2021 Milwaukee Film Festival: 11 Films

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2021 Milwaukee Film Festival
The 2021 Milwaukee Film Festival was held virtually from May 6, 2021 until May 21, 2021. I’ve already started my reviews. Here’s a roundup of eleven of the notable features that I viewed during the festival.

The Djinn

Be careful what you wish for is the lesson in this efficient little horror thriller from directors and screenwriters David Charbonier and Justin Power. Clocking in at a lean 82 minutes, a young, mute boy has to survive against a murderous spirit that can assume the visage of the dead in order to be granted the wish of a voice. Chance of the Djinn assuming the visage of his late mother at some point? 100%. But, it’s a tense cat and mouse game that feels like an 80s throwback in the best way with a terrific performance by Ezra Dewey as the young protagonist. Granted, there are only so many places to hide in an apartment and the jump scares are a little predictable, but it’s a good little premise executed well. Worth checking out.

Red Heaven
Red Heaven
Red Heaven documents a NASA experiment of isolating six people for a year on a volcano in Hawaii to simulate the isolation of a mission to Mars and its effects on humans. I don’t know about you, but I sure can relate to a year of relative isolation.
Directed byKatherine Gorringe and Lauren DeFillippo, and shot mostly by the subjects of the experiment, it’s always an interesting social experiment, although you have to wonder if conflicts were edited out or if the subjects of the experiment are just so professional. There’s certainly a lot of grumbling about monotony and endlessly filling out surveys over how they’re feeling. And one romantic relationship springs up. There’s certainly a choice to keep it professional rather than turn this into something out of The Real World, but it does offer a glimpse into the human psyche. And a problem that forces everyone to work towards a common goal seems to be a cure for a lot of what ails that little community. It’s not a great film, but certainly a very watchable film with something to glean from what it presents.

The Last Matinee

The Last Matinee (a.k.a Red Screening) is a giallo inspired slasher set in a grand old movie palace. From Uruguayan director Maximiliano Contenti, the film is set in The Opera theater where a killer stalks the patrons of the theater during a crummy horror film with the projectionist having to save the day. It’s very much a nostalgic homage to a pair of genres that have fallen out of favor and delivers on the expected gore with colorful style. But, it really doesn’t deliver a whole lot more. It’s not so much commenting on giallo films as trying to recreate them, but placing it in comparison to the best of the genre finds that it’s nothing really special in comparison. It has a black gloved killer, but there’s no mystery. It has the requisite gore of a slasher, but it asks a lot that nobody notices. And, ultimately, none of the characters are particularly memorable, although the killer does have a novel fetish. It’s fine as a throwback genre exercise, but that’s all that it is.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It

Rita Moreno has had one heck of a career and life. The latest documentary is testament to that. While it’s not the least bit groundbreaking in terms of form, you’ve seen one PBS American Masters documentary and you know what you’re in for, it’s distinguished by its content. There’s an impressive collection of clips for one thing. More importantly, Rita Moreno is on screen extensively reflecting on her life and career and she holds nothing back. Rita Moreno still has her spirit and given the chance to set the record straight, and she, like the title says, goes for it. And it’s often remarkable for that frankness.

The Woman Who Ran

Over the years, I’ve developed one rule for film festivals. See the South Korean films. Which brings us to the latest from the internationally celebrated Hong Sangsoo. The film follows a woman who goes on a trip to visit her own friends and they hold a serious of discussions as to where they are in their lives and what little dramas they are going through. It’s a story told with subtlety and precision and invites you to look deeper. The film doesn’t reveal its real point until almost the end, which hides the stakes for a little too long, but Hong Sangsoo confidently shows that he is a master of his craft. The Woman Who Ran isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch, but it’s satisfying when it reveals its overall design and invites you to rewatch. And you believe you’ll be rewarded by a rewatch.

M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity

One of the surprises of the 2021 Milwaukee Film Festival was just how good this documentary of M.C. Escher was. The fact that there’s only one celebrity talking head, Graham Nash, and he at least had a conversation with the famous artist at one point, is a point in favor of the documentary. Utilizing journals from M.C. Escher with readings from Stephen Fry, the film manages the feat of being both really insightful into Escher’s art while simultaneously giving us a sense of Escher as a human being. And it does all that while blowing up Escher’s art in visually impressive ways. I ended up being completely satisfied with a new appreciation of Escher as an artist. It’s a complete success.

I Blame Society

Gillian Wallace Horvat writes, directs, and stars as struggling director Gillian Wallace Horvat who takes the observation that “she could make a really good murderer” and channels it into her art and career. In the form of a mockumentary about herself, Gillian Wallace Horvat crosses the line into madness in a meta commentary on the Hollywood machine and how hard it is to get ahead in the business for a woman. It’s part American Psycho and part Spinal Tap and very ambitious. Alas, it doesn’t always work, and I felt that it kind of ran out of things to say around the halfway point, but you certainly can’t fault it’s writer/director/star for her effort.

My Donkey, My Lover, and I

One of the delights of the 2021 Milwaukee Film Festival was the French comedy My Donkey, My Lover, and I. Antoinette’s lover is surprised by his wife by a surprise hiking vacation. Antoinette (Laure Calamy) decides to surprise him by sneaking away and also doing the hike, with a donkey, with romantic trysts planned along the way. What can go wrong? Well just about everything.
Written and directed by Caroline Vignane, Antoinette is really taught a lesson about relationships, self respect, and love mostly courtesy of the stubborn donkey Patrick who is paired with Antoinette. A donkey who won’t move unless talked to, which causes Antoinette to unburden her soul. Laure Calamy is a delight as Antoinette, and the way she calls Patrick “Pa-Treek” is beyond endearing, engaging in material that includes slapstick and sex farce, but always making us believe in her as a human being rather than a cartoon. It’s sunny, warm, funny, and just a pleasant and satisfying experience from beginning to end.

Undine

Undine is the latest from Christian Petzold which reunites the stars of Transit, Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer, as lovers. Only one of the two has a secret, Undine is a water spirit given human flesh by his love and if he leaves her, she’ll have to kill him. As evidenced by Transit before, Rogowski and Beer have tremendous chemistry. It’s a pleasure to watch every scene where they share the screen. The rest of the film has a lot to recommend it too. The cinematography is evocative and beautiful. The story asks questions about love, how much our identity is defined by our relationships, and regrets. There are some wonderful underwater scenes. And it takes a few nice twists. It’s not on the level of Phoenix or Transit, but its a solid entry from one of the more interesting international directors working today.

The Dry

The Dry is one of the better mystery thrillers I’ve seen in a while. A police officer (Eric Bana) returns to his Outback childhood hometown after an apparent murder/suicide involving his childhood best friend. He reluctantly agrees to look into it by his friend’s parents, which conjures up memories of a murder of his girlfriend some 20 years earlier. And both mysteries entwine.
We’ve seen these crimes in a small town uncover dark secrets stories plenty of times before. Regardless, when they work, they really work, and The Dry can be counted as a successful entry into the field. The Outback establishes a dry, hot presence throughout the film, perhaps symbolic of the combustibility lying in wait within the characters. Eric Bana is well suited to his role. And the mysteries, or at least the modern one, is suitably engrossing and has a very satisfying solution and payoff. The historic mystery isn’t as much solved and there are certainly plenty of caveats to be had with that, but overall its a very solid, entertaining film.

Tiny Tim: King for a Day

One of the traditions of the Milwaukee Film Festival is its Members Only Screening which features one of the biggest gets of the festival. They alternate between narrative and documentary films generally and this year featured the documentary Tiny Tim: King for a Day.
Tiny Tim is kind of a footnote in pop culture history as this point. He was kind of a Tim Burton character brought to life that had a brief, but intense flash of fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s, culminating in his ratings breaking wedding on The Tonight Show, and then quickly faded into obscurity. The basic and familiar rise and fall story of celebrity is told, however the film makes a real case for him as a legitimate artist rather than a novelty. Especially as a breakthrough androgynous artist in a time when gay rights were on the rise. In addition, he kept journals, which are read by Weird Al Yankovic, an outsider artist in his own right, which add real depth and insight. Ultimately, Tiny Tim: King for a Day is a little too familiar in its arc and methods, but the artist that inspired the film still brings interest.
I’ve one more big film to cover. The 2021 Milwaukee Film Festival ran from May 6, 2021 until May 20, 2021. Many of the films that played the festival will find a virtual home on Milwaukee Film’s virtual Sofa Cinema site or at a local cinema or streaming site. The online home of the Milwaukee Film Festival can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website.