Our Wisconsin Film Festival 2016 notebook
This year's fest brought Tone Madison writers a messed-up tickling documentary, challenging thrillers, and one walkout. | By Chris Lay, Michael Penn II
Tone Madison contributors Chris Lay and Michael Penn II spent some time at this year's Wisconsin Film Festival and filed these short reviews of what they saw.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party
When you’re around folks of God, you may face a reminder of how everything you do in the dark will one day come to the light. Put that concept in a pool party for a 17th birthday party, and you get the tale of young Henry Gamble: a preacher’s son staring his sexual awakening in the face in a really nice backyard. Given my appreciation for the “suburban white kids with problems” subgenre of coming-of-age flicks, Stephen Cone’s 2015 feature Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party was one of my most anticipated titles of the festival, but I must confess that I left rather underwhelmed, with no new revelations or noteworthy adolescent takeaways to run home with.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party has the usual suspects you’d see gathered around a milestone like this: the disgruntled parents with a fragile relationship, the elders upset over skimpy clothing, the sister who just came back from college, the token black neighbor, the outsider friends who know Henry’s gay, the best friend focused on the girls around him, and the one guy where everyone wonders who invited him. Cole Doman’s performance as a reserved, curious Henry would’ve been a show-stealer had the plot taken its time to fully develop his arc; it’s as if Cone abandons his journey for all the other subplots—his sister, what happened that one time at camp, why the marriage is rocky—then remembers how it needs to wrap up the sexual awakening bit in the last 10 minutes to give audiences the satisfying payoff of Henry accepting himself and taking a first step.
These tropes blend together to illustrate the grander themes of how religion can bring a preventable toxicity to interpersonal relationships—be it around race, sexual orientation, body image, or mental health. But by the time we reach the halfway mark, the predictability of the whole affair settles in and the morals of the story are as thick in the air as the chlorine-dipped dogma we hear through the characters. The film can serve as a progressive first-step in dialoguing around sexual identity in religious communities, but the structure doesn’t build anything compelling enough for Henry’s story to transcend the backyard. —Michael Penn II
Tickled is a disturbing example of how something simple and playfully innocent—in this case, tickling—can be subverted into a truly nefarious thing in the wrong hands. The documentary’s premise is simple enough: a journalist (David Farrier) attempts to trace the origins of a goofy internet video of “competitive tickling,” but his search goes off the rails when the apparent source of the video aggressively tries to shut him down through legal channels. What Farrier has stumbled onto is dozens, if not hundreds, of young men who were recruited to participate in these tickling videos, and if any of them ever decide to step away from filming, the videos are published online along with the subjects’ personal information, in a supremely fucked-up power move.
Farrier does an excellent job of documenting the course by which he ends up connecting all the dots, applying a great amount of legitimate reportage to eventually, and underwhelmingly, confront the guy who’s at the top of this twisted scheme. What starts off as a potential clickbait throwaway blog post scales wildly to unexpectedly touch on internet bullying, frivolous lawsuits, and 1-percent silver-spoon privilege in America.
The frustrating thing is the sheer number of questions left unanswered when the credits roll. Farrier opens up a massive can of worms and there’s only so much he can cover in a narrative documentary format. With any luck, someone will take up the threads this film leaves and do some in-depth print reporting, since it seems like we’re somehow left looking at the opening of the rabbit hole. —Chris Lay
I Promise You Anarchy
Two queer men fighting over their romance while free roaming through Mexico City for people to sell their blood to the black market? I was in from the jump. Mexican director Julio Hernández Cordón’s 2015 film I Promise You Anarchy is nearly impossible to box into a single genre; it tries its hand at so many elements, so effectively, and draws you into protagonists Miguel (Diego Hernandez) and Johnny’s (Eduardo Martinez) twisted little whirlwind with no promises of calling you in the morning or leaving everything you came with.
This is a skate movie, a love story, and an underground crime thriller stuffed into a Thrasher hoodie. María Secco’s dark cinematography gives off a near post-apocalyptic vibe, best described by the poem in the skate-shop scene. Everyone is looking for the next dollar, no one is safe from the dangers of the world, but everyone is together nonetheless. Miguel and Johnny don’t have a real objective past scoring more blood, getting the next high, and repeating. This formula gets them tangled deep into the blood trade in ways they never imagined.
I Promise You Anarchy isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a thrill ride to watch Hernandez and Martinez push their decks through the world as they sift through their own bullshit (or don’t.) Shvasti Calderon plays the intriguing Aldi, but it’s extremely disappointing that we never get a full characterization of her or her role in the love triangle that drives a wedge in Miguel and Johnny’s relationship. She gets her clothes stolen out of jealousy and ends up in bed between the two, but not much else comes of her story, even in dialogue form.
The disjointedness of the film’s narrative may be off-putting for some, as the most pivotal points happen almost spontaneously with little to no resolution. But this film wouldn’t be the passionate, bleeding art piece it is if it stuck to conventional anything. Hell, most of the cast was found on Facebook. These characters could be the neighbors you grew up with, which is why you’ll be set up to have your heart broken multiple times if you stick with it the whole way. —MPII
Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You
I hate the idea of getting older. It’s not just that I am utterly unaware of the ways my body will slowly turn against me and begin to shut down, but it’s that I worry that I will leave no unique legacy. This is why I have such profound admiration for people like Norman Lear. Lear, who will turn 94 later this year, has one of the most untouchable resumes in the history of television. Not only did he create legendary sitcoms All In The Family, Sanford And Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude, but he consciously used them as cudgels to reshape how American society sees itself. His shows gleefully brought topics like feminism, race relations, and abortion into everyone’s living room night in and night out, and managed to make them all relatable and, most difficult of all, funny.
The personal stamp he put on broadcast television is nothing short of monolithic, but on top of that he spent the eighties passionately championing progressive notions by founding People for the American Way, which raged against the conservative Moral Majority machine.
Any one chapter in Lear’s career could likely be exploded out to a feature-length documentary, but Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You jumps right into the deep end, trying to tell it all in one sitting. Ewing and Grady end up relying on a number of interesting ways to shake up the telling of Lear’s story, from the usual things like talking head interviews and archival footage, to some more off the beaten path methods like abstracted reenactments on a soundstage and footage of interview subjects reacting to jokes from Lear’s sitcoms. They throw a lot against the wall and a lot of it works, but none of their approaches are applied with any consistency, resulting in a somewhat lumpy final product. That said, it’s still a huge cut above so many other documentaries that take the full-career-gulp approach. —CL
We meet the protagonist of thriller 600 Miles, Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer), as he hops between gun stores with a shopping list and a white man, who he doesn’t describe as his friend. Turns out, he’s moving guns between the border as a young buck for an unnamed Mexican cartel. Soon into the film, the white man evades capture and Arnulfo is left to take ATF Agent Hank Harris (Tim Roth) back to his bosses before he’s captured and the whole operation’s left in ruins.
Even though this is a slow-burn film with no score, and whose latter half consists of a car trip, Roth and Ferrer’s relationship carries every tense moment in knockout fashion. Director Gabriel Ripstein decided to make us feel every mile and every second of silence, in what feels like a direct protest of the normalized flashbang shoot-’em-up approach of cartel trade movies we’ve grown used to in the States. Arnulfo and Harris never seem to be enemies, but humans facing the consequences of playing their sides.
Violence motivates every player to do his job effectively, but it’s never the focal point here. We see plenty of guns that never get fired, so the audience is rendered terrified when we do witness a shootout or two. And these moments aren’t glorified or exciting or scored with a glazed sense of triumph—instead, the blood and urgency are intensified by silence. The most painful moments come from the subtleties of hearing Arnulfo crying when he runs to his uncle for help, or a strange car pulling up in a driveway.
Ripstein crafted 600 Miles as a challenging, rewarding exercise of the American psyche that gradually leads you into discomfort by dispensing with conventional elements—even music, except for the radio or a television—and showcasing a realistic portrayal of an ongoing war without sacrificing art and skill for common extremities. It’s a testament to getting the story right, and a lesson that would serve many Stateside directors well. —MPII
Up until Steve Oram's Aaaaaaaah!, I had never walked out of a film. I try and have faith that filmmakers know what they’re doing and in the first few scenes can bait some hooks to pull you along through any misgivings you might have and eventually validate the time you've spent watching. But at Aaaaaaaah!, a film that is set in the present day but whose characters are all inexplicably grunting primates with regressed animalistic social skills, I felt in the first 20 minutes or so that I had the film pegged and came to the conclusion that I wasn’t interested in what it was selling.
All that I knew about Aaaaaaaah! going in was that it was billed as being this over-the-top thing, but the imagery was just clearly trying so hard to offend that it was hard to take seriously enough to register disgust. I felt bad for everyone involved with it, especially Mighty Boosh alums Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding, who from what I saw were deeply misused. Anyway, it’s probably disingenuous to continue slagging on a film I only watched for maybe 25 minutes, so I’ll leave that there and if I missed out some deeper meaning or a twist or whatever that happens later in the film which makes it all worthwhile, please let me know. I legitimately wanted to like this going into it. —CL
When I saw SK1 with my friend Martín, he described it as a “really good episode of French Law & Order.” Now that I’ve quoted him—in an effort to nudge him into striving for his film critic dream—I’m inclined to agree with him for the most part. This film unfolds across two timelines of the 36 crime unit chasing and capturing Guy Georges for his serial murders throughout the 1990s in Paris. The film moves in a sleek and engrossing fashion that kept me glued to the horrors unfolding, even though director Frédéric Tellier and co-writer David Oelhoffen indulge in just about every standard crime-story trope: A young investigator slowly descends into madness as he obsesses over unsolved cases? Check. Bullshit internal politics that get in the way of potential progress? Check. Multiple wrong leads? Absolutely.
It’s not hard to tell the facts from the embellishments, Tellier summons an engrossing dread engrosses that saves SK1 from being another run-of-the-mill crime opera. Hopping across a decade, from crime scene to crime scene, is sure to drain the viewer as much as it drains the characters on screen. We never see the violence take place, but have to endure the grisly aftermath as the death toll rises. It’s an exercise in convention, for sure, but not one I’m opposed to taking, based on Tellier’s style and the strength of the performances.
One outstanding note that would’ve made the plot even more interesting: a further analysis of the panic behind whom the killer might be. Given the early composite sketches that depicted a white male as the killer—before we meet Guy Georges the first time—we get small insights into French fear of North African immigrants as well as the 1995 Paris Metro attacks. For the killer to be a Black man, the angle of how racial tension impacted the case, involving all white women described as beautiful, is quite the lost opportunity. —MPII