More notes from the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival
What we saw in the festival's back half. | By Chris Lay, Grant Phipps, and Mark Riechers
Another Wisconsin Film Festival has come to an end, and we're all exhausted from the glut of movies we managed to cover here. We're not alone in that, since more than a few people we talked to at the fest ended up being veterans of the affair, each one squeezing in a dozen or more unique features across the week-long craziness.
The trailer this year was pretty adorable, inspiring weekend crowds to cheer when their specific venue was highlighted. If you liked that one, definitely go back and check out the oral history of the past handful of years' trailers, as told by Ben Reiser, who directed some of the most recent ones. There were some memorable Q&A moments as well, which is to say that sadly a few people failed to heed Mark Riechers' handy-dandy set of suggestions for Q&A behavior, but we'll see if we can get everyone up to speed better next year.
Last week, right around the halfway point of the fest, we shared a collection of thoughts and reviews from two of our writers out there covering the event, Chris Lay and Grant Phipps, so consider this the followup to that which presents all the odds and ends that we managed to absorb in the latter part of the fest.
Pre-festival excitement for Murat Eyuboglu's ecological documentary on the Colorado River Basin hit a peak during the initial day of ticket sales, as it was one of the first screenings to hit "rush-only" status. The event itself played out a little differently, with an unexpected fire alarm that disrupted the presentation about 20 minutes in. And while the Marquee in Union South was packed at the start, upon returning from the awkward intermission, it was clear the unconventional choral score, a surreal fusion of orchestral and electronic music performed by vocal octet Roomful Of Teeth, had compelled a percentage of the audience to seek out something more consistently didactic and suited to their tastes. To seekers of uncanny, unclassifiable composition, though, The Colorado's non-diagetic sounds are easily the most defining and interesting aspect of the production, comparable to the repetitious tones of Philip Glass in Koyaanisqatsi (1982). However, because its nine segments are split between the guiding voiceover of Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance, who speaks fluently of the Basin's changes over the past few centuries, and more impressionistic montages of vegetation, wildlife, cave/rock carvings, an inherent disjointedness emerges.
It's not that each section isn't involving in its own right, but The Colorado suffers from a lack of communication and artistic synergy. In one audience member's sardonic opinion, the music conjures a drug-induced trip. This is somewhat accurate, as these right-brained experiences begin to consume the more straightforward information about historical figures like John Wesley Powell's late-nineteenth century expeditions, construction of the Hoover Dam, or the sheer number of people—40 million—who depend on the Colorado River for sustenance.
Knowledge imparted from co-screenwriter William DeBuys, author of Salt Dreams (1999), at least seems to address the climate crisis of our time in global warming's specific effect on those in the Western United States, echoed in consideration of the beauty in the term "elegy" by guest and co-composer William Brittelle. —Grant Phipps
A Quiet Passion
In one of the fest's most engaged, humorous, and illuminating Q&As, English director Terence Davies confessed that he read six biographies of Emily Dickinson prior to writing and directing A Quiet Passion. It's a fitting title that reflects not only the intensity of its subject but the infectious fervor of artistic creation. This demanding but absorbing biopic, which follows the great iconoclastic poet through her entire adult life in the mid-19th century, is a gift to lovers of the character study. Pervading every frame are Davies' classically biting wit, acute visual sensibilities, and voiceover usage of Dickinson's poetry, which acts as a kind of abstract narration.
These elements are further heightened by the magnetic performance from Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson, who instills the historical figure with messy, articulate humanity. Despite her seeming reclusive lifestyle, Dickinson's vitality defines her as an independent spirit in her teenage years in the film's first scene at a Christian boarding school where she defiantly stands alone against the headmistress Miss Lyon (Sara Vertongen)'s castigation and manipulative attempt to put the fear of God into her class. The poet's perceptive gifts lead her friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) to proclaim that Dickinson doesn't demonstrate, she "reveals" certain beauty. The same could be said of the film's inherent feelings of claustrophobia in the Amherst, Massachusetts, lifted through the rich interiority and imagination of the central poet in aspiring for the affections of the married Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren).
Yet, ultimately her revelations left unrequited to reclusive speculation prove to be toxic, as the writing and scenic staging so brilliantly capture the line between flourishing genius and self-critical madness. The film's philosophical study of miserabilism is a cross-century complement to Alex Ross Perry's Golden Exits. But A Quiet Passion transcends as a work that so wholly stresses the idea of writing as therapy and exists as a retroactive confrontation of the stiff religious ideology of the time. —GP
Person To Person
Perhaps it's fortuitous when one of the first images to greet you in a film is a close-up of a tower of LPs with several Unwound box set reissues by Numero Group front and center. Not that it's so suggestive of Person To Person's general mood and soundtrack, as Dustin Guy Defa's breezy but tightly scripted ensemble dramedy is rather buoyed by a medley of classic soul tunes and the swinging rhythms of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. So much of my film festival itinerary consisted of New York-specific films that, by the time I reached this one, the geography began to feel like home. And it's also home for Defa, as this feature is actually a continuation and expansion of his 18-minute short of the same name, starring his personal friend and record collector-dealer/non-actor Bene Coopersmith, which played alongside Joe Swanberg's Happy Christmas in 2014 at the Wisconsin Film Festival. In a sense, Coopersmith reprises his role as the wonderfully candid, idiosyncratic New Yorker, who tracks down a rare white sleeve vinyl pressing of Parker's Bird Blows The Blues (1947) after receiving a phone tip. At the same time, timid first-time journalist Claire (Abbi Jacobson) is thrust into a dicey situation with assertive New York News metalhead Phil (Michael Cera) involving a suspected spousal homicide, and precocious teen Wendy (Tavi Gevinson) debates social and sexual conventions with her friend Melanie (Olivia Luccardi). Loosely connected through themes of self-identity, these narratives partially intersect with aging watchmaker, Jimmy (the great character actor Philip Baker Hall), who is apparently in a business transaction with the widow Krimski (Michaela Watkins) and prime suspect in the mind of local journalists. Maybe it's just the presence of Hall, but Person To Person feels very much like a pared down version of a Robert Altman ensemble film set to the style, humor, and music of an early Louie episode. And there's nothing wrong with that, particularly when every scene in so warm and vibrant, enhanced by the 16mm film grain. —GP
Joining Tim Sutton's Dark Night, Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama is the second film in the festival this year to make seeming overt reference to Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003), as if to call attention to increasing domestic terrorism and the general proliferation of radical ideologies. Culling further images from the latter half of Tarkovsky's immortal Nostalghia (1983), Bonello harnesses a shocking volatility in a first act that almost seems like a silent heist film. Various teenagers meander through subways, government buildings, and hotels to perform their respective responsibilities in setting off a series of plastic explosives (Semtex) that will send the city of Paris into mid-day lockdown. The problem is that the multiethnic gang, unofficially led by David and André (Finnegan Oldfield and Martin Petit-Guyot), hasn't quite thought about the repercussions and aftermath of their plan, which lacks a clear motive. There's no sense of ideological retaliation, and the chaos they've unleashed in the city becomes chaos within their own community once they descend into the La Samaritaine shopping mall, which becomes their hideout/playground through the evening and early morning hours as if in an alternate universe version of Romero's Dawn Of The Dead (1978) with a dark synth-based score. While hunkered down in the interconnected department stores oblivious to the outside world, the young anarchists are instantaneously revealed as capitalists in the opulence and luxury of the merchandise that's ripe for the taking (with a little ironic and amusing appreciation of Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair"). Nocturama shows how ordinary citizens can be swayed into committing brutally heinous acts out of sheer boredom for a chance at celebrity or recognition; and the director pulls no punches with his thoughts on everything from worldwide absence of diplomacy to our dehumanizing brand culture. There's something so unnerving even in a few carefully framed shots of faceless, plastic mannequins dressed in matching sweatshop-produced clothing. —GP
Divided We Fall
It would be interesting to see if someone who didn't experience the Act 10 protests could draw something from Divided We Fall. Very few WFF viewers, myself included, could truly say they had no firsthand bias to meld with Katherine Acosta's stitched-together oral history of the protests, composed here of firsthand protestor videos, news footage, and talking heads with various representatives of the human infrastructure that made an occupation of of the Wisconsin state capitol possible.
That "I was there too" vibe was certainly on display at the Barrymore screening—packed to the rafters with grizzled protest veterans draped head to toe in "General Strike" gear. One woman stormed the stage, presumably fired up about something related to the politics of the moment but seemingly at a loss of what to say once festival coordinator Ben Reiser inexplicably handed her the microphone. That tone carried throughout the screening, with loud booing whenever Walker showed up on screen, mild booing for former union allies who "sold out the movement" in the words of several featured in the film, and cheers for nostalgic images of the protest that was.
This pretty much captures Divided We Fall in a nutshell: looking backward with little skepticism or critique of the larger impact of the protests, positive or negative. Few critical voices step in to mediate the view that the occupation of the capitol could have and should have gone on indefinitely–either from larger unions, liberal lawmakers, or godforbid a Republican. Acosta works with who was willing to talk, telling an interesting story of the divide in tactics and organization that causes confusion within an intergenerational political movement, but the overall message feels less substantive than a more openly critical documentary may have been. –Mark Riechers
Look & See: A Portrait Of Wendell Berry
An 82-year-old poet and essayist who eschews modern life might not feel like a direct line to understanding modern U.S. politics, but Laura Dunn effortlessly moves her biography of lyric farmland prophet Wendell Berry from a personal portrait of the writer to an ever-widening view of how industrial agriculture has disrupted American farm life and what implications that holds for the rest of us. The film quickly becomes an essay on how high-level economic shifts can radically reshape life at the lower rungs of the economy, and how failing to recognize that can lead to large-scale destruction of complete ways of life.
The unique challenge in making a documentary about Berry? He refused to appear on camera. He appears in the film through powerful readings of his work, through recorded conversations Dunn plays over images of peaceful strolls through the hiking trails near his home and gorgeous shots of biscuit making, small garden farming and woodworking as examples of the small-scale living we lose in an overly industrial-scale culture. The limitation of never having talking head interviews with Berry ends up becoming the film's greatest asset, forcing Dunn to make the film more visually varied and branch out to family members and farmers from rural communities to balance the lack of a human face on Berry himself, apart from in archival footage.
Look & See features Nick Offerman only momentarily—as the woodworking hands forging a stool beneath the drawl of Berry's musings. But of all the films featuring his work on Wisconsin Film Fest's "Nick Offerman Day," this documentary seemingly animated him the most, with a Q&A where he lovingly praised Berry as his personal Shakespeare. Offerman is largely serving as a cheerleader for the film, spending most of the conversation with To The Best Of Our Knowledge executive producer Steve Paulson (full disclosure: I work on TTBOOK) fawning over Berry's writing on humility, sustainable living and thinking about our connection with the land from which we live as profoundly impactful on him. He insisted that installing it as required reading would make for "a lot less assholes in this world." —MR
Silently Steal Away
The standout documentary short within the Transmissions From The Heartland series, this film spins Justin Vernon's obsession with a mysterious radio broadcast heard every night via an obscure radio station in Chippewa Falls into a full-blown investigation. Andrew Swant plays gumshoe, uncovering why a reel-to-reel recording of unironic Mad Men caricature Jack Raymond plays from a family-operated radio station every night. In digging through old tapes and fan histories, he uncovers why the host has such a cult following despite having died 40 years prior, and where exactly his recorded dispatches were coming from: a tiny apartment in Milwaukee.
Here's hoping the Eaux Claires festival (which financed the film) will just post it online at some point. It's a great bit of obscure oral history that Wisconsinites should commit to memory alongside their Old Fashioned recipe and reverence for American Movie, especially since American Movie subject Mark Borchardt narrates the whole thing. —MR
Drifting Towards The Crescent
A Green Bay native, Laura Stewart told the Sundance audience that her films focus on respecting how people live their lives throughout the Midwest of the United States, even as those ways of life are rapidly changing. And true to that intent, Drifting Towards The Crescent follows the lives of several "river folk" along the Mississippi in towns formerly supported by small-scale riverboat shipping operations now swallowed whole by industrial scale shipping operations that minimize human cost to maximize efficiency and profits. The result are communities full of unemployment with limited avenues for climbing the economic ladder.
Stewart doesn't go much further than pointing out the lack of investment in this part of the country, instead leaning on her subjects to tell the story of where they live. One man points to all the vacant or abandoned buildings along the road. He later decries the empty streets below what he shows off as a formerly thriving whorehouse, once packed with riverboat sailors but now devoid of all but townies. A young, pregnant woman expounds the virtues of the go-go dancing club she works at, a respectful place where women can dance for dollar tips and a $3 cover knowing the owner will maintain an environment where they feel safe despite horny men fighting and hollering in the middle of the bar. She eventually had to take a break from dancing to finish out her pregnancy in the only other job she could find: at Walmart.
The film doesn't lament the lives that these people want to live but cannot, nor does it condemn how they are forced to live by circumstance. Stewart largely just lets the people speak for themselves, giving the film a loose, behind-the-scenes sort of feeling. That gives it a formless, stream-of-consciousness sort of structure that doesn't make that forceful of a point, but certainly makes an aesthetic and emotional impression. —MR
The underlying ideas working within Personal Shopper convey some creativity and thought. Pining for a connection to the hereafter, the spiritualism movement sought to fuse science and technology with psychic connection with the dead in order to prove the existence of a life beyond. Director Olivier Assayas takes the concept one step further—today, if a medium was seeking a means of contacting the dead, rather than being something arcane or old-fashioned like a Ouija board, wouldn't it be something she was intimately familiar with, like a smartphone?
The medium in question tries and fails to get in touch with her dead twin brother repeatedly, only to return frustrated to her day job as a personal shopper and assistant to a supermodel. And that's when Maureen (Kristin Stewart) starts getting alarming text messages from an unknown—perhaps ghostly—source.
The film's central plot device—the strange messages and how Maureen reacts first with paranoid fear and then curious nihilism—makes for some effective and thrilling plotting in the middle of the film. But the long, tedious build-up to that central plot—as well as choppy storytelling as some of the films mysteries escalate and come unfurled—makes for an uneven feeling on the film's resolution. —MR
Ma Vie De Courgette (My Life As A Zucchini)
Roald Dahl was the first author whose entire body of work I made a point of trying to consume, book by book, so seeing his spirit find new life in the form of a Claude Barras' stop-motion film was far and away the most pleasantly surprising highlight of the fest. It was a real treat to see some of the more gruesome facts of life courageously presented to children in a way that maintains a deep vein of compassion and complexity. In the first few minutes of the film, a little boy, Zucchini, has accidentally murdered his alcoholic (but occasionally loving) mother. Zucchini goes to an orphanage where the reasons for the other children's presence, including molestation and a murder suicide, are discussed in frank and unflinching terms. Even the orphanage bully has enough shades of grey in his backstory to give him unexpected dimension. Despite all the heaviness of the main topics that the film explores, it never feels bogged down by the weight of its subject matter. I didn't get a chance to see this in its dubbed version (#subz4lyfe) so I can't speak to Nick Offerman's contribution (also Will Forte, Amy Sedaris, and Ellen Page, among others), but if that Tuesday screening was remotely similar to the one I attended on Thursday, I can't imagine that there was a dry eye in the theater by the time the house lights came up. —CL
I had a lot of fun with this, the first feature from veteran music video director Geremy Jasper, and on top of that the security guards hired by Fox Searchlight to tamp down on piracy were much nicer than last year. Relative newcomer Danielle Macdonald plays Bergen County, New Jersey's own Patti "Dumbo" Dumbrowski, a lower class twenty-something bartender whose rap-game aspirations are only exceeded by her mother's "past due" notices from creditors that are piling up. To call this a gender-flipped 8 Mile is an oversimplification, but it hews pretty close to the same "Hero's Journey" structure, and I'm all but certain that was verbatim how it was pitched to the studio execs. There are no real surprises here whatsoever for anyone who's ever seen a music biopic, and it feels a bit longer than its 108-minute runtime, but Jasper's music-video flourishes and Patti's playfully offensive freestyles turn it into an enjoyable enough ride. Macdonald is great as Patti, but her raspy-voiced grandmother, played by Cathy Moriarty (Vickie La Motta in Raging Bull), steals just about every scene she's in. Bridget Everett (Inside Amy Schumer) is good as Patti's mom, Barb, a hair metal princess whose lead-singer dreams were deferred when Patti was born, but her real talents manifest themselves once she gets in front of a mic. With so many decent performances and rapping that's just blue enough to make your grandma blush, it's hard to really hate this movie, but the general approach to the everything else is just re-heated Get Rich Or Die Trying minus the gun-play. —CL
Now here's a nasty bit of throwback ozploitation from first-time feature filmmaker Damien Power. Jim Healy, the festival's director of programming, introduced this film as one of the best-directed he's seen in quite some time and sure enough, Power wrings every drop of talent from the tidy little cast he's assembled. On New Year's Eve, the film find a loving couple who are heading out to an off-the-beaten path camping site to spend the holiday in each other's arms. When they arrive at the sandy riverside spot there is an otherwise unattended tent already set up and, they assume, ominously awaiting the return of its owners. Then, the film jumps back in time to the day or two before New Year's, to the empty tent's owners. The first half of Killing Ground bounces back and forth between these two timelines, intercutting narrative current featuring the gentlemen who we find have perpetrated whatever it was that made the first family disappear. Once all these threads finally come together, that's when things start to get really gnarly. I expect that this film will possibly get some legs among genre-film lovers, so I won't spoil anything for those who missed out on it. That said, the ending was unexpectedly complex and ultimately quite satisfying. —CL