A first look at the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival

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March 09, 2017 @ 12:00 am
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Clockwise from top left: "Sylvio," "Kati Kati," "Contemporary Color," and "Things To Come." Center: "Ernest Borgnine On The Bus."

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Wisconsin Film Festival 2017

What's jumping out at us in this year's schedule.

The Wisconsin Film Festival hits early this year, kicking off on March 30 and running through April 6. That also gives filmgoers a tighter window to digest the lineup, which is an unwieldy thing under the best of circumstances. Now that the schedule is out (both online and as a print insert in Isthmus), we're kicking off our 2017 WFF coverage with a few of the titles that stand out in the schedule. We've only had a few days to look this over ourselves, so we'll be talking about other highlights of this year's festival in the weeks ahead.

In addition to the festival's usual categories—like New International Cinema, New International Documentaries, Restorations and Rediscoveries, and Wisconsin's Own—this year brings some new headers worth highlighting. Those include New Women Directors (fairly self-explanatory), American Visions (up-and-coming auteurs, generally speaking), and something called "Nick Offerman Day." The Offerman offerings will include early looks at a comedy, Infinity Baby, a drama, The Hero, a family-friendly animated film, My Life As A Zucchini, and an appropriately woodsy-sounding documentary, Look & See: A Portrait Of Wendell Berry, which Offerman co-produced (along with exec producers Robert Redford and Terrence Malick). We've divided up our first look along those category lines; some of the films are grouped under more than one category in the WFF guide.

American Visions

Sylvio: Vine's favorite far-out mystery gorilla has gone and made a movie. Sporting comparatively high-production values, Sylvio's feed featured a steady stream of colorful idiosyncrasy that bordered on the outright avant-garde and amassed a half a million followers by the time the site shuttered last year. Mixing in mumblecore-orbiting actors, writers, and filmmakers including Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney, and Tallie Medel, Sylvio looks like it could be a fun extension (possibly a period?) to the uncynical ape-man's brand. —Chris Lay

Fraud: Remember those adorable "Marcel The Shell With Shoes On" short films from back in the faraway land of the year 2010? Of course you do! OK, well now forget them. Even though Dean Fleischer-Camp might have directed them, his heady new found-footage documentary is a sharp departure from that adorable little shoe-sporting shell. Exec-produced by Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green, Fraud is a boundary-pushing distillation of more than 100 hours of footage uploaded over a six-year period that presents a family going to drastic lengths to get out from under credit card debt. Post-film Q&A's have reportedly been devolving into arguments among audience members, so be prepared for some controversy. —CL

Patti Cake$: Too $hort, A$AP Rocky, Ma$e, and even Ke$ha (for a time) all superficially set themselves apart from the pop music pack by swapping out an S in their name with the American symbol for currency. Now we can add aspiring New Jersey rapper Patricia Dombrowski, a.k.a. Killa P, a.k.a. the titular Patti Cake$ to that list thanks to Geremy Jasper's comedic galentine to flicks like Eight Mile and Get Rich Or Die Tryin. While this may be Jasper's first feature, he cut his teeth directing videos for Rye Rye, Selena Gomez, and Florence + The Machine and based on the buzz coming from the festival circuit he's ready to make the jump. —CL

Wisconsin's Own

Whad'Ya Do Now?: In 1985, Michael Feldman started a 31-year-run with Whad'Ya Know, a nationally-syndicated quiz and variety show that, at its apex, reached 1.5 million listeners every week from its home base in Madison. Then it became less than that. By 2016, Wisconsin Public Radio determined the show's declining audience couldn't justify its high production costs—they broadcast their last live show in June of that year. Host Michael Feldman still hasn't quite recovered from the shock of his show's cancellation, and this documentary follows his efforts to revive the show on Kickstarter as a podcast. If the trailer for Marc Kornblatt's short documentary about Feldman's recent travails is to be believed, we can expect something in the ilk of Conan O'Brien Can't Stop but way more bitter and hyper-local. —Mark Riechers

There Are Jews Here: In the months (years?) since November, there's been much soul-searching about the invisibility of small American towns. Smaller and less vocal in their marginalization are the Jewish communities within America's small towns, whose numbers dwindle to the hundreds or less as Jewish majorities flock to major American cities. Brad Lichtenstein and Morgan Elise Johnson's There Are Jews Here documents Jewish communities in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Alabama to illustrate the very real threat that Jews in small town America face—a challenge to retain, recruit and grow their communities with force or risk losing a sense of cultural continuity forever. Johnson makes her debut as a feature-documentary director here, and Lichtenstein founded 371 Productions, home of 2012's As Goes Janesville and other social justice-focused films and projects. —MR

Almost Sunrise: In Michael Collins' documentary, two Wisconsin veterans, tormented by depression and PTSD, resolve to walk 2,700 miles from home to California. The hope is for them let go of their experiences in Iraq and move on with their lives. Bringing attention for the issue of veteran suicide, the film offers a meditation on healing and confrontation the realities of the moral wounds left by serving in combat. —MR

New International Documentaries

Obit: Director Vanessa Gould takes us through The New York Times' process of memorializing the famous and freshly dead. You probably take it for granted, but the stakes are high for these skilled obit writers working quickly to turn in appropriately toned remembrances under deadline. That tension, coupled with the allure of watching professionals who are the best at what they do, should propel this morbidly fascinating film towards the top of many "must-see" lists. —CL

American Anarchist: In 1970, William Powell published a book he hoped would help give members of the counterculture movement the edge they needed to push back against Nixon-era oppressors. That book, The Anarchist's Cookbook, would go on to be found in the hands of would-be terrorists, murderers and radicals to this day, well past when Powell and others hoped the book's instructions on drug preparing, phone phreaking and bomb making would have faded from torn volumes, but instead lived on in internet infamy. In American Anarchist, which Vice deemed a heavy-handed interrogation of the author and activist, Charlie Siskel (Finding Vivien Maier) talked to Powell about his feelings on how the book has been used, and why he's made efforts to distance himself from it in the years since its publication. —MR

Contemporary Color: Wisconsin Film Festival favorites Turner Ross and Bill Ross IV have delivered an assuredly energetic documentary capturing former Talking Head David Byrne's 2015 Barclays Center-bursting musical celebration of the art of synchronized dance routines involving flags, rifles, and sabers we know as Color Guard. This unique live event paired some of America's most elite color guard teams with musical performances by St. Vincent, Beastie Boy Ad-Rock, Blood Orange, Zola Jesus and [record scratch] ... Ira Glass, so pack some dancing shoes into your NPR tote bag before heading out to see this one. —CL

Restorations and Rediscoveries

Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains: Situated somewhere in that place where punk pivoted into new-wave, 1982's Ladies and Gentlemen... stars Diane Lane and Laura Dern in a princess-themed rock 'n' roll fairy tale that cements its credibility by filling out its fringes with Clash bassist Paul Simonon and former Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Lou Adler's loose riff on The Runaways never got a proper wide release in theaters, making its mark instead via steady rotation on early cable channels, so don't take the chance to see this relatively rare gem on the big screen for granted. —CL

Ernest Borgnine On The Bus: Films like this are the kind of unexpected little gems that set the Wisconsin Film Festival apart. Filmed in 1995, Ernest Borgnine On The Bus is exactly what its title promises: Borgnine—star of The Wild Bunch, Escape From New York, and The Poseidon Adventure, among dozens of others—shooting the shit with anyone who'll lend him an ear while he drives around America in his bus, affectionately named The Sunbum. Director Jeff Krulik struck kitsch gold with his Heavy Metal Parking Lot, and I have no idea why this collection of folksy interactions, many of which were filmed in Wisconsin, hasn't reached a similar cult classic status. —CL

New International Cinema

Afterimage: Andrzej Wajda may be best known for his post-war film Ashes And Diamonds (1958), which screened two years ago at UW Cinematheque as part of a "Masterpieces of Polish Cinema" series, but the director has crafted intimate dramas throughout his a prolific 60-plus-year career. Wajda passed away just last October, and his final work, Afterimage, is a biopic that illuminates Belarus-born twentieth century avant-garde painter/teacher Władysław Strzemiński, who developed a radical modernist theory known as "Unism" in the 1920s. At its core, Unism proposed that a work of art inherently unified with its place of creation; and Strzeminski further held the utopian belief in the ability of the work of art to organize life and its functions, usurping even Alain de Botton's recent philosophical musings in Art As Therapy. Wajda further details the visionary Strzemiński's struggles against the communist regime, mirroring his own as an early filmmaker. —Grant Phipps

I, Daniel Blake: Ken Loach's new film may have amassed the highest profile of any of the features included in this year's Wisconsin Film Festival, simply because it won the "Palme d'Or" at Cannes last year. Previously, Loach was best known for directing the lovely coming-of-age tale Kes (1969), about an outcast boy's dream of becoming a falconer in northern England. In I, Daniel Blake, he continues with the humanist, social realist angle, zeroing in on the plight of working-class families. The stirring drama chronicles the 59-year-old titular Newcastle carpenter (Dave Johns), who is forced to abandon his profession and meagerly subsist on state welfare after suffering a heart attack. A single mother (Hayley Squires) staying in a London hostel, who's also fallen on hard times as a result of the medical and labor bureaucracies, joins him in his dignified quest for liberation. —GP

Kati Kati: At a glance, one of the most exciting and yet inscrutable titles in 2017 festival guide would have to be Kati Kati, the feature debut from Kenyan filmmaker Mbithi Masya. Produced by Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer, the film was recently awarded the International Federation of Film Critics prize at Telluride. Based around the metaphysical journey of an amnesiac Kenyan woman named Kaleche (Nyokabi Gethaiga), Kati Kati emerges as a meditation on memory and existence. After waking and wandering in Kenya's expansive grasslands dressed only in a thin hospital gown, Kaleche encounters a group of strangers in a wilderness resort of the title, and she's shockingly informed that she's dead... much like the other inhabitants. The film's psychological tackling of thematic issues like trauma, its premise and visual intrigue recall two recent Micro-Wave Cinema favorites, Fugue (dir. Jorge Torres-Torres) and Ma (dir. Celia Rowlson-Hall). —GP

Neruda: Chilean director Larraín's last two films—The Club, which premiered regionally last year at the Wisconsin Film Festival, and the Oscar-nominated Jackie—should collectively provide a gauge for his uniquely cinematic approach to the genres of thriller and biopic. Refusing to shy away from controversial subject matter (like sexual abuse by Catholic priests) and overly scrutinized figures (Ms. Kennedy), Larraín again subverts expectations for a film entitled Neruda. Rather than working within the boundaries of the biopic, the director and co-screenwriter Guillermo Calderón (of The Club) put their own thrilling spin on the life of poet-politician Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) in 1948. Sharing a conscientious, spiritual link (and nearly equal screen-time) with the exiled Neruda is investigator Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), who's in hot pursuit of Chile's most wanted Communist. —GP

Nocturama: The latest by veteran director Bonello (Saint Laurent), Nocturama is a professed personal favorite of senior Wisconsin Film Festival programmer Mike King, who describes the film as a piece of radical, spellbinding provocation and virtuosic fusion of sound and image (furthered by the director's own score, in a dark Carpenter-esque electronic mode). On a base level, the art house thriller speaks to the tragically relevant terrorist siege that has targeted the city of Paris with specific reference to the year of 2015, which saw not only the January attack at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but the savagery during a concert at the Bataclan in November. Bonello pushes the envelope with a detailed look at a fanatical multiethnic (but fictitious) group, who are determined to carry out a series of urban attacks before holing up in an opulent department store. —GP

Personal Shopper: The deeper details of Olivier Assayas' (Carlos, WFF 2011) mysterious thriller, Personal Shopper, have been scant thus far, but it undoubtedly looks to be tonally similar to his last sinuous scrutiny of art and performance, Clouds Of Sils Maria, which is also a quiet tribute to the guidance of Resnais and Cassavetes. If nothing else, Assayas' new film pulls from the same influences, and serves as an atmospheric vehicle for the talents of Kristen Stewart, who's steadily been revealed as one of the most versatile and committed actresses of this decade in her leading roles and bit parts alike. Here, she's comfortably in the former, playing Maureen Cartwright, a twentysomething American in Paris, working as a personal shopper for a flighty celebrity, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). What's more surprising than the film's nods to existentialism are its allusions to the supernatural in Maureen's abilities as a spiritual medium. —GP

A Quiet Passion: Prior to the first screening of Terence Davies' Sunset Song at the Wisconsin Film Festival last year, Festival Director Jim Healy enthusiastically announced to the crowd that Davies would soon be premiering another new period film, an account of the life of reclusive 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson (curiously played here by Cynthia Nixon, of Sex And The City fame). And it arrives almost precisely one year later for Madison audiences to savor. A Quiet Passion would make an interesting double-feature with Larrain's thrilling Neruda, if only for comparing the two directors' wildly different approaches to the biopic. As expected, Davies stays truer to the form, turning his sympathetic eye to a sweeping epic that meticulously captures the wordsmith's early childhood in Christian boarding school through the unrequited love of her later years. —GP

The Salesman: Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's searing relationship dramas have made it onto the seasonal UW Cinematheque calendar a number of times, most recently with Fireworks Wednesday. However, The Salesman is his first to premiere during a Wisconsin Film Festival. And it's now got extra excitement behind it after winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film not even two weeks ago. Farhadi's exceptional, essential study familiarly follows the trials and tribulations of the Etesamis (Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini) in Tehran, who must move into a new apartment due to their former home's structural damage. This plays into their dynamic as a real-life couple and one on stage as they portray the Lomans during a production of Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman. Farhadi has intuitively and authentically harnessed the tensions of husband and wife in his native country previously, but the additional layer that entangles the reciprocating relationship of art and life are comparable to a masterful Ingmar Bergman classic. —GP

Things To Come: While presently ranking as this writer's most anticipated film at the festival, Mia Hansen-Løve's intellectually and metaphysically rich new drama also joins the ranks of the Oscar-associated (The Salesman and My Life As A Zucchini) with a luminous and courageous performance by Isabelle Huppert (of Paul Verhoeven's Elle). In Things To Come, the renowned French actress plays Nathalie Chazeaux, a philosophy teacher with a seemingly stable life that is upended by news that her husband Heinz (André Marcon) is leaving her. This tragically produces a rippling effect that shakes her sense of purpose; so, without the traditional anchors and routine of middle-age, Nathalie sets out on an expedition that will essentially redefine her as an individual. As a writer-director, Hansen-Løve lends a pensive, peerless, personal touch that dramatically builds upon her remarkably intimate look at the early Parisian techno scene and club culture in Eden (2014). —GP

New Women Directors

Forever Pure: The debut documentary feature from Maya Zinshtein follows FC Beitar, a soccer team in Israel, and uses the reaction of fans and detractors to play out how Islamophobia roils beneath the surface of Israeli society. I'm bad at sportsing, but I've long cherished the power that a good sports documentary can bring to examining societal issues through a unique and often emotionally charged lens. With strong impressions from its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, this one seems to fit the bill. —MR

Whose Streets?:When a community rises up in the wake of a police killing of an unarmed person of color, a familiar media narrative tends to lock in: Protests and riots get more attention than the killing itself, local officials seem to share none of the blame for whatever violence erupts, and community members are portrayed as being inarticulately angry at best, violently self-destructive at worst. The most denigrating portrayals tend to be reserved for the actual victim of the shooting. Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis's documentary Whose Streets? offers a corrective of sorts, digging into the community behind the protests that took place in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 after a police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown—protests that also helped to launch a nationwide surge of resistance to police violence and push long-neglected conversations about systemic racism to the forefront of politics. As Folayan has said, one of the film's goals is to reframe Ferguson and similar incidents as not just movements for civil rights, but for basic human rights. —Scott Gordon

Nick Offerman Day

My Life As A Zucchini: The Oscar for best animated film has largely become a "most story and graphics" award in recent years thanks to Pixar and Disney Animation. And while films like Zootopia certainly have character and heart, Disney rarely tells stories of hope from bleak and ignored parts of our society, like that of this animated film about children recovering from family trauma while living in a group home. The dark topic is overwhelmed by the whimsy of detailed modern stop-motion animation, making for a film Mike D'Angelo described as "at once unusually grim and unusually saccharine." —MR


Infinity Baby: Bringing together an oddball cast including Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Martin Starr, Stephen Root, Kevin Corrigan, Kieran Culkin, and Martha Kelly, the latest from Bob Byington, whose Harmony And Me screened at the 2010 Wisconsin Film Festival, is a washed-out black and white sci-fi comedy set in the near-future, where it's optional for your baby to age past its first few months. Believe it or not, it sounds like this strange application of science leads to... complications. —CL

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last updated: March 09, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

Chris Lay

Chris Lay

Chris Lay is occasional standup comedian and sometimes storyteller living in Madison. He writes stuff for Tone Madison and Isthmus every now and again.
Grant Phipps

Grant Phipps

Grant Phipps resides in Madison and writes film and music criticism for outlets including LakeFrontRow.com and NoRipcord.com.
Mark Riechers

Mark Riechers

Mark likes video games, beer, and yelling about buses in Madison, having gotten accustomed to that during a stint in Chicago. He helped found both the Arts Extract Podcast and this website.​
Scott Gordon

Scott Gordon

Scott is the editor and co-founder of Tone Madison. He has covered music and lots of other things for outlets including The A.V. Club, Wisconsin Public Radio, and WORT-FM.

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