From the transcendent to the "sick, sick, sick!" | By Chris Lay and Grant Phipps
We're at about the halfway point of the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival, so we wanted to take a quick moment to run through some of the films we saw over the weekend and some of the other fun stuff we heard and saw. There's still a ton of great stuff in store, most notably the quadruple feature of new Nick Offerman offerings which take over Union South's Marquee Theater Tuesday afternoon, but the weekdays in the wake of that opening deluge always feel like a homestretch heading towards closing night. Drink it in while you can, folks, because once the house lights come up Thursday evening on The Lost City Of Z and Patti Cake$, it'll be another year until we do this again.
Golden Exits: With Golden Exits, Alex Ross Perry dramatically builds upon his inquiry of contemporary New York living, which was last on full display in the trenchant writer's saga Listen Up Philip (2014), and glimpsed in the claustrophobic identity dissociation of Queen Of Earth (2015). His rigorous, conversational, confrontational scripts possess a certain unmistakable artifice in the thorny obstacle course of human desire, loyalties, and mores, yet they are driven by a cerebral candor in revealing the reality of the traps the most intuitive people set for themselves. But Perry also finds a cold, deadpan comedy in the tradition of Woody Allen's always-New York specific mid-era dramas (think Hannah And Her Sisters). This seems to logically follow Richard Brody hailing the film as a "Brooklyn Bergman" in The New Yorker; a confessed admirer of Ingmar Bergman, he overtly borrows from the great Swedish director's oeuvre of chamber dramas beginning in the late 1970s (with Interiors).
Perry forges ahead with regard for all his idols in this torturous spring chronicle. Golden Exits is driven more by inescapable internal conflicts rather than any sort of surface-level plot. The story centers around the punctilious middle-aged Nick (Adam Horovitz, aka Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys), who employs the ambitious 25-year-old native Australian Naomi (Emily Browning) to help archive his late father Timothy's personal relics. Numerous frayed relationships spiral out from here involving Nick's suspicious psychologist wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), her bitter sister Gwen (Mary-Louise Parker), and Naomi's tenuous past connection with amateur recording engineer Buddy (Jason Schwartzmann). In all their egocentric affairs, Perry exhibits an unmistakable predilection for the camera fade-out as a metaphor for the fading passions and the carefully curated delusions waning into the harshest of self-realizations. The dynamic between the men and women in the film is, admittedly, toxically tense, but also persistently fascinating and elusive.
Composer Keegan DeWitt also lends the film an untouchable melancholy that meanders through the brownstone housing of the most lived-in NYC borough. If Queen Of Earth showcased the eerie murmuring of woodwinds, strings, dark ambient pulses, choral flourishes, and his own instrument, the wrenchenspiel, the music for Golden Exits is more subdued by comparison but equally nuanced and suited for headphone listening. Based on a few varied responses from the Marquee audience, the score functions as a floating delicacy, both omnipresent and invisible to the crescendo of acerbic banter. DeWitt forgoes the psychological nightmares associated with the electronics and devotes his entire craft to a standard orchestra configuration, in tenderly scaling piano melodies, tremulous woodwinds, droning strings, which, curiously enough, occasionally recall the swelling accompaniment to Scott Walker's moody "Farmer In The City." Its tones feed Golden Exits' philosophy that's more often laid bare by its characters in their desperate attempts at connection and misdirected idealism. In the final act, Naomi reveals how vulnerable she is to infatuation through the act of traveling, and the same could be said about the immersion that profound cinema permits. The title of the film may promise an illuminating physical departure from familiar territories, but it can be taken as a sort of grand irony to the ensembles' seeming immobility. Sure, American audiences aren't transported anywhere even remotely unknown in Golden Exits, but they should recognize the film's acuity in conjuring the treachery of our social and emotional landscapes. —Grant Phipps
A Decent Woman: ...or, Alejandro Jodorowsky's Troop Beverly Hills. Lukas Valenta Rinner's film tails Belen, an uptight woman who's just landed a gig as the maid in an upper-middle-class Buenos Aires gated community. The neighbors, found on the other side of an ominously electrified fence, are a motley bunch of hippie hedonists whose lifestyle calls to Belen. Before long she's spending all her free time cavorting with her new friends and embracing her newfound primal inclinations. The portrayal of life on the other side of the fence is non-judgemental and it was refreshing to see such a wide array of shapes, sizes, and ages presented in a way that was matter of fact and never used as a punchline. Throughout the film, there's a subtle but steady buildup of classist tension that finds release in a way that is, without giving anything away, literally shocking. I thought it was great, and would encourage anyone interested to avoid spoilers at all costs, but a group of older women I talked to afterwards described it as "Sick, sick, SICK!" Senior festival programmer Mike King introduced the film with a hearty "Alright, so this is the NUDIST crowd..." before musing that it may induce some audience members to strip down by the end. No clue if that happened at the other screening, but everyone was still clothed where I was when the house lights came up. —Chris Lay
Contemporary Color: In the opening minutes of Turner and Bill Ross IV's concert film Contemporary Color, the formally dressed Barclays Center backstage host Mike Hartsock speaks in front of television cameras about audiences being able to witness a spectacle typically relegated to the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Hartsock's showmanship and comments act as a kind of catalyst to the Rosses' unconventional intervention in the impending 10 collaborations between high school color guards (synchronized floor gymnastic routines with translucent flags and prop rifles) and musicians Lucius, St. Vincent, Zola Jesus, and Tune-Yards. The event is overseen by the boyish, euphoric spirit of Talking Heads' David Byrne, who has assembled hundreds of performers of all ages for an evening of grand entertainment. If '70s and '80s glam scenes allied with marching bands, this would be their gig—a vivacious, rhythmic, orchestral celebration of not just music and movement but of character and identity.
Contemporary Color serves, of course, as a document of the event performed in June 2015 in New York City, but the Rosses know that simply alternating between mounted and dollied cameras at extreme long shot and close-up during the show won't provide enough insight into what drives the performers. In applying everything from classic music video aesthetic to more surreal devices of art cinema that blur time and place, the Rosses convincingly delve into the psychology and faithful preparation behind each routine. This aspect of this film is so well-realized that it's as if the directors are actively utilizing the performers as inspiration for their own devices. The all-encompassing eyes and ears move backstage in shots that recall Prince's Purple Rain (1984), revealing communal pre-performance jitters and elation alike as the camera pushes through the corridors into dressing rooms. Outside, in the main arena, giant screens roll American Idol-type footage of the teams' histories, bonding experiences, and even some comic relief bits on the street in Dayton, Ohio, which test public perception and awareness of the color guard.
As the main event continues, the Rosses capture seemingly impossible moments of heart-warming sincerity. Halfway through the show, a few of the performers in Alter Ego (from Trumbull, Connecticut) climb up above the stage to get a unique glimpse at vocalist Devonté Hynes (aka Blood Orange) and fellow color guard team Black Watch as they ease into the huge sound dynamics of "What We Leave Behind." Through these transitions, the film exposes how meaningful art is in spiritual unity. The performers aren't just present for their moments in the dizzying rainbow limelight, but they all possess a true interest in seeing everyone else shine, too. If the heavily immersive experience stumbles in any way, it's perhaps in the reaction shots of audience members commenting on various aspects of the production—an attempt at comic relief, which the Rosses further emphasize through gaudy subtitles. However, it's a minor facet of the approach, one of insatiable curiosity that mirrors David Byrne's in each sweeping, welcoming gesture. If you need any proof, wait for that triumphant horn section and marching beat that sends (Wisconsin's own) Zola Jesus thrashing about during the conclusion of her rousing number, "Wait for Me," with the Brigadiers hailing from Syracuse, New York. —GP
Abacus: Small Enough To Jail: Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, one of the most unanimously acclaimed documentaries of all time, managed to take an impossibly dry, albeit important, story from the fringes of America's recent financial crisis and turn it into a compelling profile of the family at the eye of the storm. New York's Abacus Federal Savings Bank, founded in the 1980s by a group of Chinese Americans, was the only bank to face federal criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 mortgage crisis. Not nearly as entertaining or as broadly informative as The Big Short, Abacus still manages to pack a punch by keying in on the insidious racism at the core of Abacus' case. I might be taking the wrong message away from the film by admitting this, but someone needs to give the daughters their own reality show, stat. —CL
Wet Woman In The Wind: I kept getting Jim Jarmusch vibes from this oversexxxed throwback to Japan's bygone "pink" cinema. Kosuke is a playwright who lives in a shack on a mountain and has taken up self-imposed celibacy, until his life is turned upside down by Shiori, an aggressively promiscuous young woman who brings chaos and confusion. Despite the no-wave approach to style, the film's humor, which was macho bordering on misogyny, was a shade too toxic (and tedious) for my taste. Your mileage may vary, though. By total random chance, I ended up sitting next to Natalie Kingsfield, one of the infamous talking heads from last year's unexpectedly controversial hate-mail inducing trailer. —CL
Sylvio: Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney's Sylvio turns a Vine sensation into a functional-enough assemblage of twee slapstick gags that pop independently of one another, as you'd expect from a character who got his start in six-second-bursts. But if you take a step or two back, the film becomes a bit of a disjointed mess. Sylvio is a gorilla who works at a debt collection agency until he stumbles onto fame, but very little fortune, as a recurring guest on a talk show that is broadcast from a basement. This feels like a real missed opportunity to do embrace the possibilities that a feature length format would have afforded the character, but this adaptation plays it relatively safe. I would love to have gotten a review of the film from the two tweens who were in attendance, because while Sylvio is colorful and goofy, it wasn't exactly what you'd call kids' stuff. —CL
The Rehearsal: Another film, like A Decent Woman before it, with a surprise ending that is impossible to foresee. Based on Eleanor Catton's debut novel, Alison Maclean's film follows a group of young adults through their first year in a high intensity theater program and the complicated and painful ways in which real life can inform art. There's so much to like about the film, but what amazed me most was how well Maclean captured what it feels like to "put on a show" that with conceptual weight and purpose. That ending, though, which shall remain unspoiled, felt like a colossal cop-out and made me want to read the book if only to see if it's equally unsatisfying. —CL
The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki: It seems a bit lazy to summarize this as "Finnish Rocky," but that's more or less exactly what it is. Rooted in a real-life boxing match that happened in 1962, Juho Kuosmanen's drama is less a document of that event and more about Olli Mäki's inability to prioritize his training above his budding relationship with his new girlfriend Raija. Filmed in grainy black and white, the film was the most formally energetic things I saw all weekend, with the camera creating a dynamic balance of claustrophobia and comfort. As a boxing movie, this may have been a letdown, but the romance between Olli and Raija is the real... knockout (sorry). Somehow the amazing posters for this film escaped our roundup of WFF poster art? For shame! —CL
Max & Leon: The Barrymore crowd, myself included, ate up Jonathan Barré's farcical WWII epic up on Sunday afternoon. Two besotted French layabouts, played by Grégoire Ludig and David Marsais (who also wrote the film), are conscripted into the service once the war reaches their borders, but their boundless cowardice bounces them from one outlandish scenario to another on both sides of the Axis-Allies divide. At the risk of being a wet blanket about this legitimately funny movie, I couldn't help but worry that this East Side crowd was being fed some sort of coded anti-Semitism dressed up in a Trojan horse of broad comedy. I can't be certain, but the moment yellow stars and a Charlie Hebdo-style Jewish caricature were used as throwaway punchlines, the laughter didn't seem nearly as unanimous as it had earlier. —CL