The second day of the 2009 Wisconsin Film Festival offered promise from the start. Brisk air off the dueling lakes carried with it a chill, but nothing more malevolent than that, meaning opening night slickers were traded for multiple layers and thoughtfully knotted scarves. The toil of the work week now complete, the film-going masses descended upon the various Madison cinematheques like Romans to the Coliseum, ready to be entertained.
In a stroke of genius, despite it being the second day of the festival, the WFF team does not program any films until 5 p.m., meaning nothing starts until quittin' time and people can head to the day's first films right from class or work. More important, it gives an ample cushion of time to any film-going Bacchanalians who perhaps partook in a bout of particularly spirited opening-night revelry.
Either way, with the weekend officially begun, it was impossible to go five steps on State Street without seeing a festival pin affixed to the lapel of a jean jacket or a doddering couple, their faces buried neck deep in a festival program.
"Of Time and the City" -- Making extensive use of archival footage shot between the early 1940s and the late 1960s, director Terence Davies has crafted "Of Time and the City," a love letter to his native Liverpool and an excoriation of what he feels it has become. While at times touchingly nostalgic, the film is hindered by Davies' own off-puttingly verbose narration. While he masterfully juxtaposes images of his childhood cornerstones, namely, "home, school, the movies, and God," Davies is unable to let the images speak for themselves. Instead, he bombastically elocutes over them, quoting the likes of Chekhov, Jung, Marx and Shakespeare in the process.
In all, while the movie suffers from the overwrought narration, it succeeds at times as a biting social commentary on the growing chasm between the upper and lower class in 20th century Britain. In the interest of full disclose, it seemed as though some of the wit and truth of Davies' criticism of his hometown was lost on a foreign audience (this reporter included). It was the equivalent of showing silent home movies of Green Bay for and hour and half to a room full of Liverpudlians. On some level, it felt like we just did not get the jokes ...
"The Last Lullaby" -- Moments before the sold-out Midwestern premier of Jeffrey Goodman's feature-length debut, the director took the stage and eloquently thanked the audience for coming to see what he called, "the biggest labor of love in my life up to this point." Based on a short story by Max Allen Collins, who also penned the screenplay along with Peter Biegen, "The Last Lullaby" tells the story of aging gun for hire, Jack Price (a mesmerizing Tom Sizemore), who is drawn out of retirement by a combination of coincidence and greed. But when his love life and his professional obligations collide, Price finds himself stuck between a loaded gun and a hard place. While seemingly standard neo-noir fare, Goodman's sense of pacing and his omission of generic filmmaking cues (quick cuts, emotionally leading music, etc.) aid in the film's transcendence of the genre.
Alongside Sizemore, the film features a bevy of "Hey, I know that guy!" actors including the impossibly crush-worthy Sprague Grayden ("Sons of Anarchy"), an impossibly creepy Ray McKinnon ("Deadwood" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), and in a welcome departure from his usual Admiral/General roles, Bill Smitrovich ("Iron Man," "Eagle Eye"). Each serves the script and the tone of the movie beautifully while adding to the texture of Goodman's stark verisimilitude.
Needless to say, 105 minutes after the lights went down, they came back up to reveal a stunned and breathless Madison audience, still reeling from a truly excellent film.
In 1998, having first read the original short story, "A Matter of Principal," upon which "The Last Lullaby" is based, director Jeffrey Goodman was dead-set on turning the story into a feature-length film. He made a short film, directly adapting "A Matter of Principal," as a vehicle by which to get the funding for a full length movie. After securing financing via 48 individual investors (47 of which haling from Northern Louisiana where The Last Lullaby was eventually shot), Goodman has since taken the film on a year long tour of the national festival circuit and plans on releasing the film himself in the coming months.
Film Possibly Worth Leaving the House For (in Madison): "Winter of Frozen Dreams" (8:45 p.m. at Monona Terrace) -- A 70's era crime story set in Madison (but filmed in Schenectady, NY) the movie is based on a novel written by the owner of Movin' Shoes on Park Street in Madison, which itself is based on a real homicide case that shocked Wisconsin's capital 30 years ago. Word is it's the hottest ticket in town ... but it might be worth showing up early and hoping for a rush tix miracle.
Film Possibly Worth Driving From Milwaukee For: "Who Is KK Downey?" (10:30 p.m. at the Frederic March Play Circle) -- When a struggling novelist's sordid manuscript is rejected by his publishers, he pulls a quasi-James Frey and opts to bring the main character to life in the form of his beer band buddy and release the book as a memoir. Of course, the thing is a smash and the character of KK Downey goes from the page to a crass, drug-addled, hilarious reality. Perfect for a late Saturday night viewing as a half-time in between bar visits.