20160414_190021Discuss: Wisconsin Film Festival

Jimbo’s Festival Journal, Day One

James Kreul took notes and sent tweets throughout the first full day of the Wisconsin Film Festival.

Note: In an attempt to maintain the diary-like quality of these entries, I’m not going to flesh out film discussions with plot descriptions or cast and crew lists. I wrote 90% in my theater seats waiting for movies to begin. I won’t post one of these for each day of the Festival, but I’ll keep taking notes for similar posts this week.

First in line for The Fits at about 11:30. Talked to volunteer who has been attending the Festival since 2006, and has been a volunteer for the past few years. She would have volunteered earlier but she kept asking too late when the Festival already had enough people. She planned ahead one year and looked into it in November. Her lanyard was covered with buttons from Festivals past.

Second in line was a woman in a vivid red Wisconsin sweatshirt. She was waiting for her husband. They live in Middleton, and she loves having the Festival at Sundance because it makes it much easier for them to see films. They try to pace themselves at two a day at their best. Last year they saw ten overall. She forgot about the Wisconsin band concert tonight, which will cut into their movie time today.

The ticket taker scanned my ticket barcode with the new app. “It works,” he declared with relief.

With about 10 minutes to go before The Fits, a woman started talking loudly on her cellphone behind me. I didn’t turn around, I just kept typing this. No need to interview her, everyone could hear everything. She told her friend that there was barely anyone in the theater. She was right, I counted about 15, with some stragglers coming in later.

She loved Hunt for the Wilderpeople the previous night. She told her friend that she would like it, too.

Notes on The Fits: Great lead performance by young Royalty Hightower. Very interesting camera work: hovering, arcing, and crawling forward. The film often felt like a horror film even before the start of mysterious seizures suffered by the African-American girls. The seizures stand in for many things: changes in body, social pressure. They also function like grace-through-violence in a Flannery O’Connor short story.

Quick transition for Sparrows. The line started moving as soon as I got out of The Fits, so I knew a good seat was unlikely. Ended up not that bad: middle of third row, just on the border of too close.

Interesting to listen to people who feel entitled to the stadium seating, knowing full well that not everyone can sit there during a sold out event.


Needed to hustle out of Sparrows to get to a quiet area to call The Real Jaguar on his WORT show, “Who Cooks for You?” It was merely a matter of figuring out how bleak the Sparrows ending was going to be and how quickly I would bolt after it went black.

The last shot started out feeling like a last shot, and when the music kicked in I knew we were close. When it cut to black, I was ready to go, but no one in my row was, and the lights took a while to come up. I decided had to make a move to beat the stream of humanity coming down the stadium seating chairs.

Found a corner of a table in the Overflow Bar area to set up camp. Made some quick notes in anticipation of questions, and called the WORT studios. We had kicked around the idea of doing the call near a line of moviegoers, and do some impromptu in-line interviews. But it was soon apparent that the idea wouldn’t work, so I tried to prepare myself for any and all questions.

The interview went by in a flash, and I’m pretty sure I made some schedule errors, but The Real Jaguar was pleased and it should be fun to listen to on the WORT archives.

Didn’t have much time to make notes on Age of Cannibals, before or after. I liked it more as I thought about it later. If the three leads weren’t so interesting to look at, especially in close-ups, the film might not have worked as well. There needs to be a moratorium on shock-cut-to-black endings, however.

Should have been thinking more strategically when I decided that my attempt to drive between Sundance and Barrymore would be at rush hour. Sean Weitner and I determined via Google Maps that it should be a 17 minute drive. Thanks to one lane-blocking accident and general traffic on eastbound University Avenue / Campus Drive, my journey was closer to 35 minutes.

Coincidentally, around that time Sean posted my favorite #wifilmfest tweet of the day.

Made it in time to get rush ticket for Morris in America. I liked it quite a bit, but I don’t think it is as strong as This is Martin Bonner. Some of its broad comedy moments try a little too hard. But the film is still very strong, and its a genuine crowd pleaser. The lead performance by Markees Christmas hits a wide range of notes. Craig Robinson also shows his range, especially when Curtis has to turn Morris’s misbehavior into teachable moments.

Four of the six films I’ve seen since Thursday night feature young protagonists, three male, one female. In Wilderpeople and Morris humor dominates the more serious moments. Sparrows, while beautifully shot and acted, has a much more narrow range of emotional tones; it’s a major downer, including a needlessly exploitive turn near the end.

There were stretches in Sparrows where I felt the coming-of-age plot conventions being strung together. While Wilderpeople and Morris also depend on some broad conventions and tropes (Katrin in Morris is disappointingly close to a ‘manic pixie dream girl”) both films feel far more fresh and alive than Sparrows. Perhaps that freshness has to do with the screen charisma of the young male leads. Julian Dennison in Wilderpeople and Markees Christmas in Morris each have a far more interesting screen pressence than Atli Oskar Fjalarsson in Sparrows.

But The Fits trumps all three; it is far more imaginative and honest in its attempt to capture the emotional experience of a young person.

Last film of my 5-film day: Tickled. Going to have to think that one over a bit. I don’t like some of the documentary ethics and gotcha tactics on display, but I do admire the project overall. While not as sparse as the attendance for the The Fits, the attendance for Tickled was not as strong as I anticipated for a Friday night show.

Published by James Kreul

James Kreul has advocated for alternative screenings of independent, international, and experimental film in Madison since the 1990s.

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