickets were sold. Nevertheless, a long queue formed Oct. 11 outside the Oriental Theatre that curved around the corner of Farwell Avenue and East Ivanhoe Place. Those expectant viewers all shared two traits: Everyone was clueless about which movie was about to show, and everyone was a member of Milwaukee Film, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the annual Milwaukee Film Festival.

During the festival, dues-paying members are invited to an exclusive Super Secret Members-Only Screening. Admission is free, but since the title remains concealed until everyone is seated and the projector is revved up, it’s always a gamble. Truth be told, recent picks have occasionally been underwhelming. I gasped, though, when Membership Manager Kristopher Pollard revealed “Faces Places” as this year’s selection. After all, Varda is a living legend and American cinephiles have been aching to view her new movie since it premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival.

Bringing “Faces Places” to Wisconsin only 10 days after it played the New York Film Festival was a major coup for Milwaukee Film. And the documentary is every inch a masterpiece, the uncontested champion of the 15-day fest that closed Oct. 12.

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2017 Milwaukee Film Festival: Cream City Cinema

The documentary "Roller Life,” which spends a season with the four teams that comprise the local Brewcity Bruisers roller derby league, is among the Cream City Cinema selections at this year's Milwaukee Film Festival.

The documentary “Roller Life,” which spends a season with the four teams that comprise the local Brewcity Bruisers roller derby league, is among the Cream City Cinema selections at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival.

Where should we pin the good citizenship ribbon?

While some film festivals function as annual interlopers—destination events that cater to out-of-towners while largely excluding the locals—the nonprofit Milwaukee Film Festival has always been a provincial affair, inseparable from the city and its people. For nine years, MFF has invested in Milwaukee by celebrating its unique cultural identity, sponsoring year-round educational opportunities for students and shoring up the local filmmaking infrastructure with workshops, alliances and grants.

That territorial commitment perhaps reached its apex in June, when Milwaukee Film announced the acquisition of a 31-year lease to operate the historic Oriental Theatre, one of the East Side’s most treasured jewels, on a daily basis starting next summer.

“We have cemented our permanence in Milwaukee and intend to greatly expand our cultural, economic, and educational impact on our community,” Artistic & Executive Director Jonathan Jackson said in a press release.

It follows, then, that much of this year’s festival programming has regional ties, including last weekend’s world premiere of the Wisconsin-set “Dear Coward on the Moon” (it plays again 8:15 p.m. Sunday in the Times Cinema) and Tuesday’s screening of “The Dundee Project” (9:30 p.m., Avalon Theater), a new short by Milwaukee filmmaker and “American Movie” subject Mark Borchardt.

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2017 Milwaukee Film Festival: Competition

"Rat Film" screens at the 2017 Milwaukee Film FestivalI suppose it’s easier to sell a throwback Western starring Peter Fonda than a nonfiction look at Baltimore’s rat infestation.

No wonder, then, that the Milwaukee Film Festival, which opened Thursday, screened “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” last night inside the vast, majestic Oriental Theatre but will show “Rat Film” (pictured above) in an afternoon slot today at the modest Times Cinema. Still, only one of these movies has a chance to lasso a festival cash prize, and it’s not the one you think.

While “Rat Film” has been granted a slot in MFF’s exclusive Competition strand, “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” must, um, settle for a place among the crowd-pleasing Spotlight Presentations. It will ride into the sunset with nothing but audience goodwill.

That fact reveals something curious about the Milwaukee Film Festival. At major festivals, the lion’s share of hype is reserved for potential prizewinners. Consider how each May dispatches from the prestigious Cannes Film Festival generally read like an inventory of categories and winners (and losers). To the victor go the spoils: Filmmakers can convert a trophy at Cannes into a long run of acclaim, revenue and worldwide bookings. For proof, hop over to the Downer Theatre today for MFF’s 1:30 p.m. showing of Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” the deserving Palme d’Or winner from last year.

In Milwaukee, though, the Competition often feels like a sidebar, despite a $10,000 jury award being at stake. I suspect that’s because MFF, to its credit, reserves the Competition for its most challenging and therefore least commercial fare. It’s easy to imagine many filmgoers recoiling from previous winners like “The Tribe” (2014), an unforgiving crime picture set in a Ukrainian boarding school for the deaf and told entirely in sign language without subtitles.

Let me confess right here that these types of films and filmmakers are my tribe.

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Introducing the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival

“The Blood is at the Doorstep,” a nonfiction work by Milwaukee-based director Erik Llung, follows the Hamilton family as they turn to community organizing after a fatal police shooting.When the Milwaukee Film Festival named “The Blood is at the Doorstep” as this year’s Centerpiece Film, it was akin to drawing a line in the sand.

Erik Ljung’s debut feature is a hot-button political documentary that asks audiences to feel empathy for victims negotiating the American justice system in the wake of a police shooting. Moviegoers in southeastern Wisconsin will remember the specific case—the film’s subject is the grieving family of Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man fatally shot 14 times by officer Christopher Manney in April 2014 at Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee.

It’s true that Milwaukee Film, which opens its ninth annual festival Thursday, Sept. 28, has always evinced an enthusiasm for discussing politics in polite company. Still, this year’s choice to take sides, to not just program but champion “The Blood is at the Doorstep,” took real moxie. After all, the city remains wounded and divided about Hamilton, Manney, the Coalition for Justice, Black Lives Matter and how, in the aftermath of the killing, Milwaukee police officers were equipped with mandatory body cameras.

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Review: “Baby Driver”

Ansel Elgort stars in Edgar Wright's "Baby Driver"

“Baby Driver” is bubblegum crime, a pop-infused whirlwind of electric thrills and fizzy romance. It’s a heckuva lot of fun while it lasts, and more than a little catchy, but don’t expect to be moved by it.

The eponymous Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver, one we’re repeatedly assured is the “best in the business.” We don’t really need to hear that, as writer/director Edgar Wright masterfully demonstrates the fact in an exhilarating opening car chase that sees Baby elude dozens of cops in broad daylight. Baby is never pictured without one of his many iPods, which he uses to drown out severe tinnitus. The pulsing beats of his pop tunes help him concentrate as he drives. They get him in the kind of zone where evading an army of cops is easier to him than parallel parking is to the rest of us.

Baby works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a gangster who assembles freelance criminals for daring heists. Doc is one of Spacey’s best roles in years, a ruthless, droll old crook with an unexpected layer of humanity. Baby owes Doc big for an earlier mistake, so his forays into the world of high-speed chases are a form of penance.

A girl appears, as so often happens in the movies. She’s Debora (Lily James), a chatty waitress who bonds with Baby over music. “Every song is about you,” she says after learning his name, and he’s instantly in love. Of course, his professional life is about to spin out of control and collide with what little personal life he has.

An exuberant crime story follows, albeit one that gets a bit too sentimental at the end. Edgar Wright has a gift for visual flair and strong characters, but he’s also the screenwriting equivalent of the geek who talks too much about the wrong things.

Consider Baby’s love story. It’s sweet, but almost pure surface. The romance lacks a sense of deep longing or scorching lust to take it a plot device. When the couple are seen as willing to do anything for one another towards the end, it lacks the emotional punch that it needs to be great. And Wright establishes several plot threads, such as Baby’s habit of recording his conversations, only to leave them underutilized or unresolved.

But there’s another part of the movie that always crackles. It involves three bank robbers. The first is Buddy (Jon Hamm), a former Wall Street man who is even deadlier than he lets on (and that’s a lot).  There’s Darla (Eiza Gonzalez), Buddy’s girlfriend with whom he is desperately in love. And then there’s Bats (Jamie Foxx), an unhinged, menacing, motor-mouthed killer with a knack for incisive observations.

Wright puts Baby in a room (or car) with the robbers and lets them bounce off one another, their rotten impulses and colossal egos promising something explosively, catastrophically violent. And he delivers on the promise in a way that stays within the expected movie framework but takes an unexpected direction. Think of the final plot points as setting an iPod to “Shuffle” and you’ll get the idea.


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TCM Classic Film Festival 2017: Even As Nitrate Packs ‘Em In, The Audience Remains the Highlight

2017 TCM Classic Film Festival“It eliminates the middle men,” Academy Film Archive director Michael Pogorzelski said of the experience of watching a nitrate print before a sold-out crowd about to take in Powell and Pressburger’s towering “Black Narcissus” in the format at last weekend’s TCM Classic Film Festival. The idea being that an original nitrate print collapses the distance between the viewer and the original artifact, whereas a digital restoration necessitates an intermediary, often making critical decisions about the way a film should look and sound. Which is not a knock on those intermediaries, who play a vital role in preserving the past (and Pogorzelski himself is one of them), but rather an observation of the unique viewing opportunity that nitrate prints offer.

The Technicolor-shot "Black Narcissus" was a natural choice for a nitrate presentation.

The Technicolor-shot “Black Narcissus” was a natural fit for a nitrate presentation.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association—yes, they do more than just hand out second-fiddle golden statuettes—the Egyptian Theatre booth was recently equipped with the ability (read: ventilation and fireproofing) required to project nitrate, and the TCM festival programmers hopped at the chance. “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934), “Laura,” and “Lady in the Dark” were also shown at this year’s festival, but it was the Technicolor “Narcissus,” which Pogorzelski described as “one of the best prints I’ve ever seen” (and I agree was drop-dead gorgeous in its range of color and contrast), that generated the most buzz of all. At a festival where Q&A star-power often attracts the largest crowds, it was heartening to see the Egyptian packed to the rafters—I literally couldn’t score a balcony seat 45 minutes in advance—for a show where the main draw was vintage celluloid.

Pogorzelski’s comments also got me thinking about the objective of the festival. Was each screening, as the archivist posited of the “Black Narcissus” print, to experience the same film that audiences originally experienced? Certainly, gaining insight into the original exhibition context is part of why I go to see these movies—many of which regularly appear on TCM’s cable channel—on the big screen with crowds, rather than in the comfort of my living room. But I enjoy the festival as much, if not more, for its celebratory atmosphere – for the sheer energy of the film fanatics who attend and cheer the decades-old films and stars and technicians with more gusto than megaplex audiences will for “The Fate of the Furious” this weekend.

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Preview: 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival

TCM Classic Film FestivalAs I struggle to find the words to begin this introduction to my coverage of the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival—now in its eighth annual addition—I am, of course, reminded of the master of the introduction, Robert Osborne. It goes without saying that this year’s event will serve as a sort of public memorial to the longtime voice of TCM, who had the pleasure of introducing so many of us to the movies that would change our lives in the hours (and years) that followed. If you grew up after the era of repertory cinema, as I did, then your first contact with “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca” and “Vertigo” (and hundreds of gems of lesser stature) was most likely initiated—and later illuminated—by Osborne.

These days, the small screen viewing experience has a way of trying to keep movies inside your home — you can keep watching Netflix on an infinite loop of algorithm-curated recommendations. But long before all-consuming gizmos like Rokus and 4K OLEDs took over, when you sat in front of a fuzzy, flickery box, Osborne had a way of making sure the movies felt much bigger than just your TV. So much bigger, in fact, that it doesn’t even seem the least bit ironic to celebrate the legacy of a small-screen icon by staring at images beamed onto the giant canvases of Hollywood’s grandest movie palaces. Osborne’s words were always about opening people’s eyes to the world outside their living rooms, not keeping them bound to the couch.

As I write this, the festival’s Opening Night Gala, a 50th Anniversary presentation of “In the Heat of the Night” with Lee Grant, Norman Jewison, Quincy Jones, Walter Mirisch, and Sidney Poitier all in person—yes, this is the festival with the best guests—is underway. But the movies continue all weekend, and if you’re in the Los Angeles area, it’s definitely worth heading to Hollywood and Highland to catch at least one show (individual tickets are available for $20 to most shows). Below are some of my picks to get you going. Continue Reading »

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Danny Baldwin’s 2017 Oscar Picks and Predictions

2017 Oscars

If I had two wishes for tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony–you don’t get three, contrary to popular belief, as the Ravioli Genie informs the protagonist of Le génie de la boîte de raviolis, a charming short currently playing before Best Animated Feature nominee My Life as a Zucchini–I know exactly what they’d be.

One, I’d wish for host Jimmy Kimmel to make a maximum of three jokes at President Trump’s expense. This is a pragmatic request, insofar as I’m allowing him more than half-a-handful and not restricting any of the winners in their acceptance speeches, who would never be able to contain themselves even if I willed it. Indeed, no matter how much I may desire a fun, upbeat, and entertaining show rather than one that reminds us of the divisive headlines, this seems impossible at the current cultural moment.

My second wish would be that at least ten of my predictions for tonight, which follow below, prove to be wrong. Nobody likes a predictable ceremony, other than perhaps those who make a living as Oscar bloggers, and in this era of incredibly accurate awards reporting, satisfying surprises (we’re talking, Adrien Brody level surprises) have become increasingly rare.

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