Much of the ink spilled about the Milwaukee Film Festival, given its rising cultural cachet, is devoted to the Competition and Spotlight programming. (If you haven’t heard, Saturday’s centerpiece is the nonfiction “The Great Alone,” about four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey frosting across Alaska for another trophy.) Staying on the festival’s popular trail is understandable—after all, the 93-page program book can create whiteout conditions—but the real action is often far from the gala events, which account for only a fraction of the 303 feature and short films being presented this year.
If you require a musher, let me suggest one far-flung screening for each of the next seven days of the fest, which opened Thursday and runs through Oct. 8.
Friday, Sept. 25
I’m a sucker for stories about rock history, especially correctives like “The Wrecking Crew” (Times Cinema, 9:45 p.m.), which spotlights the Los Angeles studio session players who spent decades anonymously making music you know by heart, including recordings by the Beach Boys, the Byrds, and the Mamas & the Papas. The documentary provides raucous anecdotes, analyzes an industry in flux, and profiles many of these consummate professionals—for me, the most compelling figure is bassist Carol Kaye, a working mother who asserted her way into this ‘60s boys club. Oh, and the soundtrack swells with good vibrations.
Saturday, Sept. 26
“The Look of Silence” (Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, 4:15 p.m.) is Joshua Oppenheimer’s second film about how Indonesia’s anti-communist purge of 1965-66 has contemporary ripples, following 2012’s “The Act of Killing,” perhaps the best documentary to have ever played the Milwaukee Film Festival. This time the director reportedly asks ophthalmologist Adi Rukun, whose older brother was butchered by a government death squad, to knock on the doors of those responsible. Four other films I’m keen to see are playing at the same time—thanks a lot, MFF—but this is the only one that’s unmissable.
Sunday, Sept. 27
A less distressing choice for couples might be “A Year in Champagne” (Avalon Theater, 1:30 p.m.), which chronicles one harvest in the French region that gives the bubbly its name. The movie strives only to be a light, touristy soiree with PBS-style voiceover, but there are fascinating details—learn how only the finest pulp is extracted, and how sediment is removed from bottles—and, if you sniff carefully, you’ll detect accidental aromas about closed-off obsession and immigrant labor that warrant further discussion. For an extra $70, viewers can bring them up at a post-show wine tasting at Cafe Centraal at 3:30 p.m.
Monday, Sept. 28
Forty years after “Grey Gardens,” Albert Maysles turns his lens toward another elderly eccentric, the 93-year-old Iris Apfel. This time, though, the subject isn’t oblivious; in fact, the subtle themes of “Iris” (Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, 7 p.m.) include how the fashion icon has consciously turned her retirement into a kind of performance art and is also acutely aware of how her youngest fans inadvertently patronize her by treating her like a cute puppy. Despite its soft, organic touch, this is a movie about how we all eventually lose stature and face mortality—fitting topics for the penultimate film by Maysles, who became a legend in the ‘60s and died in March at age 88.
Tuesday, Sept. 29
The Hungarian “White God” (Downer Theatre, 9:45 p.m.) begins as a naturalistic story about a teenager searching for her missing dog Hagen, but it gradually morphs, as both of them are mistreated by the powerful, into a snarling parable about European racism. After enduring a series of abuses as a marginalized stray, Hagen finally lashes out by leading a large pack of vengeful mongrels to conquer the streets of Budapest. That jaw-dropping sequence—a warning to oppressors everywhere—is staged without the benefit of computer imagery and climaxes one of the most elaborate and convincing canine performances in movie history.
Wednesday, Sept. 30
Austrian director Jessica Hausner has built a career around movies about hushed women, and her latest work “Amour Fou” (Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, 9:30 p.m.) apparently extends the streak. At its center is Henriette Vogel, the real-life 19th-century Berlin socialite who, after contracting a terminal illness, contemplates a suicide pact with the poet Heinrich von Kleist. Sounds like a rough go, but Hausner has called it a romantic comedy, and, on the strength of her previous film “Lourdes,” I’m willing to believe that she’s concocted a surprising movie that grapples with the inner mysteries of a complicated woman.
Thursday, Oct. 1
It’s hard to say which genre picture at the festival will keep viewers gasping, but I’m placing my bet on “A Hard Day” (Times Cinema, 9:45 p.m.), a South Korean police thriller that played to enthusiastic audiences in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and announced Kim Seong-Hun as a filmmaker to watch. Kim’s story concerns a corrupt detective put through the wringer by a shadowy blackmailer, and by all reports it contains bone-crunching action, taut suspense, and an original, dark sense of humor.
The full festival lineup can be accessed online at mkefilm.org.
Venues include the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill; the Times Cinema; the Avalon Theater; and the historic Oriental and Downer Theatres. Tickets are $12, but discounts are available for seniors, students, and children. They can be purchased online, by phone, or in person at each theater box-office. Many screenings are selling quickly, so buy your tickets now.