15 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Sunday

My last day of the film festival featured quite a diverse selection, and in that way it may be the best single day to show what kind of things the Wisconsin Film Festival has to offer. Of course, one of things I totally missed was some of the locally-produced films shown at the festival, despite the fact that the organizers strongly encouraged people to go. I certainly would be interested in seeing some Wisconsin-made films, but I guess I got caught up in the excitement of seeing a lot of new foreign films on a big screen. I also made a concerted effort to see as many Nordic films as possible, as that is my primary topic of study. Still, I missed out of Red Chapel (Det røde kapel, Denmark 2006) as well as a Finnish short at the very least. But alas, I guess you can't see them all, right?

At any rate, the three films I saw on Sunday were Le quattro volte, The Light Thief, and Everything Will Be Fine. As before, there may be some spoilers ahead, although I do keep the ultimately twist of Everything Will Be Fine a secret.
Director: Michelangelo Frammartino
Country: Italy
Languages: Italian

This film is probably best classified as "experimental," or at the very least, "non-conventional." I put up there that the language was Italian, which is true to a point, but at its core, Le quattro volte was primarily a quiet, wordless film. All speech was incidental and was left untranslated—the film had no subtitles. Even the title seems to have avoided the touch of a translator, though for those curious, it means "The four stages" or "The four times."

The film begins with an elderly goat farmer who appears to be ailing from some kind of respiratory illness. That night, he mixes a strange black powder into a glass of water and drinks it. The next day, he awakes and milks the goats, then takes the milk around for delivery. When he delivers to the cathedral in his village, the woman there gives him a packet of holy dust, freshly swept from the floor. It is this dust that he drinks at night as medicine.

However, that day, while he is in the field tending his goats, the packet slips from his pocket, unbeknownst to him. That night, he searches frantically for the packet of dust, until he finally goes out into the rainy night and begins banging on the doors to the church. However, it is to know avail, as we cut away to his funeral. Just as they close up the catacomb in which his body rests, the film cuts again suddenly to the birth of a baby goat. The cut seems to imply a connection, as if his death and the goat's birth are directly related. Perhaps it is reincarnation?

We now see the goat begin his new life. Soon, he is old enough to go out with the rest of the herd to graze in the pastures. However, he becomes separated from the rest and wanders, lost and aimless, until finally he gives up in the shade of a large tree, presumably to die. The body must decompose and feed the tree, though. Later, the tree is cut down by the villagers for a festival, and then it is sent to be turned in to charcoal. The charcoal is taken and eventually delivered to the cathedral, when it is burned and turns into dust and ashes.

An experience
I'm very glad I went to see this movie, but it was probably my least favourite at the festival. I think that's how experimental films will often go. They push the boundries of what a normal film is and can be, and while the outcomes are often very surprising and interesting, they are often a little awkward too. Thankfully, Le quattro volte was still quite watchable despite its length, most likely because it played with narrative structure rather than pushing the visuals or audio into unusual territory.

The story was certainly unique, and I think its presentation of the cycle of life was pretty interesting. However, some of the links were stronger than others. In particular, the link between the man's death and the goat's birth is rather forced. I think I would've found it a bit more compelling if all the connections were more obvious in the scene of life. I mean, I think the overriding theme and message of the film is the interconnectedness of all life on earth, but that message is weakened when the connections themselves are weak. However, I guess they do help this a little bit by having the old man be a goat farmer, and thus he at least helps to raise and foster the lives of goats, much like the young goat that is the focal point of the film's second "stage."

Director: Aktan Abdykalykov
Country: Kyrgyzstan
Languages: Kyrgyz

Mr. Light ("Svet-Ake" in Kyrgiz) is an electrical engineer in a rural Kyrgyz village. He is building his own windmill to try to generate some electricity. He also has a habit of setting the electrical meters to run backwards for villagers who can no longer afford to pay for electricity. The authorities discover what he is doing and originally prohibit him from working, but he eventually gets his job back when it comes to light that one of Mr. Light's good friends is connected to a rich entrepreneur who wants to buy the village.

While drunk with his friend, Mr. Light bemoans his inability to have a son, as all four of his children so far are girls. His friend tells him that he must get a shock to expel all the feminine energy from his body, and so Mr. Light immediately scales a light pole and electrocutes himself. His friend and some of the villagers quickly bury him up to his neck to ground him and he comes to again, and notices an attractive young girl with whom he becomes infatuated.

Soon, the rich entrepreneur hears of Mr. Light's skills and tries to befriend him. Mr. Light tells the entrepreneur his dream of filling a nearby valley with windmills to generate electricity for the entire village, and the entrepreneur says that if Mr. Light can aid him in buying the town, he will help Mr. Light achieve his goal. The entrepreneur brings in Chinese investors and has Mr. Light set up the lighting in a yurt and sit in on their meeting. The entrepreneur lavishes the investors in good food and drink, and then announces he will put on an erotic show for their pleasure. When the entertainment in question happens to be Mr. Light's new infatuation, he snaps and attacks the investors and entrepreneur before fleeing. He short-circuits the entire village's electricity, plunging the village into darkness, and then continues to flee. They catch up to him and (presumably) kill him (the scene is a bit ambiguous). At that moment, a strong gust blows through the village, causing the windmill to break loose. As it spins, the solitary lightbulb connected to it begins to shine weakly.

Culturally dense
I liked the feel of this film, and I thought the characters where beautiful and very human. Mr. Light felt very genuine and although a little odd and misguided, felt like he had a good heart. However, I feel like I only really got part of the story. There were numerous moments where I felt culturally unable to completely understand what was going on. In particular, there were two scenes in the film where the electricity in the town goes out and everything is plunged into darkness. Both times, it was accompanied by slow-motion shots of donkeys going crazy. I feel like there had to be some cultural significance to this. It felt too out of place otherwise.

Cultural differences aside, I thought it was a very beautiful film, and I think it had a lot to say about life in Kyrgyzstan. I just wish I had a better idea of how to contextualize it. I want to understand it better. Perhaps with a bit of time, I'll be able to find some reviews where people can do so far me, as I hope I am able to do with those films where I am able to help explain context for my readers.

Director: Christoffer Boe
Country: Denmark, Sweden
Languages: Danish

Everything Will Be Fine focuses on a scriptwriter named Jacob Falk who is working on a script for a new film about war. However, he is stuck in writer's block, and decides to go for a late night drive to clear his head, but ends up accidentally running over a young man. The man was a soldier in the war who pleads with Jacob to take his bag and hide it. Jacob drives off and calls in the accident from a pay phone, without identifying himself. Later, as he looks through the bag, he finds photos of gruesome acts of torture committed by Danish soldiers fighting in the Middle East.

What follows from here is a thriller about Jacob's attempts to get information about the photographs and find a way to make them public. While he is worried about the photos, his wife continually nags him to get their adoption request forms and check over them, but he continues to promise that he'll do it the next day.

Unfortunately, the photos are stolen from his car, and he becomes increasingly paranoid and violent as the authorities continue to deny everything and seem to be arranging things against him.

Everything Will Be Fine was definitely the most exciting of the films I saw. It was fast-paced and left you on the edge of your seat. The film also had some very impressive cinematography with a strong feeling for lighting effects, and the film frequently features lens flare as a defining element of its style. There are also some clever compositions. For example, when Jacob calls in about the accident, he notices a security camera at the gas station. Back at his hotel, the mural painted on the wall above the bed is of a security camera that happens to point directly at his head. This is just one instance where the film creates a mise-en-scène that reinforces Jacob's paranoid mindset.

The film also uses tilt-shift photography extensively, especially for establishing shots. For those unfamiliar with tilt-shift, it's a photography technique in which the focus area can be squashed in wide angle shots (shots from very far away). That kind of focus area is usually only possible with very close-up images, like if you take a close-up photograph of a small toy soldier or a fly on the wall. When you take tilt-shift shots of cities, you often get the illusion that it is a model town. You can check out some examples of it here.

In films, an establishing shot is a shot of the setting that places the following scene within some context. Think of an American TV show where they show the building where the action is going to take place for a split second before cutting to the actual action. It's a fairly common technique that helps us place scenes into some sort of geographical scene of space. If you're not completely aware of these shots, that's okay; they are such a common part of the filmic language that we tend to automatically read right through them the same way most people don't really pay attention to every time there is a cut in a film.

Anyway, by filming the establishing shots with tilt-shift, Eveything Will Be Fine begins to create an uneasy feeling. For one, these shots become more visible to the viewer and disrupt the ease with which we can "read" the film. Also, the film draws a connection between the real spaces in which the drama occurs and the model diaramas that Jacob uses while writing his scripts to help plot out action. The feeling is unsettling, as if the characters in the film are pieces in someone's chess game, being controlled from afar by some omniscient power. Again, the touches of paranoia and conspiracy are obvious. This was, perhaps, the film's strongest point, as it was able to gently play with all the elements to fully develop and materialize the mental landscape of Jacob's mind into the visual space of the film itself.

The film also features some major twists, as any good thriller should, with the biggest one coming, of course, at the end. The ending is satisfyingly mind-bending. Think something like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club where everything finally clicks and you want to go back and rewatch it to find all the clues you missed along the way. Everything Will Be Fine would be my second favourite film at the festival, I think, after Medal of Honor. I would certainly recommend it, especially to anyone looking for a good thriller.

13 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Saturday

While I really enjoyed Thursday and Friday and thought the movies were great, it wasn't an experience that immediately cried out, "This is a film festival!" Yes, it's true that I saw two very interesting and unique films that you would rarely get a chance to see in the theatre, but to an extent, it just felt like attending UW's weekly Cinematheque showings or the screenings by Gonzo Media at NMU. But then, I imagine this is how a lot of people experience the festival. Not everyone has the time to go out and see multiple films in one day, and instead it's just like your usual night out at the local cinema, only with a decidedly more "arthouse" slant than you'd normally get.

Saturday was different, though. I saw three films starting at 11:30 in the morning and continuing until about 8:00 at night. Of course, I had some down time in there, but in essence, my entire day was primarily concerned with watching films. This had a newer feel to it—a feel that I think is undeniably different from seeing just one film. No longer is it a piece of entertainment at the end of your day, but an integral part of the day itself. I have to say, as a film buff, that it felt good.

At any rate, I attended three films that Saturday: The Piano in a Factory, Medal of Honor, and A Somewhat Gentle Man. Interestingly, despite being from completely different countries and all having very different styles, all three shared a common interest in fathers and their attempts to connect with their children. Weird how it worked out that way, I suppose.

As a note, all of the following sections contain some spoilers about the films.

Director:Zhang Meng
Country: China
Languages: Mandarin

After years apart, accordion-player Chen Guilin's wife returns to request a divorce, as she wants to marry her new boyfriend, a man who became rich selling phony medicine as a homoeopathic cure. All she asks for in the divorce is custody of their daughter, Yuan, who is currently living with Guilin. Soon after, Guilin is caught sneaking his daughter into the local school at night so she can practice the piano and they are kicked out. Guilin paints piano keys on a piece of wood so that Yuan can still practice, but she complains that it doesn't make any sound. Guilin explains to her that if she is very quiet and listens very closely, she can hear the notes in her heart. He demonstrates by playing a melody on the fake keyboard, with the film's soundtrack gradually filling in the silence with a song played beautiful on a grand piano.

However, this gesture ultimately fails when Yuan decides that she will go with whichever parent can buy her a piano, a task far harder to accomplish for Guilin than his now wealthy wife. Still, he persists, trying first to borrow money from everyone he knows. However, when they fail to raise enough money, they decide in a night of drunkenness to steal the school's piano. The caper is likewise a failure, and Guilin seems to be all out of options. Unwilling to give up, he finally arrives at one finally possibility: to use the town's recently abandoned factory to build the piano from scratch. Though reluctant at first, all of Guilin's friends sign on board to the hair-brained idea which becomes the focal point of the rest of the film.

Hearing with your heart
Although The Piano in a Factory is invariably described as a drama, I have at times seen people also describe it as a comedy. The film is certainly a bit absurdist at times and certainly keeps a more light-hearted tone for the most part, but I'm not sure how much I would really call it a comedy. I guess I am not terribly familiar with Chinese comedies, so I could be wrong. However, I felt the dramatic elements had, at the very least, a stronger presence.

Ultimately, I think The Piano in a Factory is a very genuine and touching story about a poor father's desire to be able to provide for his child. In the end, his attempts are futile, as the piano is not completed before the divorce is finalized, and he loses custody of his daughter. Still, the attempt seems to have helped him come to terms with his lose, just as the town comes to terms with the loss of the factory and its prominent smoke stacks, considered by many to be a beloved landmark. Although there is no point in completing the piano, the friends do so anyway, and Guilin requests that his ex-wife bring Yuan to the factory so she can play it once. The piano, made almost entirely of recycled steel, is a clumsy thing with terribly crude sound quality. And yet, as she plays it, the soundtrack supplants its clumsiness with another beautifully performed piece on an expertly-crafted grand piano. It is impossible not to recall Guilin's previous words about hearing the music in your heart. The implication seems to be that, while on the surface the piano purchased by Yuan's mother may seem better, Guilin's piano has something more important—something that you can only hear with the heart.

Director: Călin Peter Netzer
Country: Germany, Romania
Languages: Romanian

The film begins with examples of the mundane existence of the elderly Ion I. Ion and his emotionally distant wife. They get their social security checks in the mail, complain about their apartment's heating, and try to avoid their landlord who is pestering them to pay their maintenance bill. And every time their son in Canada calls, his wife talks to him but never lets Ion listen in or talk to their son himself. However, their monotonous routine is suddenly broken when Ion receives a letter from the Romanian government stating that he is receiving a medal of honor for his heroic actions during WWII. Unable to recall any such actions, Ion originally raises objects with the government office and, upon receiving the medal, tries to sell it to a pawn shop, though the shop owner refuses to buy it.

Ion's own curiosity about the medal grows, and he begins pouring over all the old letters he sent to his wife during the course of the war. The only instance of any possible interest is one rather unassuming story: His troop came across a group of retreating Germans. One of the abandoned canons was still loaded, and Ion fired it at them, but didn't see what he hit, if anything. This must be it, he decides, but why? Did he hit something important? He begins to tell the story to everyone he encounters, and every time it grows larger and larger, until finally, he is linking his deed to the fall of Nazism itself.

As his story continues to grow, his problems seem to vanish. The landlord tries to get on Ion's good side by erasing his debt, hoping to take advantage of Ion's "prestige" for his own political reasons. Likewise, Ion's honor gives his family a reason to look up to him again. In fact, their son plans on returning to Romanian with his wife and child to see them again for the first time since he left many, many years ago. However, it comes to light that he received the medal due to a clerical error, and when he goes to protest, they forcefully grapples him and rip the medal from his chest. Distraught, he goes to find a similar medal at a pawn shop instead of going to the airport with his wife to pick up their son. When he finally gets back that night with the medal, everyone congratulates him on it at first, but then quickly forget all about it.

The final scene
This was my favourite film at the festival. It was a bit slowly paced, but I think the characters and emotions were very real and powerful. The pace gives you time to really get to know Ion as a person, and the entirety of the movie culminates in that final shot of Ion and his family. The camera is static, focusing on Ion and a bit of the family around him. They all compliment his medal at first and have the grandson look at it. The kid steals it from Ion and runs off with it, and although he does so as a playful act, it closely resembles the way that the government officials forcefully ripped his original medal from his shirt. You can see the moment of fear and panic in Ion's face, but then it softens. When his grandson gives it back, Ion tries to get the kid to hold on to it longer, but he's already distracted with something else. In fact, no one is paying attention to the medal any more. It's this moment when, wordlessly, Ion's face tells the full story. On his face I saw a final moment of realization. The medal is meaningless, and it always was. It doesn't matter. It wasn't the medal that he really wanted.

Director: Hans Petter Moland
Country: Norway
Languages: Norwegian

Ulric is fresh out of jail after a 12 year sentence for murder, and although his warden warns him to constantly look forward once he's out and not back to his time in jail, Ulric ends up right back where he left off. His old boss meets up with him and gets him a place to stay and a job as a mechanic, but also begins to pressure him into "closing his account" with the man who testified against him in court.

However, it becomes clear that Ulric is, actually, more interested in redemption. He does his best at his job and begins to win the trust of the body shop's owner. Likewise, instead of tailing the man who betrayed him, he goes to try to reconnect with his son, who is currently living with his girlfriend. They are expecting a child, and Ulric's son does his best to distance himself from his father. He reveals that he told his girlfriend that his father died, but when he finally tells her the truth, she refuses to allow Ulric to visit them ever again.

Despite finally rejecting his old mob boss's attempts to get him to murder again, Ulric's life begins to crumble. His new landlady has a habit of cooking him free meals, a benefit Ulric greatly appreciates. However, she misinterprets his table manners for flirtation, and begins to push herself on him. Now, every time she brings him dinner, she expects sex, which is begin to strain his newly blossoming relationship with the secretary at the body shop, who he seems to genuinely like.

As pressures mount, more and more of those around him give up on giving him another chance to prove himself. Feeling abandoned by everyone in his life, Ulric finally agrees to his old boss's demand that he must kill the man who testified against him. However, when he goes to commit the dreadful deed, he finds himself still unable to kill again. Furthermore, it becomes clear that Ulric's old boss has been lying to him and taking advantage of him.

Without any options left, Ulric goes to tell his son that his father is dead, most likely contemplating suicide, but only the wife is at home, as the son is off on a fishing trip. As she is angrily turning Ulric away, her water breaks. Ulric offers to drive her to the hospital in the car he borrowed from his boss. She gives birth in the back of the car, with Ulric helping her through the pain, and she ultimately comes around. "Daddy was gone, but your grandpa was here," she tells her newborn, and then thanks Ulric for helping her when she needed it most. Ulric's only response is, "No, thank you."

Ulric goes back to his boss to tell him that he failed to kill the snitch. His boss notices the stain on the backseat and goes off on Ulric from ruining his car. Finally fed up with all his shit, Ulric shoots his boss in the head, stuffs him in the trunk, and has the car crushed as a garbage dump.

Nordic humour
If you read that and though that this story seems rather dark, you might be right, but you also have to realize that this movie was a comedy. I've spoken of this before, but the Nordic sense of humour is particularly dark and cynical. Of course, you also have to understand that in Nordic countries, comedy is a fairly regular part of most films, as comedy tends to sell well there.

Anyway, the characters here all had very distinct personalities with their own quirks. For example, the owner of the body shop has a tendency to suddenly go off on long, rambling tirades about things he strongly believes in but which are, of course, fairly basic, normal things not requiring nearly as in depth of a monologue. And of course, the landlady's advances are anything but coy. Quite bluntly, she drops trough and ironically states something along the lines of, "If you're want it so badly, fine, but just get it over with, okay?"

Overall, I liked it, though I felt like it could've been done a little better. The more dramatic moments felt genuine within the context of the movie, but could've been handled with a little more finesse. I guess when it comes down to it, the film was a lot like Ulric himself: a bit crude with a slightly skewed sense of justice, but deep down, it's heart is in the right place.

11 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Thursday and Friday

Unfortunately, my ability to attend the first three days of the festival was severely hampered by the fact that I work evenings. As such, I was completely unable to see any of the films screened on Wednesday, including Takashi Miike's chanbara 13 Assassins (Jûsan-nin no shikaku, Japan 2010), much to my dismay. Thankfully, the events stretched out a bit more on Thursday and Friday, affording me the time to see a film after work. In fact, I also had the time to see Red Chapel (Det røde kapel, Denmark 2006), a documentary about a Danish comedy troupe touring, of all places, North Korea. However, when I went to purchase tickets, it was already sold out.

At any rate, the two films I did manage to get in on Thursday and Friday were Sasha and Troll Hunter respectively.

SASHA (SAŠA, 2010)
Director: Dennis Todorović
Country: Germany
Languages: German, Serbo-Croatian, Bosnian

At its core, Sasha is a comedy about conflicting cultures, with the main conflict occurring between the "machoistic" Yugoslavian family in which Sasha is raised and the gay community to which Sasha longs to be a part. This film would be hard to completely localize in America due to the focus on cultures, but I suppose a way to help people understand the basic conflict would be to compare the basic tension to the kind of tension you'd expect in a film about a family moving from Kentucky to San Francisco, and the youngest son is a closet homosexual.

The first scene of the film sets up the basic tension excellently. During a rest stop on the family's trip back to Germany from Montenegro, Sasha enters a convenience store that sells porno mags. The film opens at this moment, as Sasha glances over the "normal," hetero porn, then looks out the window at his family, then slowly wanders over to the gay porn. As he tries to surreptitiously pull one out to look at it, the door opens and he panics, causing the entire rack of magazines to fall onto the floor. He hurried tries to collect them, but thankfully the person who just entered is a worker, who tells Sasha not to worry about cleaning it up. "Do you want to buy this one?" she asks. Sasha blurts out, "No!" then, after a pause, gives a far more timid, "Yes."

Overall, the plot largely concerns Sasha's crush on his piano teacher Mr. Weber. When Weber tells Sasha that he has finally gotten a job as a professor in Austria, Sasha becomes incredibly distraught. He finally confesses his sexuality to his best friend, a Chinese girl named Jiao who (unbeknownst to him) has a crush on Sasha. However, after her initial disappointment and anger, Jiao proves to be a true friend and tells Sasha that he needs to tell Weber how he really feels. What follows is, largely, Sasha's quest to accept himself and find acceptance from those he loves and cares about.

Of course, this all sounds like quick the drama, and that's very much what I expected to get when I attended. Sure, there might be some humour here and there, but I imagined a lot of melodramatic scenes revolving around the relationships between the characters. What I got was far, far more comedic. In fact, even in the film's absolute darkest and bleakest moment, the film is still throwing out jokes. To put it bluntly, one of the characters could have just died, but the film is still cracking jokes. A lot of the humour is directly referencing Sasha's homosexuality, and the more subtle jokes involve a lot of irony. For example, while at a gay bar, Sasha gets punched in the face, splitting his lip. When he returns home, his father assumes Sasha got hurt while fighting to defend Jiao's honour (who the family believes is Sasha's girlfriend).

Some of the other jokes involve cultural differences. For example, their Bosnian uncle who is visiting to make repairs to their bathroom repeatedly mishears Jiao's name as the Serbo-Croatian word for "devil." This joke is further carried to Sasha's brother Boki, who gets a tattoo of a devil on his right shoulder and who just so happens to have a crush on Jiao. (Wow, there sure are a lot of crushes in this movie, huh?) There was also a bit of toilet humour, which could be the most universal humour as it got the biggest laughs at the festival.

Still, the humour does not get in the way of character development and interrelationships. In fact, the humour is the main way that the film explores these ideas, using it to create a more light-hearted atmosphere in which to explore the interaction between gay cultural and society as a whole. Overall, the film was very well done and seemed to be a crowd-pleaser, and it's comedic take on the growing importance of gay culture in the world as a whole was well-executed.

Director: André Øvredal
Country: Norway
Languages: Norwegian

As with Sasha, I was once again surprised by just how comedic this movie was. The film is described as a horror film in the mode of a mockumentary, but I'd say it's the other way around. The film seems far more interested in creating a humorous "documentary" about a man who hunts trolls then in actually scaring the audience, but obviously some tenser moments arise, considering how dangerous a job troll hunting must be.

The film begins with a college-based news crew filming a story about a rogue bear poacher who has been killing bears without the official license or sanction of the government. (Norway is a very nature-loving country, so only specialists are allowed to hunt bears, and only when the bear has been deemed a threat to humans.) The crew finds the suspected poacher and follows him across Norway, periodically trying to confront him. However, the man is very reserved and refuses to discuss anything. Finally, they follow him out one night as he leaves camp in his Jeep. When they finally catch up to him, he is running the opposite way. He screams, "TROLL! RUN!" What follows is one of the film's more frightening scenes, due in large part to the increased sense of confusion from the film crew, including the camera man (who is eternally our POV for the film). This scene in particular is the most evocative of The Blair Witch Project (1999).

Having been found out, and feeling partly responsible for the fact that one member of the crew was bitten, the troll hunter Hans decides to allow them to continue filming what he does, if they still want to tag along, on the condition that they do everything he says. The crew agrees and the rest of the film focuses on Hans as he hunts trolls and tells the crew more about exactly what his job is.

As I said before, this film was much more comedic than I was expecting. Fans of horror cinema will likely not be particularly frightened or scared by the film, though I'm sure some people who are a bit jumpier may disagree with this comment. Still, it's far more of a parody of the "documentary" horror films than anything, so I would place it squarely in the genre of mockumentary. I'm not entirely sure how much of it was improvised, though certainly there would be a lot of room for ad libbing. You frequently feel like some of the conversations are done completely improv, with the actor playing Hans generating the "facts" about trolls as they go.

The audience seemed to appreciate a lot of the humour, though I sometimes wondered just how much and to what extent. For example, they make a rather obscure reference (for the United States, anyway) about a fairytale involving an eating contest with a troll, and the joke got its share of laughs. Did they catch the reference, or did they just catch the sense of timing that cues you in, "This is a joke"? Likewise, people seemed to enjoy Hans' stipulation that nobody Christian could come along because trolls can smell the blood of Christians. Culturally, Christianity (and religion in general) is on the decline in the Nordic countries, to the point where jokes about being ashamed of being a Christian are more socially relevant there than they would be in the States.

Interestingly, one joke flew in Madison far better than I'm sure it was intended to. At one point, the film crew asks Hans why he is letting them film. After all, it is a government job and he is committing treason by divulging these closely-guarded government secrets. He replies how the government job has shitty hours, shitty pay, and shitty benefits. Not surprising, given the current political climate in Wisconsin and in Madison in particular, this joke got huge roars of laughter from the audience.

Overall, Troll Hunter was probably the most outright entertaining film I saw at the festival and I'd highly recommend it to anyone looking for a film with a bit more of an offbeat sense of humour.

07 April 2011

Wisconsin Film Festival 2011: Overview

Last weekend I attended the Wisconsin Film Festival here in Madison and saw eight films: Sasha (Saša, Germany 2010), Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren, Norway 2010), The Piano in a Factory (Gang de qin, China 2010), Medal of Honor (Medalia de onoare, Germany 2009), A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann, Norway 2010), Le quattro volte (Italy 2010), The Light Thief (Svet-Ake, Kyrgyzstan 2010), and Everything Will Be Fine (Alting bliver godt igen, Denmark 2010).

The festival ran from Wednesday, March 30th to Sunday, April 3rd and showcased 211 different films from all over the world. The films were spread pretty evenly between the 9 participating theaters, which can be seen on this map. The longest walk would probably be from Monona Terrace to either of the two Memorial Union theaters, which would take less than half an hour and be just over a mile. Surprisingly, all but one of the films I attended were shown at the Orpheum theaters. The one odd film was the first film at the festival, Sasha, which was at the Play Circle Theater in the Memorial Union. I also had a ticket to see Cluny Brown (1946) at the UW Cinematheque as my ninth and final film, but decided to forgo it as I wasn't sure if I'd make it in time and my parents were coming in to visit that evening.

More or less on time
At any rate, the festival seemed to run pretty smoothly and it seemed like all the films being shown were high-quality, with the exception of a few "so bad it's good" style cult films generally appreciated for their unintentional humour and unusual styles. The volunteer staff all seemed rather friendly, at least at the theaters I visited, and the shows ran more or less on time. I say "more or less" because every show seemed to have a habit of starting about 5 minutes after the printed show time, at which point someone (usually festival director Meg Hamel) would introduce the film and run the short intro reel listing the sponsors and so forth. So, in general, the film itself would often begin a bit after the printed show time. Still, it was nothing major, and certainly a sign that things were well-run. There were no horror stories of the theater that got way off schedule, messing up everyone's plans.

Personally, I had built in at least a half hour between showings to allow myself to get to the next theater. And since most of the time, getting to the next theater meant walking out and immediately getting in line for the next show, I had plenty of time and usually managed to nab some prime seats. However, as I said before, the delay did contribute a little to my skipping Cluny Brown, though the largest deciding factor was that it allowed me to eat dinner with my parents.

Excellent staff and volunteers
Meg Hamel was the director of the festival, and I think she did an excellent job. She was always busy overseeing everything, and tried to introduce as many films as she could. And every time she did make an introduction, it seemed like she had personally watched the film. I don't know many many of the 211 films she had watched herself beforehand, but I'd wager it was a vast majority of them. She also helped create a nice, inviting atmosphere by chatting up the audience.

I will also say that I was impressed with the manager of the Stage Door Theater, who I initially met when I tried to go to my first film at that theater by entering through the Orpheum Main Theater doors. I was at first turned away and told I had to walk around to the other side of the building, but the Stage Door manager chased after me and said he could led me through the backstage areas so I wouldn't have to walk around the block. I saw him frequently when I went to showing at the Stage Door, and while seating people for the sold-out screening of Le quattro volte, he went around to all the seats known to be somewhat defective to make sure that the people were comfortable enough in them and tried to direct them to better seats if possible.

Really, the festival was an excellently run affair, and with a very wide and interesting range of films. It has a lot of potential, especially under the helm of Meg Hamel, to grow into a major film festival in the United States. However, it might need more and larger theaters to be able to attract and accommodate larger crowds. Likewise, a bigger push towards granting awards could help it become more relevant in the film community as a whole and attract more submissions.

At any rate, expect my reviews of the eight films I saw next week.