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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Laugh. Cry. Cheer. The 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival aims for a big reaction
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Credit:Joe Rocco

Filmmaking icon Ingmar Berman may have said it best: "No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul."

Films could be called movies because they can stir feelings deep within, those that weren't apparent before you set foot in the theater. Expect some intense emotional reactions at this year's Wisconsin Film Festival whether you're watching a harrowing documentary or an absurdist comedy.

The festival runs April 11-18 at Sundance Cinemas and the UW's Cinematheque, Chazen Museum of Art, Elvehjem Building and Union South Marquee. Here are a dozen films bound to give you goose bumps, giggles or an ear-to-ear grin, grouped by the type of response they're likely to elicit.

SMILING

Dear Mr. Watterson
Sunday, April 14, 4 pm, UW Union South; Monday, April 15, 9 pm, Sundance

Appleton-born filmmaker Joel Schroeder overcame some major obstacles for this documentary about Bill Watterson, creator of the beloved cartoon Calvin and Hobbes. One of his subjects wouldn't appear on camera, and the other two exist only in comic strips. By culling stories from Watterson's peers, rivals and protégés, Schroeder shows how Watterson has helped comics gain acceptance as a legitimate art form.

Excerpts from Watterson's comic panels demonstrate just how much artistry went into their making. To help the drawings come alive, zooming and panning motion graphics impart movement to the characters. Looking a bit like an adult Calvin in his onscreen appearances, Schroeder puts his own love of this boy and his stuffed tiger at the core of the story. Whether flipping through archived comic strips at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum or strolling through the community that inspired Calvin's hometown, his youthful excitement is contagious.

- Mark Riechers

Berberian Sound Studio
Friday, April 12, 10 pm, Sundance

Sight isn't the only sense that shapes the movie-watching experience. Berberian Sound Studio explores sound's role in filmmaking, particularly when it's used to craft unsettling cinematic moments. Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a British sound engineer and foley artist hired to create soundscapes for a supernatural snuff film. His tiny studio transforms into a chamber of horrors. Watermelons, radishes and heads of lettuce are chopped, contorted and smashed to create the sounds of the story's most brutal acts.

The slicing and dicing won't necessarily produce a grin, but the film's clever framing might. Applying a horror film's lens to Gilderoy's work - fixing tight shots on the turning of knobs and stabbing of veggies, for example - creates a portrait that belies his meekness. It's pretty amusing, considering that Gilderoy is a mousy man who spends much of his time reading letters from his mother. That's the real power of sound: It can transform the hero into the villain with the flick of a switch.

- M.R.

LAUGHING

In the House
Friday, April 12, 2:30 pm, UW Union South; Saturday, April 13, 1:15 pm, Sundance; Sunday, April 14, 1:45 pm, Sundance

Aspects of Franois Ozon's mesmerizing In the House recall his marvelous work in thrillers such as Swimming Pool. But Ozon also has a flair for comedy, as Wisconsin Film Festival fans may remember from last year's giddy, union-themed farce Potiche.

In the new film, the laughs mainly come at the expense of Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a French educator and disappointed novelist whose teenage student, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), shows promise as a writer. Germain's teacherly dedication would be poignant, except that he makes really bad choices as he embraces Claud's project, which seems to be a journal of a sinister scheme to infiltrate a suburban family. Kristin Scott Thomas is appealing as Germain's wife, a gallery manager desperate to open a successful show.

- Kenneth Burns

Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time
Friday, April 12, 6:45 pm, Sundance; Monday, April 15, 2 pm, Sundance

Worn-out tropes can ruin gangster films, but director Jong-bin Yun makes his latest movie funny and interesting by putting a unique cultural spin on familiar material. His protagonist Choi Ik-hyun (Min-sik Choi) comes to power by abusing the loyalty associated with family ties, a theme played out in past Wisconsin Film Festival selections such as Mother. Yet his forays into the criminal underworld can't save him from being an ineffectual, drunken buffoon. He's a far cry from the slick, powerful crime lords who generally populate rags-to-riches-to-rags stories.

These unique touches help humor shine through the moments of darkness. They also set a tone that makes the characters seem genuinely affected by violence, an unusual trait in a gangster flick. Broken bottles and lead pipes don't just create the bloody window dressing of a typical genre film. They move the plot forward and move the audience to the edge of their seats.

- M.R.

CHEERING

I Am Divine
Thursday, April 11, 6 pm, UW Elvehjem Building; Friday, April 12, 9:30 pm, Sundance

This documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz is many things: a homage to John Waters' fearless leading lady, the departed drag queen Divine; a glimpse behind the scenes of transgressive comedies such as Pink Flamingos; a celebration of misfits and the artistic possibilities of outrage. Underneath Divine's larger-than-life persona was Harris Glenn Milstead, a man shaped by the childhood traumas he endured as a chubby, sensitive gay boy in 1950s Baltimore.

Schwarz interviews dozens of Divine's friends and collaborators, from her high school girlfriend to her personal assistants, adding childhood photos and archival footage from numerous performances. Milstead's shy and gracious demeanor emerges through clips of televised interviews, providing a stark contrast to Divine, who shocked and awed fans by squeezing her 300-pound frame into skimpy, glamorous outfits and turning phrases that would make a phone-sex operator blush. Despite her courage, Milstead is an underdog hell-bent on chasing lofty goals. It's hard not to cheer for that.

- Jessica Steinhoff

SHUDDERING

Room 237
Wednesday, April 17, 6:30 pm, Sundance

This documentary by Rodney Ascher sifts through messages said to be embedded in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror classic The Shining. Five experts share theories that range from plausible to outright baffling. Footage from Kubrick's film catalog, sometimes doctored to show his characters watching his films, illustrates each point and ties together the narrative while making you feel as if you're trapped inside of his mind. After watching so much paranoia spill onto the screen, you'll see apparitions of your own when you leave the theater.

- M.R.

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files
Saturday, April 13, 9:15 pm, UW Elvehjem Building; Sunday, April 14, 8:30 pm, Sundance

A barrel big enough to chemically disintegrate a human body. Hand-painted human skeletons. The putrid smell of death. The stomach-turning details of The Jeffrey Dahmer Files are more horrifying than a horror film ever could be. The film centers on engrossing interviews with three people connected to the case of the Milwaukee serial killer: the rookie detective who forged a personal bond with him, the medical examiner who dismantled the nightmare factory he called home, and the neighbor whose life was upended simply by meeting him.

The reenactments that tie together the film make it seem ridiculous that Dahmer wasn't caught earlier, like when he hauled his murder barrel onto a city bus. So how did authorities overlook this twisted man and his sick experiments? The documentary flirts with the question, but it's up to you to draw the conclusions.

- M.R.

CRYING

Beyond the Hills
Sunday, April 14, 5:45 pm, Sundance

Many Romanian films explore the clash between the old-fashioned and modern attitudes toward women, but few do so as poignantly as Beyond the Hills. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) becomes a nun at a strict monastery after growing up in an orphanage. One day, her best friend and presumed lover, Alina (Cristina Flutur), visits the monastery to get her to come to Germany. The paternalistic monk running the place disapproves, and Alina's resulting fits of anger are deemed a mental illness brought on by the devil.

This is a quiet, sad story, punctuated only by Alina's outbursts. The monk and the nuns who blindly follow him underscore the sexism ingrained in their culture as well as the dangers a religion faces when it can't come to terms with modernity.

- M.R.

Shepard & Dark
Monday, April 15, 6:30 pm, Sundance; Tuesday, April 16, 1:15 pm, Sundance

This documentary about playwright Sam Shepard's friendship with little-known author Johnny Dark is more uplifting than depressing, but some of the details hurt to watch. Director Treva Wurmfeld explores how these two drastically different men complement and challenge each other over the course of five decades and hundreds of handwritten letters. Shepard is a restless soul, raised in California by an alcoholic father whose ghost he longs to escape. He's achieved considerable fame, but those who know him best often describe him as lost. Dark is a homebody from New Jersey who works as a deli clerk in a tiny New Mexico town. He's depicted as a devoted husband, even after a brain condition disables his wife. Shepard attracts others easily but struggles to commit to them.

Wurmfeld gets access to some incredibly personal moments. Home movies show Dark's wife following brain surgery, wailing like a newborn as she struggles to form a sentence. The camera even gets in the middle of a conflict that threatens to drive Shepard and Dark apart, letting you feel the trauma of a bond shattering. Moments like these may very well move you to tears.

- J.S.

THINKING

Computer Chess
Sunday, April 14, 11:15 am, UW Union South; Tuesday, April 16, 6:15 pm, Sundance

Andrew Bujalski is best known for pioneering mumblecore, a recent filmmaking movement characterized by naturalistic dialogue and production values so low that the images on the screen sometimes seem older than they are. A retro look is especially important in his latest film, Computer Chess, which takes place at a computer-engineering competition in the early 1980s. The competitors' goal is simple: to create a computer program that's unbeatable at chess. But their midnight discussions with teammates, opponents and a few conspiracy nuts introduce another challenge: determining whether human concerns can be boiled down to numbers.

Bujalski explores this question visually, using a vintage videocamera he purchased on eBay. The period look he's crafted is reminiscent of an old documentary, with a few twists such as found footage from security cameras and a scrambled, out-of-sync TV channel. Continuity errors between scenes cleverly represent the logical faults that occur when human logic is applied to a machine's problems. And though the old-school aesthetic may conjure fond memories of the past, it's clear that technology hasn't mastered centuries-old matters of the heart.

- M.R.

Something in the Air
Tuesday, April 16, 6:30 pm, Sundance

Yearning to be part of something bigger than yourself goes hand in hand with growing up. Something in the Air examines how the cultural upheaval of the late '60s and early '70s shapes what a handful of young people hope to do with their lives.

French teen Gilles (Clément Métayer), like many boys his age, is a cauldron of raging hormones and revolutionary impulses. He pines after girls, draws and paints, and dreams of working on films that don't need to meet the approved messaging of a pro-labor socialist collective. Graphic depictions of violence - from injustices toward workers to police brutality in the streets - are likely to evoke vivid memories if you were young during the summer of '67, when riots broke out in Milwaukee and Detroit. The film also evokes a palpable sense of danger as drugs and diseases circulate, propelled by youth culture's quest for anti-authority role models.

- M.R.

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet
Sunday, April 14, 12:15 pm, Sundance; Tuesday, April 16, 4 pm, Sundance

At age 90, French New Wave pioneer Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour) turns to the ancient story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as told by playwright Jean Anouilh (19101987). In Resnais' work, which is also based on Anouilh's Cher Antoine ou l'Amour Raté, a troupe of actors gather to remember their dramatist friend, who posthumously addresses them in a film. Then they watch a filmed version of his play Eurydice, and at the same time - here's the twist - they perform it.

The proceedings call to mind a higher-rent version of a midnight Rocky Horror screening. Beautifully photographed and acted, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet is a meditation on love, death and the movies, maybe in that order.

- K.B.

Emotional trifecta
These nine films were unavailable to our critics before the festival, but reviewers who've seen them swear they'll make you laugh, cry and cheer in one sitting.

56 Up
Friday, April 12, 7 pm, UW Union South; Saturday, April 13, 9:15 am, UW Union South; Saturday, April 13, 6 pm, Sundance; Thursday, April 18, 8:30 pm, Sundance
Director Michael Apted checks in with 14 kids from extremely different backgrounds every seven years. The San Francisco Chronicle admired how this installment of his series shows many of the pains and pleasures that come with aging.

7 Boxes
Friday, April 12, 5:15 pm, Sundance; Tuesday, April 16, 9 pm, Sundance
This wild chase through a market in Paraguay's capital city is as tender as it is thrilling, according to Variety.

Awful Nice
Thursday, April 18, 9:15 pm, Sundance
Lots of laughs erupted at this comedy's South by Southwest screening, according to The Austin Chronicle, even though the opening scene revolves around a death.

Everybody in Our Family
Saturday, April 13, 3:30 pm, Sundance; Wednesday, April 17, 2 pm, Sundance
This black comedy from Romania earned a thumbs-up from Roger Ebert, who called it "a violent, funny and disconcerting vision of a familial argument turned into an actual slugfest."

Key of Life
Wednesay, April 17, 7 pm, Sundance; Thursday, April 18, 1:30 pm, Sundance
This Japanese film works as both a gangster flick and a romantic comedy, according to Twitch Film.

Much Ado About Nothing
Thursday, April 18, 9 pm, Sundance
Shot in just 12 days, Joss Whedon's take on Shakespeare's comedy earned NPR's praise for its acting and directing.

Only the Young
Friday, April 12, 7:45 pm, UW Cinematheque; Sunday, April 14, 4 pm, Sundance
This may be one of the most talked-about films on the festival circuit this year, especially after The New York Times found its "adolescent bodies groping, lurching and skateboarding toward burgeoning adulthood" oddly compelling.

Stories We Tell
Thursday, April 18, 6:45 pm, Sundance
Sarah Polley's film about her parents' marriage earned a perfect score from The Guardian, which lauded its candor and emotional complexity.

Tiger Tail in Blue
Sunday, April 14, 7:15 pm, UW Cinematheque
Don't let the word "mumblecore" deter you from this realistic tale about a cash-strapped couple. The Chicago Sun-Times praised its "drive and purpose."

- J.S.

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