I've never thought of myself as a true-blue cinephile. I have trouble watching more than two movies a day. (The third one erases the first one.) And I'm not one of those guys who, if it came down to it, would hold strips of film up to a bare light bulb, blinking 24 times a second to create the illusion of motion. But the Wisconsin Film Festival, which returns April 12-15 with a whole new slate of art movies, indie flicks, documentaries and foreign films, has a way of turning all of us into cinephiles, intrepid explorers of the cinematic medium. Faced with a veritable jungle of choices, we get out our machetes and start chopping. Here's what caught the edge of my blade.
The Life of Reilly: Well, who knew? Those of us who came of age in the 1970s mostly remember Charles Nelson Reilly from TV's Match Game, where he flaunted the sexual orientation that, even at that relatively late date, dared not speak its name. Along with Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares, Reilly was a gay icon manquÃ, screaming so loudly from the closet that he might as well have gone ahead and come out. But there was more to this television personality than met the eye (or the funny bone). And it's all on display in Barry Poltermann's moving documentary, which is a filmed version of the autobiographical stage show Reilly put together a few years ago. Yes, he's still alive, and he gets tons of mileage out of the fact that reports of his death have been highly exaggerated. Plus, he's as hilarious as ever.
And surprisingly dramatic, transmuting his Bronx childhood into material worthy of a play by Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill. Mom was a holy terror, dad was a terror victim, and Charles was the butt of many a sissy joke. But he loved acting, and he was good at it, eventually earning a Tony Award for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. And what you realize, while watching him dominate the stage, is that Match Game was only a blip in a distinguished career that might have been even more distinguished if Reilly had had the good sense to arrive on the scene after, instead of long before, Will and Grace.
Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams: We're in contemporary Sarajevo. It's a decade since the Dayton Accords brought the Bosnian war to an end, but for some Sarajevans ' women, in particular ' the war will never end. And Esma (Mirijana Karanovic) is one of those women. A single mother who has to hold down two jobs to put her teenage daughter (the astonishing Luna Mijovic) through school, Esma receives special payments for having lost her husband in the fight against the Serbs. But that turns out to be only the official story in this Bosnian version of Secrets and Lies. Esma lost a lot more than a husband, if indeed she had a husband. And writer-director Jasmila Zbanic uses her story to represent the myriad atrocities that befell Sarajevo's Grbavica neighborhood while the Serbo-Montenegrin forces were busy engaging in ethnic cleansing. As grim as that may sound, Zbanic keeps her anger in check and holds out the slim hope that, should the past ever be buried, there will be dancing on its grave.
Fay Grim: Back in the '90s, Hal Hartley seemed to have his finger on the pulse of...well, what exactly? Suburban angst (Amateur)? Modern love (Trust)? Postmodern love ( Flirt)? Whatever it was, Hartley used distancing effects to come up with a comic tone all his own ' Beckettian deadpan crossed with Sirkian melodrama. Lately, however, it's seemed as if the joke was on him. No Such Thing and The Girl From Monday both bombed. But Fay Grim, which stars Parker Posey as a woman swept up in an international-espionage caper, may be just what Hartley needs to regain his status as an arthouse darling. It's a sequel, of sorts, to 1998's Henry Fool, that screwball tragedy about fame, fortune and the fickle finger of fate. But it also stands on its own as an artsy-fartsy spy-thriller spoof ' Casino Royale as reimagined by Jean-Luc Godard. Good luck following the plot. In fact, you might want to warm up by reading some Thomas Pynchon. But Parker's completely on her game, delivering lines as if transmitting signals from outer space.
Air Guitar Nation: Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, Beavis and Butt-head ' the long and noble tradition of playing guitar without actually using a guitar has never lacked for acolytes. But who knew it was turning into an art form? Director Alexandra Lipsitz, that's who. Culminating with the Air Guitar World Championship, which is held every year in Oulo, Finland, of all places, this tongue-only-partly-in-cheek documentary makes the case for strutting around on stage like a rock star, finger-synching licks that you couldn't actually finger if your life depended on it. And although that may sound like one step removed from an Elvis impersonation, it doesn't exactly look easy. Standouts include New Yorker Dave Crane, a.k.a. BjÃrn TÃroque (author of To Air Is Human), and Los Angelino David Jung, a.k.a. C-Diddy, whose extravagant costume incorporates a Hello Kitty chest plate. Eddie Van Halen, eat your heart out.
Manufactured Landscapes: Call it an inconvenient truth, but not only are we heating up the planet with our unquenchable thirst for oil, we're also scraping away at the surface until what's left is all but unrecognizable. Mines, quarries, dams ' all leave their marks on the landscape, as do the factories that gobble up resources and spit them back out as products and waste. And for the past two decades or so, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has been recording this desecration with a large-format camera that gives some idea of the sheer size of the operation, but also of its strangely sublime beauty. Epic in scale, Burtynsky's photographs bring to mind the romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, the difference being that Burtynsky's photographs represent nature defiled, Eden long after the fall.
Jennifer Baichwal's stunning documentary doesn't so much profile Burtynsky as present his work and, through the wonders of cinema, add the dimension of time. The movie opens with an eight-minute tracking shot along a factory floor in China that's nearly half a mile long, and it's like stepping inside one of Burtynsky's photographs and going for a walk. Except for a brief stop in Bangladesh, where abandoned oil tankers are broken down for scrap metal, we never leave China, which has finally decided to join the Industrial Revolution in what can only be described as a big way. With oil supplies dwindling and coal dust choking the air, this may represent the last gasp for Mother Earth. But who knew she would photograph so well on her deathbed? The images are truly, sadly awesome.
12:08 East of Bucharest: 'Was there, or was there not, a revolution in our town?' That's how the host of a public-affairs television program called Issue of the Day poses the question to his guests and the viewers at home on the 16th anniversary of the 1989 uprising that sent the Ceausescu regime packing. But we're not in Bucharest. We're in a sleepy little town some miles east of Bucharest. And it isn't entirely clear that anybody around here did anything at all to further the revolution until Ceauscescu was safely out of the picture. Did people gather in the public square before 12:08, when Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, boarded a helicopter and kissed Romania goodbye? Maybe, maybe not. And out of such historical uncertainty writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu has fashioned a comedy that just gets funnier and funnier as it goes along. Fully half of the movie is devoted to the TV program, which seems like a Saturday Night Live spoof of itself. Porumboiu's satire may lack bite, but it's quite capable of gumming you to death.
Manhattan, Kansas: Merely eccentric or downright crazy? You be the judge while watching Tara Wray's unnervingly fascinating documentary about her mother, who's one of those artist types who never get around to making much art but who live their lives so artistically that you wind up questioning their sanity. Tara was home-birthed and home-schooled, but she's spent most of her life running away from home, and from a woman who, though clearly intelligent, is quite erratic in her moods and behavior. (She decided to dig up the floorboards after reading about a buried treasure in a Nancy Drew mystery.) But after six years of keeping her distance, Tara decided to return to Kansas to make peace with ' or at least sense out of ' her mother. The result is a vivid portrait of a mother-daughter relationship that, in some ways, is no different from any other mother-daughter relationship, just a hell of a lot loonier. And what we realize is what Tara herself realized: This movie isn't really about her mother, it's about her.
The Boss of It All: Without actually setting foot on American soil, Lars von Trier has socked ol' Uncle Sam in the snozzle with such recent films as Dancer in the Dark (hated it), Dogville (loved it) and Manderlay (ho-hum). Now he's back where he belongs, and wouldn't you know it, there's trouble in Denmark ' just enough trouble, it appears, to cause a few laughs and get in a few digs at the capitalist-enterprise system. Think The Office, only in Danish and with a whopper of a comic premise. To wit: The head of a small IT firm (Peter Gantzler) has managed to convince his employees over the years that there's a higher head ' the boss of it all ' whom they've never met. He's been the one to blame for all the layoffs, budget crunches, etc. But now the company's up for sale, and the head needs to come up with a higher head to sign the papers. So he hires an actor (Jens Albinus) to impersonate the higher head until the deal is sealed. One small problem: The actor is utterly committed to the radical theories of a theatrical avant-gardist named Gambini.
Pleasantly low-key wackiness ensues. And although von Trier, serving as his own narrator, assures us that the movie's 'not worth a moment's reflection,' it's in fact a thought-provoking look at the lengths to which we will go to avoid taking responsibility for our actions, not to mention an investigation into what it means to play a role. Ever the experimentalist, von Trier shot the movie using 'Automavision,' a computerized camera system that decides for itself how to frame shots and set the light and sound levels. It's a radical rethinking of the cinematic experience at best, a minor distraction at worst. But I thought it actually contributed to the movie's deft comic timing.
Heart of an Empire: When I first read about Jay Thompson's documentary, I practically shouted 'Nerd alert!' How else to explain men who dress up in Star Wars costumes, as if every night were Halloween in a galaxy very, very near? But I wound up having the same reaction Thompson must have had: These guys (and the occasional gal) are great humanitarians! Founded in 1997 by South Carolinian Albin Johnson, the so-called Fighting 501st is a worldwide confederation of Star Wars fans who apparently think the wrong side won. Most of them dress up as Imperial Storm Troopers, with a Darth Vader usually leading the pack. And although the group started out as a fan club, it's evolved over the years into a charitable organization that, among other things, pays hospital visits to children with terminal illnesses. Short of a personal appearance by Santa Claus himself, it's hard to imagine better medicine.
The documentary itself is rather crudely done. Thompson spends the first half trying to explain why fully grown adults would want to play dress-up. (Uh, because it's fun?) And he never finds the right laugh-with-or-at-you tone. But when Johnson's own daughter is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, you see firsthand what a powerful bond fandom can be. May the Force be with them.
Bamako: After Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland, it's just so refreshing to see a movie set in Africa where the main character isn't white. In fact, there aren't any main characters in Bamako, which takes its title from the capital of Mali, a former French colony that, like the rest of the continent, is still reeling from a hundred years of colonialism and the neocolonialist policies of global financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. If that description of the African crisis strikes you as unfair to the Western powers that have borne the white man's burden, then you may want to skip this movie. But I feel obliged to let you know that you'll be cheating yourself out of a very interesting cinematic experience.
We're in a courtyard that's doubling as a courtroom. Bewigged lawyers share the space with witnesses who've been called, people who live in the surrounding houses and the occasional goat. And there's a hearing going on, a kind of mock trial in which the nations of Africa are the plaintiff and global capitalism is the defendant. The proceedings are beamed out to the rest of the town via loudspeakers. Some people listen, most go about their business. And it gradually dawns on you that this is a metaphor for the current situation: a lot of talk, little action, life somehow going on. As didactic as that might sound, director Abderrahmane Sissako brings it to life in a slightly stylized way that recalls the Epic Theater of Bertolt Brecht ' infotainment at its best.
Close to Home: Don't send a girl to do a woman's job. That's one of the lessons I drew from this Israeli film about the lighter side of compulsory military service. Not near as wacky as Private Benjamin, Close to Home nevertheless suggests that some people just aren't cut out for the ol' spit-and-polish routine. And yet Israel has always required that its citizens, women included, spend two years serving their country. 'They give away their youth,' co-director Vidi Bilu has said about the women who patrol Jerusalem's streets, on the lookout for potential terrorists. They also stumble into adulthood, as evidenced by this admirably understated coming-of-age film.
Mirit (Naama Schendar) and Smader (Smader Sayar) get stuck together as a team. Mirit is strictly by-the-book, Smadar feels rules are made to be broken, and it doesn't look like they're going to wind up best friends. Then a bomb literally shifts the ground under their feet, each of them moving closer to the other's worldview in rather unpredictable ways. The relationship between these two should resonate with anyone who's ever tried to befriend a person that life arbitrarily threw her way. But the movie's chief value may be the up-close-and-personal look it gives us of Israel's far-flung security apparatus. These women have one of those jobs that are both highly tedious and highly dangerous. No wonder they spend half their time chasing after cute guys, both Israeli and Palestinian.
Absolute Wilson: At least since 1976's Einstein on the Beach, Robert Wilson has developed a reputation as the world's most famous avant-garde theater director, an establishment-blessed guru who uses words and images to free the mind and ravish the senses. And if you've always found his hours-long works (one of them went on for a week) rather intimidating, you may want to check out Katherina Otto-Bernstein's documentary bio, which traces Wilson's approach all the way back to his privileged, yet strict, childhood in Waco, Texas. A stutterer, Wilson learned how to slow things down to say what he needed to say, and if that's not relevant to his stagings, which are somewhere between still pictures and moving pictures, then nothing is.
Otto-Bernstein perhaps includes too much stock footage ' e.g., a shot of a Klan rally somewhere/sometime to illustrate the segregation Wilson grew up under. But she also includes excerpts from just about everything Wilson's ever done, and they offer a valuable peek into the vast depth and breadth of Wilson's imagination, a terrain not even he pretends to completely understand. Wilson himself is around, commenting on his life and work, and it's a surprise how approachable he seems, just your average genius revolutionizing an art form.
Into Great Silence: In 1984, director Philip Groning asked the Carthusian monks at the Grand Chartreuse monastery high up in the French Alps if they might allow him to make a documentary about their legendarily ascetic lives. Sixteen years later, they got back to him. And the result is one of the most delicate experiences you're ever likely to have inside a movie theater. There's no voice-over narration, no score, no background provided and very few words uttered except as part of Gregorian chants. Instead, we watch as the monks go about their daily rituals and routines. There's a lot of praying, as you'd expect, but also such mundane tasks as sweeping the floors, chopping vegetables and washing dishes, each of which the monks endow with such a deliberate calmness as to border on the spiritual. God lies in the details.
Groning does such a nice job of staying out of the way that the movie seems the opposite of intrusive. It seems inclusive. And those of you who are so inclined may find yourselves sinking into its rhythms, which have this way of slowing time down until it almost stands still. Others may want to bring a box of Milk Duds, because this thing is nearly three hours long. Myself, I felt I got a small taste of what the monks refer to as 'a joyful penitence.' And the overall lack of noise was, in my case, deafening. For the first time in ages, I could hear the ringing in my ears. Sheer bliss.
It's Happiness: A Polka Documentary: The title pretty much says it all. What it doesn't say is how thoroughly director Craig DiBiase has covered the territory. We stop by Art's Concertina Bar in Milwaukee. We show up at Pulaski's Polish Fest. We attend a Polka Mass. And along the way, we're reminded just how much polkas have meant to this state's people, and how much they might mean again. Roll out the barrels, because on top of being highly informative, this thing is a barrel of fun.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait: Don't be fooled by the title; this is not an ESPN-style documentary. And although it's totally about soccer superstar ZinÃdine Zidane, the man who infamously head-butted an Italian defender during last year's World Cup final, it's also about being about a soccer superstar named ZinÃdine Zidane. That's right, it's an experimental film, one that never takes its eye ' 17 cameras, altogether ' off Zidane during a 2005 match between Real Madrid and Villarreal. Points are scored, but we don't necessarily see them being scored. We're too busy watching Zidane's every move ' the walking around, the standing around, the sudden bursts of speed, like a panther snatching its prey. It's all Zidane all the time, and this turns out to be a whole new way of both presenting a soccer match and portraying a soccer player. Andy Warhol would have loved this film. And you may, too. Just come with the right frame of mind, like a good little cinephile.