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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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10 Years Ago Today: The San Diego Cinema That Defined Who I Am As a Moviegoer Closed Its Doors

The exterior of the AMC Encinitas 8, which closed January 28, 2007.

Ten years ago today, an ordinary movie theater that looked like any other built in the 1980s—with the customary shoebox auditoriums, pink-tiled concession stand, forever ketchup-stained carpeting, hallways barely wide enough to contain the exiting masses, and a distinct absence of any of the electronic signage that has become ubiquitous in today’s megaplexes—closed to the public and was shortly thereafter demolished and turned into a Staples office supplies store.

I mourned—and still mourn—the occasion as if I had lost a family member.

Looking at photos of the AMC Encinitas 8, or the AMC Wiegand Plaza as it was originally named in 1982—after the city’s longtime builder family, who pioneered Encinitas in the late 19th Century—you’d be forgiven for dismissing it as just another ’80s multiplex to bite the dust. It was the kind of complex that, if still around today, would have almost certainly been converted into one of those recliner joints where they serve $15 frozen chicken tenders and $18 New Amsterdam martinis with your $22 movie, like the one-time Edwards La Costa 6 three miles down El Camino Real, now a Cinépolis “luxury” cinema. Indeed, the very similar Burbank, CA mall AMC that I attended throughout college to remind me of my high school days scooping popcorn was just converted into one of those faux-fancy “fork and screen”-style theaters, with its former self barely recognizable to the everyday onlooker. Continue Reading »

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Critic Speak Podcast: Episode 15

Amy Adams stars in "Arrival," reviewed on this week's edition of the Critic Speak Podcast.As the famed Nobel Laureate Aaron Lewis of the classic rock band Staind once sang, “It’s been awhile.” In the case of the Critic Speak Podcast, over three years.

So James and I thought it was about time to record a new episode and see just how many of you would still listen.

On this edition of the podcast, we’ve got reviews of the new(ish) theatrical releases “Bad Santa 2” and “Arrival,” as well as discussion of streamable picks “Too Late” and “Morris from America.”

Forgive the shoddy recording — I forgot how to work Skype in the intervening years.

Listen Here

… and tell your friends. We’re back. At least for this episode.


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Review: “Hacksaw Ridge”

Andrew Garfield in Mel Gibson's "Hacksaw Ridge."

War is hell, but it might be even worse if you’re unarmed. That’s exactly how Desmond Doss ran into battle, and on purpose. A Virginia country boy and devout Seventh Day Adventist, Doss rescued nearly a hundred men in one of a nasty war’s nastiest patches of scorched earth without firing a shot.

It’s through Doss’ moving and atypical World War II story that Mel Gibson triumphantly slips back into the director’s chair. “Hacksaw Ridge,” his marriage of ’40s-style heroism and contemporary blood-and-guts combat terror succeeds as both a character study and a grisly war film.

The first half of the film establishes Doss’ personal stakes. Doss, wonderfully played by Andrew Garfield, honors his faith by refusing to touch a weapon or even fight in self-defense.

Early on, after saving a man injured in a car accident seemingly by happenstance, Doss meets nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) while waiting at the hospital. She’s an achingly beautiful nurse whose heart he immediately sets out to win in a series of scenes that lay the syrup on thick without becoming too saccharine.

But despite falling in love and having a work deferment from the war, Doss can’t abide “sitting out” the conflict while others fight. So despite being a certified conscientious objector, He joins up to train as a medic. Doss finds himself immediately ostracized by his fellow recruits during training, as they think is refusal to fight is rooted in cowardice instead of conviction. His superiors are so eager to rid themselves of him that they court martial him, resulting in a trial where his constitutional rights come into play.

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Conversation: Critics Eric Beltmann and Shelly Sampon React to the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival

Film critic Eric Beltmann covers the 2016 Milwaukee Film FestivalThe eighth annual Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed Oct. 6, proved to be bigger than ever. Over 15 days, nearly 77,000 attendees—an 8% increase over 2015—binged on 283 films from 51 countries presented on six screens. Among them were Critic Speak contributor Eric Beltmann and The Cinemaphile blogger Shelly Sampon. They talk here about the festival’s expansion, seeing too many movies, and why a black-and-white French-language curio was the funniest movie of the festival.

Eric Beltmann: Not counting short films, Shelly, we saw 74 movies between us at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival. The remarkable thing is that I kept running into moviegoers who were easily outpacing us. There’s no question that the festival continues to engender a thriving a local film culture, but perhaps it has also created an ecosystem in which lunatics can flourish. Might we be a little mad? How do you survive the festival? More importantly, have you recovered yet?

Shelly Sampon: I ran into several of those marathon viewers as well, both in person and on social media. What continues to amaze me year after year, and you’re included in this group as well, Eric, are the number of people who see dozens upon dozens of films over the course of the two weeks while still maintaining their full time jobs! I definitely think we are a little mad for what we do, and truthfully I find that the number of films I’m able to digest and review each year diminishes. I watched 28 films this year (though I miscounted and thought I had actually seen 30, so that makes my face itch a bit) and though wished I could have seen more, I was okay with the slate I saw.

As far as recovering? I think I’ve pretty much recovered, though I did take a movie break for about two weeks! I finally broke the fast yesterday when I watched the documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” but even then I still had to remind myself that I was just watching “for fun” and didn’t need to sit down and review the film afterward. (For the record, it’s a really interesting film, particularly for us film geeks who have studied Truffaut’s book of the same title!) I’m curious, Eric, after seeing so many this year, did you have a “movie fast” after the festival?

Eric: I wish I could say that my first post-fest movie was “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” since the book-length interview belongs on any movie lover’s shelf and I’ve been eager to see the adaptation for more than a year. Alas, my first movie ended up being “The Birth of a Nation,” a movie that proved director Nate Parker still has a thing or two to learn from masters like, um, Hitchcock and Truffaut.

I took a break from watching movies for about a week, but only because I was writing about movies—it was a forced detox rather than a fast. For me, the challenge of the festival isn’t the glut of movies, it’s the relentless working, driving, and sleep-depriving. I have my survival schemes, including a trusted backpack that has traveled 13 festivals with me, but one thing I don’t have to pack is stamina. That’s just always in my pocket. Sure, I’m fatigued by Day 15, but give me one long nap and I’m ready to start catching more movies, especially the multiplex offerings that I missed while prepping for and covering the festival. In fact, my screening of “The Birth of a Nation” was quickly followed by “The Girl on the Train” and “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” (Who could have guessed that the Tim Burton movie would prove to be the least muddled?)

Shelly: One thing that really became apparent this year in particular were the number of people that read my reviews and wanted to know how they could see those films. Since most of them don’t receive a theatrical release, the best I can recommend is to keep checking Netflix. Do you find it frustrating, particularly when it comes to really good films, that it’s difficult to share our festival viewing experiences with people?

Eric: I’m not sure frustration is quite the right word, because while I love discussing my favorite movies from the festival, the real subject of those conversations is really enthusiasm for cinema in general, and that’s always transferable. For example, after being knocked out by “Cameraperson” at the festival, I described Kirsten Johnson’s visual essay to my high school students. My goals were to clarify that such movies exist, to model how passion for such movies has value, and to spark their own interest in works beyond the multiplex. If my students also end up specifically seeking out “Cameraperson,” that’s a bonus. Continue Reading »

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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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