I 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.
That’s why I’m excited to see “The Last of Us,” a coproduction from Tunisia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates that also eschews subtitles—in this case, there’s no dialogue to translate. The wordless story concerns a man searching for sanctuary in a mysterious North African forest. His odyssey across varied landscapes has been described as an allegory for Europe’s immigration crisis. In other words, it sounds lush, rigorous and ripe for analysis. Thankfully, Tuesday’s 4:30 p.m. screening in the Oriental Theatre will include an audience discussion guided by a trained facilitator as part of the festival’s Conversations series.
Two days later the immigration dialectic can resume after “Stranger in Paradise” (4 p.m. Thursday, Downer Theatre), a three-part experiment that shows an actor, posing as a state official, greeting actual arrivals to the Netherlands in different ways: First he is confrontational, then sensitive, then bureaucratic. That Borat-esque premise puts me on edge—after all, real people are put through the wringer merely for the edification of spectators—but my fingers are crossed that director Guido Hendrikx’s social agenda is deep enough to justify his stunt.
I’m more eager to catch “Rat Film” (4 p.m. today, Times Cinema), which, by all reports, relies on the kind of non-linear, elliptical editing that made the visual essays of the late Chris Marker so resonant. Watching a series of rodent-related episodes might sound repellent, but director Theo Anthony has metaphors in mind: His real purpose, apparently, is to trace Baltimore’s current rat scourge back to the city’s history of racial subjugation. Rats may not be lovable, but what’s not to love about a rookie artist swinging for the fences?
Ambitious newcomers are always warmly invited to MFF’s Competition—this year, five of the eight films are debut features—which might mystify viewers seeking movies with name recognition. But if you’d like to see a familiar face, you could hardly do better than “Manifesto” (6:30 p.m. Monday, Downer Theatre), which stars Cate Blanchett in 13 roles, each designed to assert well-known artistic and cultural declarations from history. German director Julian Rosefeldt clearly intends his conceptual film to be some kind of manifesto, too, and I’m looking forward to unpacking his statement of belief.
Reverence for the artistic impulse is also at the center of “Pendular” (12:15 p.m. Monday, Oriental Theatre). Two cohabitating artists, a dancer and a sculptor, tape off sections of their large loft where each can concentrate on their work without interference. What this means for the future of their relationship I can’t say, but I’m guessing director Júlia Murat will use their arrangement as a canvas for exploring issues related to power, gender and individual success.
If I’m a little worried that “Pendular” will prove less avant-garde than advertised, I harbor no such reservations about “The Challenge” (4:15 p.m. Friday, Downer Theatre). Ostensibly a documentary about a falconry contest in Qatar, advance buzz suggests something weirder, and bolder. There may also be a sly political bent, as these bored billionaire sheikhs treat their private jets, Lamborghinis and pet cheetahs as escapist entertainment.
While it’s difficult to detect whether “Lemon” (9:30 p.m. Monday, Oriental Theatre), which I saw in August, is intended as good-faith hipster art or only a winking lampoon of Wes Anderson movies, it doesn’t matter much. It fails on both counts. There’s a striking, deadpan formalism to Janicza Bravo’s comedy about a 40-year-old misfit named Isaac, but the chuckles eventually curdle—Isaac’s petty self-absorption is too fully assimilated into Bravo’s style, to alienating effect.
Zhang Dalei’s “The Summer Is Gone” (1:30 p.m. Friday, Oriental Theatre) might be the dark horse among the Competition movies. It’s been described as a languorous coming-of-age tale about a Mongolian boy—three film festival tropes for the price of one!—but it also looks like an attempt to capture a childlike point-of-view reminiscent of, say, Jacques Doillon’s “Ponette” or René Clément’s “Forbidden Games.” If nothing else, it promises to deliver careful images in beautiful black-and-white.
Each Competition film will screen at least twice during the festival, which started Thursday and runs through Oct. 12. The full lineup is online at mkefilm.org.
Venues include the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill; the Times Cinema; the Avalon Theater; and the historic Oriental and Downer Theatres. Most tickets are $12, but discounts are available for seniors, students, children and military members. They can be purchased online, by phone or in person at each theater box-office. Screenings often sell out, so buy your tickets now.