December 13, 2017

Jake’s Take: Wisconsin Film Festival at the Halfway Point

wff_beautiful_dayUnlike my partner in crime Jim, I haven’t had the chance to put together daily dispatches on the festival thus far, unfortunately. Now that we’re four days in, I wanted to share some thoughts on the films I’ve seen to date. These are initial reactions more than formal reviews, with little in the way of plot detail. So, in the order I saw them, and without further ado…

 

manakamana_posterManakamana (Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez, USA/Nepal, 2013, 118 min)»

This is the Rope of experimental ethnographic filmmaking. As Jim said, we had minimal walkouts for this aggressively minimalist film, and it was heartening that so many audience members were so engaged with the film. Leviathan, the previous film from the Sensory Ethnography Lab, seemed to be very much about the dizzying and overwhelming motion of the camera. Not so with their latest, as Manakamana plants its camera, allowing it to capture (and us to revel) in the cable car passengers’ conversation, their silence, their panic and their peace. It is not the kind of film you watch again right away, but I am curious to go back to it someday and map out the mechanics of each journey. It was sometimes unclear to me which stage of the journey we were on, especially going up the mountain. I might have said the film was one segment too long, but once the final segment started and I saw who occupied the car, I couldn’t have been happier to be proven wrong. The more I think about this movie, the more I love it.

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Joe (David Gordon Green, USA, 2013, 117 min)»

The past few years have been pretty good for Southern films, with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Mud, and the criminally under-seen Shotgun Stories. These are all great films, and Joe easily takes its place among them. Drawing beauty from mundane and even ugly milieus, Joe is utterly gorgeous to the eye, in spite of its shocking and stomach-turning violence. One of the things that unite these Southern gothic films is their resolute commitment to showing both the roots and consequences of that violence. You wince at the acts of violence themselves, but the reasons behind them? Those are what haunt you. Rarely have I seen a movie that I find so inimitably and ineffably Texan. While my upbringing was far healthier than the teenager at the center of the film, I have known my share of people like these characters. The film presents them not as merely a gathering of ignorant hicks, but in large part as individuals who have made a series of choices to bring them where they are. If more films had even half the thoughtful characterization that Joe has, I’d be a happy man. Plus, we bear witness to another potential rehabilitation of Nicolas Cage’s career. He certainly has his requisite moments of trademark lunacy, but Cage’s performance here is surprisingly moving in both its tenderness and its rage.

Do as Told (Nina S. Ham & Aaron Granat, USA, 2013, 6 min)»

This short film preceded Sabbatical and was co-directed by Nina S. Ham and Aaron Granat (Sabbatical’s cinematographer). The pair deliver an ideological collage film about education in America. Its well-shot black & white imagery fuses to provide intelligently gray thought on the subject, as the audio track alternates between the urgently hopeful and the bleakly humorous (Bush’s comment about “C students being president too” was a natural standout). It is a fine film in itself, and a fine way to set the stage for the feature thereafter.

sabbatical_posterSabbatical (Brandon Colvin, USA, 2014, 72 min)»

Sabbatical is a film of stylistic poise, honest performance, and astonishing control. As if these weren’t enough, the film is in a 1.33 aspect ratio, which as the film’s director Brandon Colvin pointed out, “is more suited to the human body.” The gorgeous camera work proves this point, especially in shots where star Robert Longstreet is in close-up. You realize through the course of the film that you just don’t reflect on the character in someone’s face quite the same way in 1.85 or 2.35. I was surprised by the impact this film had on me. I have probably given it more thought than any other film I’ve seen at the festival thus far. I know Colvin to be both considerate and deliberate in his thought on cinema, and was immensely satisfied to see how that thought translated to the screen. Sabbatical also has one of the single most astonishing final shots you will see this year. If you missed the first screening, there are still tickets available for a repeat screening on Monday afternoon.

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The Immortalists (David Alvarado & Jason Sussberg, USA, 2014, 78 min)»

I liked this film, but I confess to being disappointed by it. As I see it, The Immortalists has three functions: 1) to tell the story of its two principal subjects, leading scientists in the field of combating aging; 2) to explain the science behind combating aging; and 3) to serve, as the directors themselves put it, as a conversation starter for viewers to discuss and debate the questions and principals behind reversing aging. For me, it succeeds principally in functions 1 and 3. However, 2 was the one I was most looking forward to, particularly since the science was preliminarily examined at the beginning of the film, but relegated to the background as we later learn what characters these two scientists are. Now that I know what its focus is, I suspect that if I watched the film again, I would enjoy it more. Still, it was entertaining, and I’m certainly looking forward to see what’s next from Alvarado & Sussberg, who provided a wonderful post-film Q&A.

vertigo_poster_artVertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958, 128 min)»

Oh, the lure of that mono soundtrack. At best, I consider myself a wannabe audiophile, but I know nowhere near enough about sound technology to write knowledgeably on the subject. I will say that I’ve previously only seen this masterpiece with the stereo mix, and right away with the gunshots during the rooftop chase, it never sounded quite right to me. Seeing, and hearing, this print was an absolute joy. Director and cinephile Tim Hunter provided some valuable historical context around the film and the print itself (one of Hitchcock’s own, apparently). This print also proved that, despite a few scratches and lines, if you’ve got a print in good shape and a diligent technical team projecting it, there is no substitute for 35mm.

tricked_poster

Tricked (Paul Verhoeven, Netherlands, 2012, 89 min [with documentary])»

I am very glad I saw Tricked with a crowd that was, very clearly, into it from start to finish. If I had watched it at home, I would have grown weary of the overlong and often redundant production documentary that preceded the film itself. I would also have been more disappointed at the conventional story that resulted from the unusual scriptwriting process. Verhoeven’s ultimate “trick” is that he ends up making an enjoyable yet almost harmless movie, which is more interesting for its production than its finished product. By no means did I dislike the film—I’ll certainly take it over Business Is Business, Turkish Delight, or Katie Tippel any day of the week—but I was left wanting more.

wff_prismatic_glassJodie Mack: Let Your Light Shine (Jodie Mack, USA, 2013, 74 min)»

You can find my thoughts on these films here, and I have only one thing to add regarding Let Your Light Shine, the last piece in the program. As opposed to the screener that I watched, we had prismatic glasses for the big screen version, and it was magnificent. Thanks to those glasses (pictured right, a lens from said glasses), the image exploded beyond the borders of the screen to fill our entire field of vision with all the colors of the spectrum. If you should ever have the chance to see this film, grab your glasses, settle in, and get ready for three singularly spectacular minutes of movie-going wonder.

Some quick observations:

Most of the films I’ve seen at this festival so far are more about mood and milieu than plot mechanics. Regardless of their level of verisimilitude, these films are astoundingly invested in atmosphere, which is in every single one’s favor (especially Manakamana, Joe, Sabbatical, and the known quantity: Vertigo).

Merit badge buttons for movie-going? Yes please.

I really wish the impromptu campfire sing-along at Tricked had taken off…

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that, as usual, the programmers and volunteers have done an excellent job with all of the festival’s many facets. If you see them, thank them.

I’ll be back with concluding thoughts on my remaining films (The SacramentThe Dance of Reality, and Il Sorpasso), as well as any others that I might have the chance to see. In the meantime, turn the lights down low…

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