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Review: “Bright”

Film critic James Frazier reviews David Ayer's "Bright," starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, now streaming on Netflix.“Bright” is ostensibly a police thriller set in a world where magic exists, but it comes with a clever thought under its high-concept premise: what does racism mean in a world where sentient creatures are literally of different species? Humans of different skin colors would seem pretty unremarkable to even the most virulent racist when there are literal orcs living a block away.

Featuring a glittery grim aesthetic that smartly marries ghetto gangland Los Angeles and storybook fantasy, “Bright” is splendid start for Netflix’s foray into big-budget, blockbuster-style filmmaking. Scenes depict a contemporary LA populated by humans, an underclass of downtrodden orcs, and an elite ruling class of wealthy elves. Cops armed with Glocks and shotguns occasionally find themselves battling criminals wielding magic wands, which in their world are as dangerous as nuclear weapons and much more difficult to obtain.

Smith plays Daryl Ward, a seasoned LAPD street cop partnered with “affirmative action hire” Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the city’s sole orc police officer. “Are you an orc first or a cop first?” Ward frequently asks, drawing real world parallels that are easy to spot. With this question coming from the mouth of a black actor, the film sneakily allows for an examination of the politics of minority policing without demonizing the superior. Ayer and screenwriter Max Landis don’t subvert expectations so much as exploit them, and to though-provoking effect.

But “Bright” is entertainment, not a political screed, more “Lethal Weapon with Magic” than “Training Day at Hogwarts.” The plot kicks into gear when Ward and Jakoby discover a magic wand, leading to their pursuit by Mexican and orc gangbangers, crooked cops, evil elves, and a federal magic task force. Even as the plot framework hits familiar notes, Landis and Ayer’s reality-bending mythology, along with Smith and Edgerton’s rapport, elevate what is at its core a rote cop thriller to something that offers both familiar and fresh pleasures.

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Danny Baldwin’s Top 10 Films of 2017

Danny Baldwin's Top 10 Films of 2017

This is the sixteenth year I’ve written an annual Top 10 list, which means I’ve been compiling them for over half my life. While the exercise in some way feels more arbitrary than ever, in that I’m now able to look back on those initial lists from more than a decade ago and recognize how irrelevant certain choices seem, it also feels more vital as I’ve moved away from writing regular film criticism.

While I find myself discussing current movies more than ever, the process of composing this list reminds me that there’s something irreplaceable about reflecting on film in writing. Forcing oneself to put one’s thoughts down on paper prompts one to more fully interrogate why we like what we like, rather than to be content with the adjectives and interjections we so casually toss out in verbal reflection. I have to wonder: would this list be much different if I had written about every one of the 125-plus movies I saw in 2017? While I’m not sure my top favorites would change, I have a sneaking suspicion there would be some shuffling – and maybe even the entry of a film or two that I don’t currently think I liked.

As for making judgments on the year in cinema as a whole, I’ve learned to stay away from them. It’s been said before, but every year has its great movies, its good movies, and its bad movies – and maybe you didn’t do a good enough of a job as a viewer in finding the great ones if you felt there weren’t enough. Certainly, there are fewer excuses now in the streaming era, though I also wonder if our capacity for fully engaging with greatness has diminished as cinema-going has increasingly become reserved for a certain kind of “big event” movie and theaters themselves have become progressively indistinguishable from our living rooms.

The common wisdom is that good content has never been more available, but will there be a juncture at which we have taken good content for granted to such an extent that we no longer know what’s good content and what’s bad content? Perhaps the answer lies in curated content, in tastemakers and lists just like this one. But at the same time, nothing will replace the exuberant feeling of cinematic discovery, and the risks of limiting one’s field of view to the recommendations of others seem to be just as stifling as those of blind selection. After all, you’re about to find the critically-derided “The Great Wall” among my Honorable Mentions for the year.

All we can do, I figure, is keep going to the movies, keep talking about the movies, and (when time permits) keep writing about the movies. And now, what you came here for: my list.

Special Mention: It was another strong year for non-fiction, and three documentaries stood out, each thankfully attaining levels of theatrical success uncommon for the Netflix era. “Jane” and “Dawson City: Frozen Time” construct narratives from found-footage in inventive ways that are not only exhilarating to watch, but will undoubtedly become the basis of film studies curricula in the years to come. Meanwhile, “Faces Places” finds 89-year-old Agnès Varda’s essay form as spry as ever, and even revitalized in the company of a new buddy – her shades-donning co-director, the large format photographic artist JR. Continue Reading »

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Review: “The Disaster Artist”

Film critic reviews "The Disaster Artist," directed by and starring James Franco.

“The Disaster Artist” is a missed opportunity. It takes the most bizarre, fascinating true story of cult cinema and reduces it down to an oddball, feel-good joke. There’s a story worth telling here, but it feels like director James Franco is giving us Cliff’s Notes of Cliff’s Notes.

At its core, the film tells the story of the unlikely friendship between Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero, stars of the 2003 midnight movie sensation “The Room.” Adapted from Sestero’s book of the same name (reviewed here), “The Disaster Artist” spans from Wiseau and Sestero’s first encounter in an acting class up through the premiere of “The Room.”

“The Room” is a melodrama famous for its stunning, unintentional awfulness, which is heightened by the peculiar nature of Wiseau, its star/writer/director/financier. A lanky but muscular middle-aged man with a mess of long black hair and an inscrutable Eastern European accent, he’s a singular cinematic figure, a living, breathing WTF moment.

After meeting at an acting class, Tommy (Franco) and Greg (brother Dave Franco) become fast, albeit oddly matched friends. Wiseau is goofy enigma of a man, one who yearns for fame but won’t divulge his age, birthplace, personal history, or the source of his seemingly staggering wealth. Whereas Sestero’s book split the narrative between before and after “The Room” was filmed, the movie zips to the film’s troubled production, which sees a flummoxed professional cast and crew trying to appease their stupefyingly incompetent director.

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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.