Hereafter, a record of all the films I'm watching as part of the 20th Wisconsin Film Festival, held in Madison, WI, with links to full reviews as applicable.

Friday, 6 April 2018

The Spider's Stratagem (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy, 1970)
A Bertolucci film about historical memory poisoning the present, and the echoes of Italian Fascism on future generations, but I repeat myself. This variation on the theme, which feels (in a good way) like a practice run for The Conformist, finds thirty-something Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi) reluctantly sucked into the mystery of how his father was murdered some 33 years prior, apparently for his strident anti-Fascist activism.

It's simple enough, with a rather trite conclusion, but the star of the show is the fluidity with which the film collapses distinctions between past and present, largely in the form of the actors (all of the middle-aged-or-older stars in the "present" material appear the same age in the flashbacks), but also because of a truly remarkable editing pattern, by which the film bends time and space around to collapse continuity into a state of perceptual psychological collapse. It is as much a horror-thriller as a political history, made all the stronger because there's little or no daylight between those two modes.

The film has been the beneficiary of a stunning restoration, marking the first time since the 1970s that it's been viewable in the United States in anything remotely resembling a satisfactory form; the warm, menacing emptiness of the picturesque small town in the heart of an Italian summer is rendered with such offhand beauty as to be worth the price of admission all by itself.

Tesoros (María Novaro, Mexico, 2017)
Imagine Vittorio De Sica directing The Goonies. Or Amblin Entertainment footing the bill for Shoeshine. That gets you in the wheelhouse of the odd but increasingly charming tonal mishmash of María Novaro's docu-realist feature about a group of kids in a Pacific fishing village spending their aimless days exploring the shallows and fantasising about pirate treasure. It's positioned as children's movie on the festival circuit, and that's basically right; it's not that it's without substance, but the substance is all kept below the surface, while the light mania and awestruck feeling of constant discovery of play-filled afternoons are put front and center.

Godard Mon Amour, AKA Le Redoutable (Michel Hazanavicius, France, 2017)
Family Guy for film school graduates. It's nice that Hazanavicius is getting back to the 1960s, pastiche that made his O.S.S. 117 films so delicious to look at, but a cheapjack Godard biopic was surely not the best route to get there. As one would fear, its understanding of the subject is constrained in the tightest way possible: you would not be able to tell for sure, by watching, that Godard had ever directed a movie other than Masculin féminin, and you would not be able to tell from reading the script that he'd done anything besides Breathless, Contempt, and La Chinoise, the last of which is there for purely mechanical reasons as "the recent big flop".

The result is trivial as biography, wildly insubstantial and under-researched as a critique, and one-note as pastiche. Finds the politics of France in the late 1960s interesting solely as a backdrop, and finds the act of filmmaking not interesting at all. It's limply funny because I get the references; it's agonising that it's the "I liked the early, funny ones" routine from Woody Allen's infinitely greater Stardust Memories, repeated for 100 minutes, and not with Allen's melancholy irony. (Reviewed here)

The Guilty (Gustav Möller, Denmark, 2018)
A triumphant exercise in manipulating audience physiology. I mean that. The film takes place in one setting, with two rooms, and there is basically only one onscreen character: a disgraced cop Asger (Jakob Cedergren), who has been bumped down to working an emergency call center, pending an investigation. Along the way, he gets a phone call from a kidnapped woman, pretending to be speaking to her young daughter; from there on, it's a puzzle of how to solve a crime from a remote location that substantially recalls the 2013 Halle Berry thriller The Call, if only The Call was a substantially better movie.

As far as that goes it's only as good as its twists and turns, which lead in a pretty fucking dumb and hackneyed direction by the end - plot-wise, the last 25 minutes of a feature that only hits 85 minutes total are pretty whiffy - but the film has another, better trick up its sleeve. Basically the entire movie is being told through the sounds Asger hears on his headset; the result is an exercise in imagining what the hell is going on through indistinct clings, rumples, background conversation, traffic noise, you name it. And for me, at least, it couldn't have worked better; then the filmmakers go ahead and one-up themselves by lacing the movie with (apparently non-diegetic) droning noises, a sure-fire, almost literally physically irresistible way to get a viewer to feel tense and drained. Sure enough, I spent the whole movie perpetually shifting back and forth on the edge of my seat like I was being jerked by a giant electromagnet. It's all so much grubby schlock, but grubby schlock that played me with more virtuosity than any thriller I've seen in I can't think of how long.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Hitler's Hollywood (Rüdiger Suchsland, Germany, 2017)
Grad student problem: I can't separate my feelings about the film from my general annoyance at the theoretical work that the film is drawing from. Though, since this basically is film theory, that's maybe more the movie's problem than my own. See, this is basically an explicit follow-up to Siegried Kracauer's seminal 1947 text From Caligari to Hitler - which was also the title of a 2014 film by the same director - and Kracauer and I do not share an opinion of what film is and how it should function at a very basic, fundamental level. So we have here a feature-length documentary that takes as given things that I very much do not take as given, about the value of realism vs. nonrealism in cinema, and things like that.

Setting that aside, what remains is a rather impressive anthology of brief clips from several of the not-at-all-well-known films made under the control of the Nazi party (as well as some of the famous ones). As a compendium of recurring motifs, it's a little forced, but as a catalogue of the incredibly weird shit the Nazis were into, it's extraordinary: homoerotic Sherlock Holmes musicals, ridiculous fantasy sequences in movies attempting to psychologically prepare Germans for losing the war, and many attempts to do Riefenstahl by people with all her ideology and none of her talent. I can't say it's "worth it" on its own, but it's given me a pretty healthy viewing list.

The Hitler Gang (John Farrow, USA, 1944)
Hands down, the most fucked-up biopic I have ever scene. Adolf Hitler's (Bobby Watson) rise to power is conceived according to narrative beats deliberately and directly copying from the "life and death of a gangster" movies of the 1930s, while the script also carefully stops by all the expected biopic points (the moment Hitler first trims his facial hair to get That Mustache is a notable moment), and the "hey it's that guy!" scenes when some famous sidekick shows up, only here they're Heinrich Himmler (Luis Van Rooten) and Rudolph Hess (Victor Varconi). Works hard to remind us that Not All Germans were the bad people, while also noting with rather startling political acumen that the Nazis were as cynical in their rhetoric as they were evil. And in the center of it all, Watson works extra-hard to play the most flagrantly horrible human being of the 20th Century as a genuine character, both foregrounding the abject cowardice, paranoia, and villainy of his subject (this is, after all, a propaganda movie) while simultaneously making him feel like a human being who lived in the world like any of us, except for how he made every conceivable dark turn. Jaw-dropping stuff, not always because it is good, and hopefully its recent restoration means that it won't be so rare.

Support the Girls (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 2018)
Something feels just a touch formulaic: a super-cheap indie set in an offbeat but ultimately quotidian setting. But a non-chain sports bar with scantily clad waitresses ends up being a particularly strong setting indeed, and populated with a very pleasant, very warm ensemble cast, led by Regina Hall in the best performance of her career. As the manager-mom to a colorful, not-entirely-free-of-caricature crew, she provides all the emotional core this needs to be more sweet and humane rather than simply dizzy. Which causes problems when the film hits its third act and she disappears for a considerable stretch. This is also the point that the film largely resets its negligible plot for the worse. I get that a certain amiable shambling quality is meant to be charming and part of the appeal, but it leaves me a bit peevish. Still, it's never unenjoyable, and I'll be keeping Hall and Haley Lu Richardson in mind when year-end ballot-making season comes 'round.

First Reformed (Paul Schrader, USA, 2017)
Okay, so NOW I get the Paul Schrader thing, or at least I do with this one film. Which is, among everything else, a film only a Calvinist filmmaker could have made, and those are in short supply. Taking substantial pieces of its plot from Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman's Winter Light, the film cannot be accused of being very original, or of hiding its influences (there are specific shots taken from the Bergman - several of them). But merciless art films about shaken religious belief aren't the most common thing out there, and this is one hell of a throwback. Ethan Hawke has never been better in a non-Richard Linklater role than as self-loathing Pastor Toller in the middle of an existential crisis, and the film builds around that performance with some extraordinary wide-angle shots in Academy ratio, leaving Toller twisting and strangling in an environment that looks overwhelmingly gloomy just by existing. One kind of knows exactly where it's going the whole time it's going there, and the other characters are underdeveloped in the wrong ways. But I'm pretty damn sure this is going to age well.
(for now - that last half star is right there)

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Napalm (Claude Lanzmann, France, 2017)
The legendary documentarian turns inward for (presumably) his last film, transforming a trip inside the closed-off North Korea into an opportunity to recount one of the great failed love stories of his life. It's an intriguing change of focus, but one that doesn't really pay off: the story Lanzmann tells is only loosely tied back to the footage he captures (and rather blandly recaps) of the sights of Pyongyang, and it is - forgive me for not using more evocative, critically descriptive language - boring. There's something almost interestingly perverse in how little the filmmaker attempts to cinematically render his memoir - a lot of 10-minute close-ups of Lanzmann talking here - but that "almost" is a killer.

Lover for a Day (Philippe Garrel, France, 2017)
In which Garrel re-runs experiments Rohmer conducted 50 years ago. If you have preconceptions of what a French art film about sex made by a 70-year-old man looks like, they are fulfilled by this: it's a film about a man having sex with a former student half his age, and how his daughter's arrival after a bad break-up destablises that situation. Shot in striking high-contrast black-and-white that hasn't always been lit enough, and there are some good close-ups, but I've seen absolutely every bit of this before, and I've seen it better.

The Green Fog (Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson & Galen Johnson, USA, 2017)
It is, when you get right down to it, basically just re-doing the Kuleshov experiments, but in a way that mostly just points out how pretty much every movie in the last 95 has basically just been re-doing the Kuleshov experiments. In fact, for a film that re-makes the plot of one classic masterpiece (Vertigo) by stealing clips from a few dozen other movies, it's amazing how fresh and one-of-a-kind this feels. An experiment in film language, film viewership, and film analysis, surprisingly jam-packed with the cinephile version of some very dumb, and very amazing jokes (there's a late cameo from a movie I don't even want to name that almost made me choke laughing: it's the most flippant way possible of recreating one of Vertigo's most sober moments). I am basically the lab-created Ideal Viewer for this, so take the rating with a grain of salt, but also be aware that I think it might be Maddin's best film since The Heart of the World. (Reviewed here)

Monday, 9 April 2018

Minding the Gap (Bing Liu, USA, 2018)
If I say that this doesn't know what kind of film it wants to be, that sounds like a criticism, as opposed to maybe the best thing about it. Liu's incredible debut starts out as a (barely) glorified home movie about him and his friends escaping their unhappy homes through skateboarding, and blossoms into an incredibly rich personal memoir about what makes those homes so unhappy. Taking place mostly in the dying small city of Rockford, Illinois, the film hones in on two of Liu's peers and watches as the navigate the treacherous currents of American poverty, and how that is inflected by race and gender - Liu's one good friend is a black teen who is growing ever more aware that his friends are all white, and his other is a dissolute white guy who buries his self-loathing in alcoholism and treating his girlfriend and infant son like shit. The film finds its shape as Liu himself, growing from late adolescence to early adulthood over the course of the shoot, learns more about the world around him and the people inhabiting that world. The throughline is how we destructively and positively cope with hopelessness, but the curious probing that creates messy patches along that throughline is the star of the show. (Reviewed here)

★ (Johann Lurf, Austria, 2017)
And so my festival coverage ends with an outright experimental film: Lurf has attempted to find every single FX shot of stars (but only stars, not planets or spaceships or even onscreen text) ever created for a theatrically-released film, going all the way back to the 1890s, and present them in chronological order. The result is a historical effort that presents some data we already knew (yep, Star Wars sure did change everything), some we probably did not already know, but might have guessed (Orion is by far the most favorite constellation of filmmakers, followed by Ursa Major and Andromeda, both at some considerable distance), and some things that came as surprises (there is much less empty starfield footage in films than I'd have expected: only about 1.5 seconds in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and nothing in Star Trek: The Motion Picture past the opening credits sequence).

The bigger pleasures are simpler, though: first, the obvious game of "do I recognise that footage?", and the delirious giddiness that comes from spotting something familiar; and the deep pleasure of randomness, when things snap together just so, and the film's purely mechanical, erratic rhythm creates some startling combination of rhythms and sounds that feels like briefly attains some kind of meaning, or even just forms a kind of joke.

Lurf plans to continuously add to the project as new films are made (it currently runs up to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) or he's made aware of old films he missed. It's the kind of thing that will only ever be available at installations, film societies and the like, and I look forward to catching it whenever I get a chance to in the future; it was immensely stimulating. Adjust expectations as needed if you're not a fan of these programmatic experimental films that are closer to set of instructions than an act of filmmaking; they are one of my very favorite things in the world. A quintessential "only at a festival" experience that wonderfully wrapped up my experience of the 20th Wisconsin Film Festival.