This blog has been hibernating for the winter while I've been off finishing work on a novel. I wasn't planning on blogging about this year's Wisconsin Film Festival, but, well, it's been a tradition...so let's do it. Here's a quick rundown of what I saw this year.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Sacha Gervasi
I've been wanting to see this since reading a glowing Film Comment article from last year; it's a documentary about a heavy metal band that hasn't been big since 1984. And even then, they weren't so big. Canadian rockers Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner (yes, his real name) have kept the Anvil brand alive, albeit with just a small group of loyal fans, while laboring at miserable day jobs, still dreaming of one day breaking through to the big time. The film follows their last-ditch effort at success through a mismanaged European tour and a big-budget studio album (their thirteenth, with money fronted by Lips' older sister) in which record labels may or may not have any interest. Much like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, the dialogue could be straight out of a Christopher Guest comedy (or, more obviously, This is Spinal Tap), were it not all real. But the film is also unexpectedly moving, as Gervasi--who toured with the band as a teenager, and has since become a Hollywood screenwriter--makes pains to emphasize that Lips' devotion to the Anvil dream has real-world consequences to his family and Reiner's, who are waiting on the sidelines for a better life.
Live from New York...: 1950s Television from the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (U.S., 1952-1958)
D: Sidney Lumet, Hal Keither, Lou Sposa
This program assembles three half-hour live television broadcasts from the 1950's, rare copies held in the Wisconsin Film and Television Archive (and shown on DVD to preserve the prints). "Danger" was an anthology mystery/suspense program; the episode screened, "Death and the Family Jewels," is an amusing film noir with a young Cloris Leachman prominently featured; but it's of interest primarily for Lumet's innovative camerawork, which does its best to bring a certain amount of style to the live format. More entertaining was an episode of "Mr. Peepers," starring Wally Cox as a nebbishy science teacher. Much of the comedy still works marvellously, although the sitcom format had a long way to go: much of the humor seems to meander aimlessly, which gives the unintended feeling of (bad) improv. Best of all was "ESP," a failed game show hosted by Vincent Price. UW Cinematheque curator Heather Heckman unfortunately forewarned the audience this would be "boring," and so I saw at least one couple leave right as it was starting. Their loss. Poor Vincent Price struggles to make the most of an unworkable concept (none of the contestants demonstrate any psychic powers, unsurprisingly--including the prize fighter, a palooka who admits to not knowing what "ESP" meant until the producers told him he had it). The series, which premiered while the game show trials were ongoing, deserves a DVD release--all two episodes, as the plug was quickly pulled. The unintended humor value is extremely high. I can't imagine that any film at WIFF this year generated louder laughter.
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (U.S., 2008) * * * 1/2
D: Kevin Rafferty
Rundown of the legendary Harvard/Yale game of 1968 is deceptively simple, cutting between talking heads and footage from the game itself. But this is the best sports film I've ever seen. Despite the necessary distancing of the talking heads, despite the grainy quality of the 1968 film, despite the fact that the outcome of the game is in the TITLE ITSELF, the enjoyment and the palpable suspense of the game is translated perfectly, partly because of director Rafferty's clean technique, but mostly because it was a damn good game. First and only celebrity spotting of the festival: Mayor Dave attended. First "sensurround" experience of the festival: sitting next to me was a gentleman who attended the actual game, and helped provide me with additional play-by-play commentary. (Past "sensurround" festival experiences include watching Werner Herzog's Buddhism documentary Wheel of Time with exiled Tibetan monks, and the horror film "Isolation" next to a WIFF volunteer who was in hysterics and borderline catatonic collapse for the entire film.)
The Trap (Serbia/Germany/Hungary, 2007) * * 1/2
D: Srdan Golubović
When the son of a middle-class couple falls ill, only an expensive surgery can save his life. In desperation for the money, the wife places an ad in the paper despite her husband's protests and injured pride. But options are running out when the husband, Mladen, receives the only answer to the ad, from a mysterious benefactor who will provide the money on one condition: that Mladen perform a murder. While he agonizes over the decision, their son is hospitalized, and Mladen's marriage begins to fall apart when he refuses to tell his wife just what's been bothering him. Golubović does a fine job illustrating the "quiet desperation" of a man living through hard economic times (it's easy for the viewer to relate anyway), but unfortunately the film is predictable from its plot through its method: in every scene the viewer can anticipate what will follow--which on the one hand provides a sense of doomed inevitability, but on the other hand makes for a very plodding film. One good twist regarding the blackmailer, in an excellent scene at the climax, almost redeems the enterprise, but it's a long time coming, and all too fleeting. It's not bad, but this has all been done before, and in more rewarding or insightful films.
Our Beloved Month of August (Portugal, 2008) * * *
D: Miguel Gomes
As an (almost Godardian) experiment, this film is fascinating. Imagine a filmmaker who wants to tell a story called "Our Beloved Month of August," involving a teenage singer, her tentative flirtations with her handsome cousin, and her overprotective father. Then imagine that while the director prepares to shoot, in his research he becomes distracted by the Portuguese countryside and its eccentric inhabitants. Thus, he begins to film 2nd-unit footage without much interest in initiating the main story itself, much to the chagrin of his investors. Essentially this is the story of Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August, which does, ultimately, get to its story-within-a-story, but not before spending about half its 147-minute running time in leisurely distraction. We meet a young man who, once a year, jumps off a bridge; we watch local bands play; we go up and down the river and its surrounding hills, occasionally glimpsing the director, or locals who may or may not want to involve themselves in his film. The temptation is to speculate on what the film would have been as a conventional narrative, without such an expansive prologue, but truth is that it's the experiment which makes the film something which can't be dismissed. An endurance test, perhaps (there were many walkouts), but a rewarding one.
Between the Folds (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Vanessa Gould
This documentary on the art of paper-folding transforms one's notions of what origami is, as we witness artists from different nations creating elaborate three-dimensional sculptures: figures with detailed facial expressions, flowers that blossom before your eyes, beasts which stand as tall as a person. Most surprisingly, we learn of its practical application to fields of math and science, from designing unfolding solar panels for satellites, or doing cutting-edge research on protein folding; which is why the art is of growing interest to professors who spend their spare time folding paper and elaborately diagramming their work. Great fun at a sold-out show (one of many this year), with director Gould in attendance. Accompanied by two animated short films on the origami theme.
Tulpan (Kazakhstan, 2008) * * *
D: Sergey Dvortsevoy
Dvortsevoy's portrait of a family of Kazakh farmers living within the same small dwelling on the dust-devil-swept steppes is most remarkable for capturing the rhythms of life: herding the sheep, singing to pass the time, eating dinner on the sandy floor of the hut, playing with a radio to capture the fleeting signal from a distant broadcast, and occasionally venturing out to try to get young Asa a wife. There's only one eligible girl left on their corner of the steppes, and that's Tulpan, who is never seen, though she advises her parents that Asa's ears are too big. Thus deemed unsuitable, Asa miserably returns to his homelife, and chafes at the idea of being just another shepherd, his big-city dreams fueled largely by his hyperactive friend Boni, who collects Western pornography and tapes it to the inside of his truck. Very similar to The Story of Weeping Camel--in fact, replete with a graphic animal birth--but with, naturally, a more adult edge.
Idiots and Angels (U.S., 2008) * * *
D: Bill Plympton
Plympton's fifth feature-length animated film is, once again, done almost entirely by Plympton himself, which is still a very rare and exceptional thing--and which is why it's so unusual that there are two such works in this year's festival (the other being Sita Sings the Blues, reviewed below). I haven't seen his last, Hair High, but have been following him pretty avidly otherwise, being a fan since his first film, the surreal musical The Tune (to date, his only "family" picture). Plympton's style is unique: hand-drawn, sketchy, ribald, violent, and most of all a slow-burning surrealism, where one incident leads to another with a deliberately-paced comic inevitability. Idiots and Angels is the apotheosis of his style, and one he's been building toward since The Tune and, in particular, I Married a Strange Person (previously my favorite, now usurped). Like IMASP, Idiots and Angels follows a man who inexplicably receives strange powers. Unlike IMASP, those powers--which come in the form of angel-like wings--manage to inhibit rather than enable his out-of-control Id. Our protagonist, who begins the play as a thoroughly wicked scoundrel who follows his every lustful and vengeful whim, is pummeled into an unwilling character arc by his animate wings, which blind him when he tries to spy on a nude sunbather, and send him soaring to right every wrong against his wishes. Meanwhile, two others--a surgeon and a barkeep--want the wings for their own personal gain. Plympton has been working toward dialogue-free storytelling for decades now, and he achieves it with Idiots and Angels; it's telling that even though sound problems took out the soundtrack for the first five minutes (thanks, Wisconsin Union Theater!), the audience could follow along perfectly, and were laughing at every gag. Plympton also simplifies his elements, limiting himself to the same locations and a small cast of characters, so that only the surreal comic action becomes complex and rich, as with the best Loony Toons. WIFF Sensurround moment #2: when the ending credits began to roll, a man toward the front of the theater stood up as his pants fell down, mooning the audience--a perfectly Plympton finale.
Revanche (Austria, 2008) * * * *
D: Götz Spielmann
Alex is carrying on a secret relationship with the Ukrainian prostitute Tamara, against the wishes of their mutual employer at a Viennese brothel. Tamara is offered a chance to move up to the role of a higher-class escort for the elite, at a fancy hotel, but when she refuses, her pimp hires someone to rough her up. Alex offers her a chance to escape when he concocts a bank heist plan, but when it goes horrifically awry, he's left to pick up the pieces in a country village with his sickly, accordion-playing grandfather, and the couple next door, a police officer and his wife, who are unable to conceive. I've probably given too much away already. What should be stressed is that Spielmann is uninterested in crafting a traditional thriller, and forsakes "suspense" in favor of a documentary-style realism as he tries to access the emotional lives of the characters, and untangle the very complex moral dilemma each one faces. What makes Revanche so remarkable is that it arrives at a rare and potent emotional space, one which could never be anticipated from the setup.
Mermaid (Russia, 2007) * * 1/2
D: Anna Melikyan
I want to award this film higher marks simply for existing: it's a Russian fantasy-comedy, directed by a woman, aiming for Amelie-style imagination and romance. But it never quite pulls together, and leaves one dissatisfied, even at 115 minutes. Masha Shalayeva plays Alisa (Alice, by the subtitles, perhaps to emphasize an Alice in Wonderland connection), who was born out of a waterbound tryst, and who decides to become a mute after witnessing her mother seducing a passing sailor (her father has been absent for many years, though she still waits for him). Sent to a school for special needs children, she focuses on honing her latent psychic ability, at first by causing apples to fall from trees, and later by orchestrating much larger events, usually unintentional catastrophes (to Alisa's distress, many people die in the course of this film as the results of her psychically-enhanced Id). When her mother moves the family--which includes Alisa and her grandmother--to Moscow, she adjusts to city life by taking a job as a cell phone ad (wearing an elaborate phone costume), and eventually falls in with a man who makes big money selling plots on the moon. That is, "falls in" with him literally--rescuing him from a suicide attempt as he jumps off a bridge, and seconds before she was going to off herself in the same fashion. Enamored perhaps as much by her own legend (how she was conceived) as the man himself, she devotes herself to becoming his housemaid, while he easily bats off her naive advances and continues to stumble, somnambulistically, through his life. Of course, eventually she persuades him to see the world--and her--differently, but this happens as abruptly as the contrived crisis/climax which follows almost immediately afterward. The film feels a bit like a missed opportunity.
Sita Sings the Blues (U.S., 2008) * * * *
D: Nina Paley
A dazzling first feature-length animated film by Nina Paley, Sita Sings the Blues combines legends from the Ramayana, autobiography, and the songs of 1920's jazz singer Annette Hanshaw into an extremely personal feminist statement dressed up as sweet psychedelic candy. When I first read about this film on the Cartoon Brew blog, my curiosity was piqued enough to eagerly seek out whatever information I could find. At last able to view the finished product (and on the big screen!), I'm pleased to say that the film exceeds my elevated expectations. Most impressive--apart from the fact that this entire, studio-slick film was done by one person at her home computer--is the blending of animated styles, which dialogue with one another in charming and engaging ways. The Ramayana scenes, in which we learn the legend of Sita, her abduction, rescue, and subsequent marital discord, are illustrated by found art cut-outs, animated Terry Gilliam-style, and set to the voices of three storytellers trying (sometimes vainly) to settle on the details of the legend. These are intercut with scenes of Paley's own domestic upheaval, mirroring Sita's, and animated in a "squiggly" style of animation as if bringing to life doodles sketched into the corners of Paley's diary. Then there are the Hanshaw-driven musical numbers, the highlights of the film, which are frequent and eye-popping, animated like a Betty Boop short as visited by the Yellow Submarine. All of it is woven together so persuasively that the viewer is left convinced that there was no other way of telling the story, either Sita's or Paley's. A wonder: and you can watch it for free at the film's website.