After slogging through 2016’s brutal and desolate summer movie desert like Mad Max trying to walk to the nearest Walgreens, it’s about time we film-loving audiences got a little treat. Cue the Milwaukee Film Festival and its unfailingly compelling annual collection of 200-some movie gems of all shapes, sizes, topics, genres and nations crammed into two weeks of cinema-going bliss.
The only unblissful part? Trying to figure out how to cram as many of those 200-some movie gems of all shapes, sizes, topics, genres and nations into your schedule as possible without skipping every daily meal (just most of them).
Typically, it’s a multi-pronged process involving flowcharts, Venn diagrams, used-up highlighters, arrows pointing at other arrows pointing at other arrows, burned calendars, screaming at the gods and moons above for only creating days lasting a mere 24 hours (how do you expect me to work with these limitations, universe?!) and enough emotionally devastating cutthroat decisions to make "Sophie’s Choice" seem like a particularly laid-back episode of "Calliou." And that’s if you’re doing it right.
Rip your hair asunder no more, however, because we are here to help, scrolling through all 15 days of the film festival and picking the must-sees for each one. With no further ado, here’s what to see at the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival.
Opening night’s decisions are easy to make – mainly because there’s only one movie to choose from. This year, it’s "Life, Animated," (Oriental, 7 p.m.) an inspirational documentary about a young autistic boy who learns to communicate with his family and the world around him with the help of Disney movies (though hopefully not "Song of the South"). The film festival always tries to make one of its spotlight presentations specifically about the power of the movies – think "Raiders!" last year, for instance – and "Life, Animated" sounds like it more than fits the bill. Add in the after party across the street, and it should be great way to celebrate your last day of seeing sunlight for the next two weeks.
And now the fun truly begins. There’s plenty of intriguing stuff to start off the first weekend of the festival, from "The Milwaukee Music Video Show" to the spotlight pick "Halfway" – which looks to give talented "The Blind Side" actor Quinton Aaron something to play other than a prop in a white Southern lady’s feel-good story – and an early morning pair of buzzy picks with the Sundance award-winning "Sand Storm" and the vibrant music doc "Miss Sharon Jones!"
Allow me to direct your attention to some global highlights that might slip under your radar – though that’d admittedly be pretty tough in the case of "Tale of Tales," (Fox Bay, 6:45 p.m.) whose publicity photo features Salma Hayek nomming on a dragon heart. Hey, when you’re hungry, you’re hungry. Crazy promo photos aside, the latest from "Gomorrah" director Matteo Garrone – a lavishly dressed trio of dark fantasy tales – brings a level of spectacle you don’t expect to find amongst the usually low-key and low-budget film festival offerings.
Then there’s "Under the Shadow," (Avalon, 9:45 p.m.) a Sundance-approved Iranian horror/thriller that’s nabbed comparisons to the modern indie horror classic "The Babadook." Admittedly, most movies out of Iran tend to be … paced, so don’t expect loud jump scares and big crazy monsters coming every five minutes. But the potential for thought-provoking thrills in the vein of Jennifer Kent’s beloved horror creation is too thrilling in its own right to ignore.
Just one day after dominating opening night, Disney will once again take over the Milwaukee Film Festival spotlight as the inspirational live-action chess drama "Queen of Katwe" – starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o in somehow her first on-screen role since 2014’s "Non-Stop" – hits the big screen. However, "Katwe" will hit most major movie theaters literally the following weekend, so I say skip that for something else you may never get the opportunity to see on the big screen again outside the festival.
Say, for instance, "The Love Witch" (Downer, 10 p.m.) later that night, a gauzy sex-horror melodrama pastiche passionately crafted by writer-director-producer-composer-pretty much everything Anna Biller. The buzz is it’s the kind of impeccably crafted time capsule that demands to be seen on a big screen, where you appreciate the insane thought and detail Biller put into her almost decade-long project.
Earlier in the day, be sure to also check another one-of-a-kind event: the festival’s "State of Cinema" keynote speech (Downer, 1:30 p.m.), delivered by Oscar winner and recently added Milwaukee Film board member John Ridley. One imagines he’ll have a lot to say considering he’s experienced all sides of the industry – critical favorites ("12 Years a Slave," "Three Kings"), box office bombs (this summer’s "Ben-Hur"), indies ("Jimi"), successful blockbusters ("Red Tails") and even television with "American Crime" – all as a rare black voice behind the scenes in Hollywood.
Life, both as one behind a camera lens and as one in front of it, comes into focus on Day 4 of the Milwaukee Film Festival, with a terrific double feature of "Jim: The James Foley Story" (Oriental, 4:30 p.m.) and "Cameraperson" (Downer, 7 p.m.) conveniently lined up.
I saw "Jim" back when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and it was a powerful and emotional experience – even before his family came out at the end of screening to take questions from the crowd. It’s a wonderful tribute to the man and the invaluable profession he gave his life to serve – which is where Kirsten Johnson’s "Cameraperson" comes in, an essay film gathering the footage over her incredible documentary career (the Snowden doc "Citizenfour," the Penn State doc "Happy Valley") to find the truth living in and out of the frame.
For more gripping true-life stories, drop by the Oriental earlier Sunday afternoon for "Beware the Slenderman," (Oriental, 1 p.m.) a documentary about the haunting internet urban legend of the creepy Slenderman – and how it inspired a crime right here in Wisconsin.
"The Milwaukee Show I" will hog much of the hullaboo Monday night – and deservedly so; it’s a great outlet for some of the city’s finest filmmakers and most fascinating stories. Before then, however, I recommend sneaking in a quick Downer-hosted double feature of "Nuts!" (Downer, 3 p.m.) and "The Fits" (Downer, 6 p.m.).
The latter is a one-of-a-kind Sundance coming-of-age story – seemingly an oxymoron, but not in this case – about a young girl who flirts between her passion for boxing and interest in the school’s dance team. Its dreamy and hypnotic approach to the tale won over audiences and critics alike back in January. And then there’s "Nuts!" which is about exactly what it sounds: nuts. And not pecans. Gonads – goat gonads in particular and the one nut, old timey "doctor" J.R. Brinkley, who turned them and their supposed curative abilities into a life of fortune and fame.
The highlights of Day 6 discuss some past crimes with some very present questions. First, there’s "The Last Laugh" (Avalon, 4 p.m.), a documentary about the Holocaust – and if it can ever be funny. Comedians, from Mel Brooks to Sarah Silverman and more, and survivors debate the question of whether one of history’s greatest atrocities is off-limits from laughter – or if perhaps that laughter is the greatest weapon against atrocity and those who commit them.
Then, after that emotionally bipolar experience – fun laughs and soul-purging despair for humanity, all in the same movie! – scamper over to see "All the President’s Men" (Oriental, 6:30 p.m.). Any time you can catch a classic film back on the big screen is not an opportunity to be missed (and this year’s festival has plenty of those), but 2016 would seem to be an optimal year to reacquaint ourselves with a story about holding politicians accountable, speaking truth to power and the essential value of true journalism in action. Can't imagine why.
There are 282 movies at the Milwaukee Film Festival. We know what 281 of them are ... and then there's the Super Secret Members’ Screening, which shows at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. at the Oriental. All I know about it is that, according to the Milwaukee Film Festival program book, it’s 123 minutes long (OR IS IT?!). Other than that suspicious and generally vague clue, however, that’s all I got. Maybe it’s the Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone musical throwback "La La Land" that big city critics have been raving about (pretty please!). Maybe it’s a special 35mm print of "Piranha 3D" (PRETTY PRETTY PLEASE!). I have no clue; I just know it’ll likely be worth the risk.
After getting your mind blown by whatever the secret screening is ($50 on it being "Boo! A Madea Halloween"), feel free to get whatever’s left of your brain exploded by seeing "Men & Chicken," (Fox Bay, 9:30 p.m.) featuring the great, deathly stern Mads Mikkelsen being … goofy? You’ve seen him cry blood and bludgeon Bond’s balls in "Casino Royale." You’ve seen him cook the most lavish cannibal cuisine in NBC’s dearly departed "Hannibal." Now watch him do slapstick in a pitch black Danish comedy about deranged brothers looking for their real parents. I hear rumors that a chicken may also be involved.
Music docs will take the main stage Thursday night with the double feature of "Miss Sharon Jones!" and the Madison-based "The Smart Studios Story" hitting the Oriental’s prime hours. I, however, recommend getting to the Oriental earlier in the afternoon for "Right Now, Wrong Then" (Oriental, 1:30 p.m.), a South Korean rom-com about a filmmaker and painter who meet up and have a great night … until we rewind the movie and watch the meet-cute happen again with some new twists. Often times, comedy has a hard time crossing cultures, with the laughs lost in translation, but the "Groundhog’s Day"-esque premise of "Right Now, Wrong Then" is too intriguing to turn down.
Then wash that down with Film Feast selection "Ants on a Shrimp," (Downer, 4 p.m.), which may not sound appetizing. The actual premise, however – following famed chef Rene Redzepi as he creates a new experimental menu for a Japanese pop-up shop – sounds like an ideal mid-festival palate cleanser.
Milwaukee Film’s cinematic agents travel festivals the country and the globe over to bring the best movie produce as possible to our humble Lake Michigan shores. One of their major stops, however, is the Sundance Film Festival, which is where my Day 9 picks come from. First, there’s "Sonita" (Oriental, 4 p.m.), a documentary about an Rihanna-loving Afghan immigrant in Tehran dreaming of a life of rap fame despite her family attempting to sell her into marriage. The Sound Vision selection was a craze in Park City, winning both the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema – Documentary, as well as the Audience Award in the same category. Resumes don’t get much better than that for Milwaukee Film Festival picks.
Speaking of Sundance award winners, however, there’s "Sand Storm" (Fox Bay, 6:30 p.m.), which will have its last festival screening Friday night. Winning the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema, the debut film from Elite Zexer also tells a tale of women fighting oppression with a Bedouin mother and daughter fighting against their society’s restrictions. Fans of last year’s Oscar nominee "Mustang" should check it out … what; you haven’t seen "Mustang"? Congratulations, it’s on Netflix Instant right now; you now have homework before the festival begins.
The Milwaukee Film Festival is always an embarrassment of riches, but Day 10 in particular is a swimming pool of gold just waiting for you to Scrooge McDuck right into it all. You can start earlier with a tough decision between two local docs: the mass incarceration doc "Milwaukee 53206" (Oriental, noon) and Brad Lichtenstein’s "There Are Jews Here" (Downer, 1:30 p.m.) about America’s Jewish communities trying to hold onto their traditions.
But one "Sophie’s Choice" would not be enough for today, so during the afternoon, you’ll also have to decide between seeing the classic "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (Oriental, 3:30 p.m.) on the big screen or seeing the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali, on the big screen in the great boxing doc "When We Were Kings" (Downer, 4:30 p.m.).
And you thought you were done with tough choices!? HA! The film festival fates laugh at you, as you must decide between the centerpiece selection, the soldiers-on-the-road documentary "Almost Sunrise" (Oriental, 7 p.m.), or seeing the "Her"-esque techno-romantic drama "Operator" (Avalon, 7 p.m.) complete with stars Martin Starr ("Freaks and Geeks," "Silicon Valley") and Mae Whitman ("Independence Day," "Arrested Development").
At least, after all of that, you can dance away your stressful selection process by stopping by the traditional MFF dance party showing of "Stop Making Sense" (Oriental, 10 p.m.) … unless you still haven’t seen "Miss Sharon Jones!" (Avalon, 9:45 p.m.) which will have its final showing of the fest at the exact same time. GAH! WHY HAVE YOU DONE THIS TO US, MILWAUKEE FILM!?
You chose "Operator" over "Almost Sunrise" last night, you say? Well, no need to sob yourself to sleep and wake up to a wet pillow, as Milwaukee Film will have an encore showing of its centerpiece selection at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Then grab the kids – or at least your inner child – and head over to the Oriental where "Beauty and the Beast" (Oriental, 2 p.m.) will get splashed on the big screen yet again – and just in time for the new live-action version coming out next year (with Dan Stevens miscast as The Beast instead of Gaston, BUT WHATEVER; NOT BITTER AT ALL). Then, late at night, drop the kids off as far away as possible from the Oriental because the raunchy comedy sequel "Klown Forever" (Oriental, 11 p.m.) will take the screen. And best of all, this Sunday is the Packers bye week, so you won’t have a missed game on your fandom’s conscience.
Start the day off with an impromptu lesson in movie history with "Women He’s Undressed," (Avalon, 1 p.m.) a documentary about prolific Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly, who outfitted the casts for more than 300 films (pfht, slacker). It should be a fascinating look into a part of moviemaking we rarely talk about save for when costuming’s one award comes up at the Oscars.
Speaking of movie history, you can continue your film education later in the day with "Metropolis" (Oriental, 7 p.m.) complete with the Alloy Orchestra providing the live score. No, this isn’t the first time Milwaukee Film’s brought in this film with a live orchestra to complement it, but even if you’ve seen it before, it’s a live experience unlike any other – and Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece is still a wonder to behold.
If you’re looking for a different kind of silent movie experience, however, pop over to the Downer for "In Pursuit of Silence," (Downer, 7 p.m.), which is exactly what it sounds like: a search across the globe for silence in a world packed with loud commotion. Patrick Shen’s doc promises to be an utterly unique sensory experience – unless somebody in the crowd is particularly loud at munching down popcorn.
In case you didn’t get enough of the silent treatment on Day 12, there’s the competition pick "Ma" (Oriental, 9:45 p.m.), a modern retelling of Mother Mary’s pilgrimage – save through the American Southwest and without any dialogue to help tell the story. The Milwaukee Film Festival is typically only able to schedule so many formally challenging projects into its lineup for the sake of not alienating its core audience, so savor the chance to see an oddball like "Ma" and expand your definition of film.
David Lynch is easily one of our most divisive directors. Some people love his surreal and hypnotic subliminal nightmare work; others are just confused by it all. But we should all be able to agree that "Blue Velvet" (Oriental, 9:45 p.m.) is pretty much a masterpiece, so the opportunity to see Lynch’s disturbed thriller on the big screen again is not an opportunity to be missed. Grab yourself a Pabst Blue Ribbon – pardon me; I mean, "Pabst! Blue! Ribbon!" – from the Oriental vending stand, and enjoy a trip into David Lynch’s unique brain.
While we’re on the topic of unique artistic brains, how about checking out "A Space Program" (Downer, 4 p.m.) earlier in the day, a documentary about artist Tom Sachs and his trip to Mars (via art installation, of course). It’s a completely different way to look at a completely different work of art – and is that not what the Milwaukee Film Festival is here to provide? That, and an excuse for increased popcorn and Buncha Crunch consumption?
Is there a more fitting way to begin the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival’s final day than with "Obit," (Oriental, 1 p.m.)? Beyond just mere clever timing, however, the documentary about the New York Times obituary team, scrambling daily to write up the final say on a person’s life, sounds like the perfect pick for anybody with an interest in writing. Or death, I guess.
Then, no further ado, the Milwaukee Film Festival will wrap things up with "Morris From America," (Oriental, 7 p.m.) its closing night film starring Craig Robinson ("The Office," "This Is The End") as a single father trying to help his son grow up while they start a new life in Germany. The movie charmed the hell out of Sundance when it premiered this winter, scoring two wins, one for Robinson and one for up-and-coming writer/director Chad Hartigan. And, as a bonus, it features actress Carla Juri, who some of the more daring film festival regulars might recognize from last year’s "Wetlands." One imagines her part in "Morris From America" will have fewer hemorrhoid references.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.