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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.

Movie love, fittingly, motors MFF’s opening night selection. Through a mix of home movies, expressive animation, and talking head interviews, the acclaimed documentary “Life, Animated” tells the story of a family that uses Disney feature cartoons as a therapeutic tool for their autistic son. It screens Thursday, Sept. 22 at the Oriental Theatre at 7 p.m.

For the scarred Iraq veterans featured in the Centerpiece Film “Almost Sunrise,” healing comes in the form of a 2,700-mile mental health march from Milwaukee to Santa Monica. One of the film’s main subjects is Anthony Anderson, who was born and raised in West Bend and still lives here. In fact, he visits the high school campus every semester to address Mr. Zappia’s War and Peace students. It’s tempting to suspect “Almost Sunrise” is being highlighted merely for its local ties, but director Michael Collins previously made “Give Up Tomorrow,” a ferocious piece of investigative journalism that was one of the best discoveries of the 2011 festival. He’s the real deal.

I’m equally keen to check in with Chad Hartigan, whose latest work will close the festival. Hartigan’s “This is Martin Bonner” is one of my favorite recent American films, and “Morris from America” sounds like another sensitive, efficient study of outsiders. This time the subject is an African-American adolescent who, thanks to his dad’s job transfer, struggles to fit in at a new school in Heidelberg, Germany.

Navigating alien turf, in fact, becomes a recurring theme throughout the Spotlight programming, especially in movies with Wisconsin connections. The Montfort-shot drama “Halfway” concerns a parolee working on a farm in a rural setting where he’s the only black person. Marquette graduates are at the center of the documentaries “Motley’s Law,” which follows the only American lawyer licensed to practice in Afghanistan, and “Jim: The James Foley Story,” about the war correspondent beheaded by ISIS in 2014 after embarking on a dangerous freelance mission to Syria.

The crusading newsmen in “All the President’s Men” fare better, of course, but the enormity of their task makes their choices no less heroic. To these eyes, Alan J. Pakula’s Watergate noir remains nimble, exciting, and perhaps too willing to print the legend—and yet, in the infotainment age of Breitbart and HuffPo, its veneration of shoe-leather reporting makes it a canny choice for a 40th-anniversary celebration.

Revivals also include “Blue Velvet” (1986), David Lynch’s lurid vision of American suburbia; “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), Steven Spielberg’s youthful paean to Saturday adventure serials; and “Metropolis” (1927), Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi fantasy about a society founded on slavery. Seeing these enduring masterpieces on the big screen with large, appreciative crowds will be like sitting down in a time machine, especially since MFF will present “Metropolis” with live music by the world-famous Alloy Orchestra.

The Lynch and Spielberg pictures have been slotted into the Cinema Hooligante section, rubbing shoulders with the festival’s most twisted offerings. The popular Cream City Cinema category showcases features and shorts made by area talent. Ditched this year is the Passport division, which had focused on the cinema of a single nation.

In its place are three new strands: Cine Sin Fronteras, which exhibits works from the multi-faceted Latinx diaspora; United States of Cinema, which showcases American independent fiction films; and Sportsball!, which fields sports documentaries co-programmed by former Brewers pitcher John Axford. Audiences are likely to cheer aloud during “Keepers of the Game,” the story of a Native girls’ lacrosse team challenged by obstacles both on and off the pitch.

Entire families are encouraged to let loose at a sing-along 25th-anniversary showing of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” a welcome refresher before the live-action remake with Emma Watson arrives next year. It’s part of the Rated K: For Kids slate, which offers age-appropriate features and short film packages.

Eighteen titles from the global festival circuit comprise the Worldviews division, including new works by prominent filmmakers like Hong Sang-soo, Matteo Garrone and Jia Zhangke. Other sections collect new movies about food, artists, and music.

For the first time, a cash prize will be given in the Black Lens category, joining the Documentary Jury Award and the Herzfeld Award for films in the Competition strand. Winners will also be picked among short films, local productions, and audience favorites.

Five public forums are planned, with a keynote lecture by Mequon native John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave” and a new member of the Milwaukee Film Board. Many screenings will feature moderated small group discussions, as part of the festival’s Conversations series. Special events include after-parties, an open-air food market, a community bike ride, and a movie-themed bowling tournament.

Venues include the historic Oriental and Downer Theatres on the East Side, the Avalon Theater in Bay View, the Times Cinema in Washington Heights, and the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill in Whitefish Bay.

Most tickets are $12, but discounts are available for seniors, students, and children. Right now tickets can be purchased online, by phone, or in person at the Oriental Theatre box office. Starting Sept. 23, tickets can be purchased at all five venues—but screenings often sell out, so reserve your seat early.

The festival runs Sept. 22 through Oct. 6. The full lineup is online at mkefilm.org.

About Eric Beltmann

Eric Beltmann has been writing about cinema for various print and web outlets since 1991, including an eight-year stint at the now defunct Flipside Movie Emporium. Currently he teaches film and literature at a high school in southeastern Wisconsin. He shares a birth date with Pauline Kael and considers Buster Keaton part of the family. Contact Eric at beltmann@criticspeak.com.