Conversation: Critics Eric Beltmann and Shelly Sampon React to the 2024 Milwaukee Film Festival

Moviegoers line up for the 2024 Milwaukee Film Festival at the Downer Theatre, which parent Milwaukee Film acquired not long before this year's fest.
Moviegoers line up for the 2024 Milwaukee Film Festival at the Downer Theatre, which parent Milwaukee Film acquired not long before this year’s fest.

The 16th annual Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed April 25, brought more than 300 films to audiences in southeastern Wisconsin. Critic Speak contributors Eric Beltmann and Shelly Sampon discuss their shared love for Gene Wilder, how the Downer Theatre returned to the festival and why virtual options should return, too.

Eric Beltmann: Before we dive into the films, let’s talk about the bombshell that surprised basically no one. Just five weeks before the 2024 Milwaukee Film Festival was set to open, Milwaukee Film announced that it would begin operating the historic Downer Theatre, which had closed in September. For months area filmgoers suspected this maneuver was in the works, but I’m not sure many thought the venue would be ready for this year’s fest. What was your first thought when you heard the news?

Shelly Sampon: I admit I had a couple of thoughts right off the bat! Like you, I wasn’t surprised that Milwaukee Film was going to operate the Downer because it only makes sense, but what I was surprised at was that the announcement came on the heels of some recent press surrounding both what sounded like serious financial issues for Milwaukee Film and a substantial exodus of senior staff, including president and CEO Jonathan Jackson.

Having said that, my overwhelming thoughts were relief that this wonderful theater was going to reopen. Milwaukee does not have a lot of independently run (non-chain) theaters, and when the Downer closed, it really was the end of a true neighborhood institution. I saw this happen in my neck of the woods in the Washington Heights with the Times Cinema (also a Milwaukee Film Festival venue) that in the last 20 years has gone from delightfully curated screenings by former operator Eric Levin, to more mainstream fare, and now it shows an occasional Friday Night Freak Show, and that’s it.

Eric: Things look dire. The Times has sadly shifted away from films, and over the last few years a large number of area venues closed for good. I especially miss the Fox Bay Cinema Grill in Whitefish Bay and the Marcus Saukville Cinema, which was an ordinary multiplex but would occasionally program idiosyncratic titles like “The First Slam Dunk,” a Japanese animated sports drama.

Shelly: The Heights, and the west side of Milwaukee really took the Times for granted and now is missing it, and I hope that the Downer’s neighbors take a lesson from this, remember its greatness, and use it. I think for this reason that it was crucial for the theater to be ready for the festival, to build up some momentum about the theater that will hopefully be sustained in the future.

Eric: Milwaukee Film has done wonders with the Oriental Theatre and I expect a similar renewal at the Downer. During the festival, lobby chatter often included enthusiasm about how Milwaukee Film has doubled its footprint—it now operates two historic theaters in close proximity—and the opportunities that creates. I mean, right now the venue is playing “La Chimera,” winner of the festival’s Luminaries Jury Award, and “Sasquatch Sunset,” one of the weirdest whatever-it-is-things we’ll see all year.

Shelly: This year I had to stick to the screeners I could procure and not attend any in-person shows. I’m assuming with the huge number of films, programs and shorts you ingested in two weeks you had the opportunity to visit all of the venues. Did anything stand out for you with venues?

Eric: I spent a lot of time at each theater, including 13 programs at the Downer, which was like stepping into a time machine. I didn’t realize how much I missed having it among the roster of venues! Worth mentioning is how the fest’s theater managers (and volunteers!) kept things running smoothly. At this point, the fest is a well-oiled machine, which is a testament to the Milwaukee Film staff, top to bottom. The efficient organization actually reduced the usual bustle, as much as that’s possible, and made the queueing experience plain sailing. Even the handheld devices used to scan passes and tickets seemed much more reliable this year. That’s important when more than 32,000 attendees are shuttling in and out of venues for two weeks.

Shelly: I didn’t miss the hustle and bustle so much (I really miss the Fox Bay, which was so nice to just camp out at!), but I did miss the experiences. One of the things I love about the festival, other than having conversations about films with like-minded people (something I don’t have much of an opportunity to do beyond social media anymore) is the shared experience of watching a film in a room full of people. Any juicy anecdotes?

Eric: On the final Sunday I was chatting with my friend Peter on the sidewalk outside of the Downer. Standing at the curb waiting for transportation was Fawzia Mirza and Andria Wilson Mirza, the director and producer of the Centerpiece selection “The Queen of My Dreams.” Naturally, we struck up a conversation, and I was grateful for the opportunity to tell the Mirzas how much I enjoyed their movie, which I had seen two days earlier. But my favorite part of the exchange was when Andria shared my enthusiasm for “La Chimera” and advised, “You also really need to see ‘Don’t Expect Too Much from the End of the World’!” Her jaw dropped when Peter and I grinned and said, “That’s what we’re in line for right now!”

A scene from “Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World”

Inside the auditorium, I found myself surrounded by familiar faces from West Bend, where I teach. Independently of one another, four of my current and former high school students had made their way to a challenging, nearly three-hour Romanian black comedy. What are the chances? After the movie, though, I couldn’t compare notes with them because another journalist, who I didn’t know was there, immediately plopped down next to me and said, “Okay, we need to talk about what we just saw.” Indeed, “Don’t Expect Too Much from the End of the World” is that kind of movie. It ended up being my favorite film of the festival. Good call, Andria Wilson Mirza!

What was your top film?

Shelly: One of my favorite films was “The Taste of Things,” a visual feast about people in 19th century France who are passionate about the culinary arts. It is a love story not just about food, but also between the people who create and appreciate it. I can only imagine how wonderful it would have been to not only experience it on the big screen, but with other people.

A scene from "Four Daughters"
A scene from “Four Daughters”

“Four Daughters” tied “The Taste of Things” for my favorite. Again, I yearned to have a conversation with someone, anyone after it! Kaouther Ben Hania’s latest documentary is a master class in complexity and multi-layered themes. It tells the story of Olfa and her four daughters in Tunisia, all beautiful women who have had tremendously complex relationships with one another, especially between mother and daughters. Where the film begins to differ from most documentaries is the use of actresses to play the two oldest daughters, who we are told in the beginning of the film have “disappeared.” The actresses interact with the younger daughters and play out scenes from their lives along with their mother and an actress hired as a proxy to “act” in the scenes that may be too painful for Olfa. The film is visually arresting, painful and yet somehow joyous at times, and I could not stop thinking about it for days after.

Eric: Although they weren’t part of my fest because I saw them in advance, I share your enthusiasm for those two. One of the things I enjoyed about “The Taste of Things” is that it takes a moribund genre—the tasteful French romance rooted in the “tradition of quality” once derided by the New Wave—and leavens it with contemporary visual flourishes and a rare emotional depth. It’s beautiful to look at, yes, but it’s also beautiful to think about. Conceptually, “Four Daughters” is a more modern work, closer to the nonfiction experiments of Abbas Kiarostami or Kirsten Johnson than drama therapy. It’s also intriguing to note how the reciprocal, sensuous humanism expressed by the lovers in “The Taste of Things” is far more nourishing than the generational trauma, gender oppression and religious fanaticism that sweats through the Tunisian cultural veil in “Four Daughters.” Both movies possess intense emotional power, one through generosity and one through nerve-shredding suspense.

Should we take a 180 turn? What was your biggest disappointment?

A scene from "Lousy Carter"
A scene from “Lousy Carter”

Shelly: Bob Byington’s “Lousy Carter” was just incredibly mediocre. Containing dialogue that doesn’t exist in real life, the film and its characters are shallow, though I suspect we’re supposed to detect depth.

Eric: To be honest, I’ve kind of had it with Byington. I suspect “Lousy Carter,” like “Frances Ferguson” and “Infinity Baby,” is exactly what it wants to be. Unfortunately, what it wants to be is not for me. The actors are always likable, and I’m drawn to off-center comedy, but Byington’s tone seems to indulge rather than satirize self-absorption. It wears out its welcome fast. The final joke in “Lousy Carter” is probably meant to be disarming in its self-awareness, but it only made me quote Ted Striker: “What a pisser.”

Shelly: I also wasn’t crazy about the documentary “Cat City,” which explored the feral cat problem in Chicago, but was too scattered, with no clear arguments and very little heart, something a cat lover like myself was really craving. I want to turn your question around to you because you saw so much more than I did, and I want to hear your lows!

Eric: Unfortunately, what I saw in the twisted Cinema Hooligante strand—of which I am a long-standing devotee—proved to be a series of disappointments. Speeding from the Downer to see “In a Violent Nature” at the Oriental, I found my seat right as a hulking killer emerged from the soil to embark on a retribution mission. This might be where the Dead Teenager Movie crests, by trapping the viewer inside the monster’s perspective for extended scenes of hunting and waiting that, through sheer protraction, start deconstructing the genre’s conventions. Gore-hounds will be satiated to some degree—there is one bravura kill that ranks among the most inventive I’ve ever seen—but by draining slasher clichés of what little humanity they originally mustered, everything feels clinical rather than vicious. That’s largely the point, I know, but this formal exercise winds up on a sterile, repetitive loop that screams out for a short film rendering.

A scene from "Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person"
A scene from “Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person”

The deadpan horror comedy “Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person,” which is about a bloodsucker whose family views her sense of empathy as a defect, had the fest’s best title and maybe the best audience, too. I saw it at the Times, and the late-night crowd was absolutely on its wavelength, cheering and laughing in all the right places. That’s the ideal way to see a Hooligante movie, so I’m bummed to report that the appeal eluded me. What I saw was a movie with a schematic and derivative premise, a lifeless (sorry) central relationship and broad, obvious jokes that are far too cutesy for the film to make any lasting points about consent, despair or the tangle of sex and death. This is a swooning sitcom dressed up in a Halloween costume. At least “Humanist Vampire” has a striking 2.39:1 screen ratio—my ventricles swelled when the theater manager widened the curtains, and then widened them some more—and an angsty, beguiling lead performance from Sara Montpetit, who was similarly crepuscular in “Falcon Lake,” one of my favorite movies of last year’s MFF.

Shelly: That’s such a bummer about “Humanist Vampire” because I too thought it sounded like it had an interesting concept in addition to an epic title. I’ve found that oftentimes, especially with genre or outrageous films, the audience can elevate my experience even more. That has happened to me several times, most notably many years ago when the Times screened “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” to a packed house (the projectionist wanted to watch it and had to sit on the steps of the booth) which merited so much laughter from the audience it made the film that much more enjoyable. It sounds like nothing could save this one for you, however.

Eric: Much worse was “Booger,” which had neither visual grace nor a compelling lead performance to save its sputtering story about Anna, a woman who transforms, Cronenberg-style, into the ultimate Cat Lady. (Even the activists from “Cat City” would avoid making eye contact.) If it had jokes, it might play as a welcome spoof of how every modern horror movie wants to actually be about trauma, but no, it’s just another clunky, unconvincing horror movie that’s actually about trauma.

While all three were a bust, there’s a reason why I wanted to see them. On paper, each one sounded very promising. Did any of your viewings feel like rough drafts of what might have, through better development, resulted in a good movie? In a similar vein, do you have any dark horse recommendations?

A scene from "All We Carry"
A scene from “All We Carry”

Shelly: Thankfully, I didn’t really experience too many other underdeveloped films, though I am still conflicted about Cady Voge’s documentary “All We Carry,” which follows the immigration and naturalization process for a young Honduran couple moving to Seattle, Washington. While I certainly didn’t want to witness the film’s subjects go through extreme hardships, I also have this nagging feeling like it was one of the most ideal immigration experiences possible, with an incredibly sweet and photogenic family cast in the starring role. The reason I’m conflicted is that I know this sounds incredibly cynical, and not all immigration experiences are the nightmares experienced in the narrative film “El Norte,” but I’m not sure it was a typical representation of an incredibly fraught process.

Eric: Interestingly, one of the things I like about “All We Carry” is that it seems “normal,” in the sense that it sidesteps the usual tendency in immigration documentaries to emphasize acute distress. But I know what you mean, and the movie might lose some political ballast as a result. Voge does draw a link between migrants being refused asylum and Jews being turned away during World War II, perhaps to wonder whether the U.S. will someday feel ashamed of what it’s doing now.

Shelly: As far as dark horse recommendations go, I would look no further than the Criterion Channel for a trio of films from the festival that are currently available for streaming. “Mambar Pierrette” is sort of like a current, African “Jeanne Dielman” in that it follows the daily routines of a strong, single mother. Mambar must deal with more conflicts than Jeanne did, but I was mesmerized by this film.

A scene from "Tótem"
A scene from “Tótem”

Speaking of mesmerizing, Wim Wenders’ latest film “Anselm” was jaw-droppingly gorgeous to look at, both in its cinematography and Anselm Kiefer’s astounding art pieces. I watched it on the Channel, so I wasn’t able to experience it in 6K or 3-D, but I felt sensorially fulfilled watching it on my 80-inch HD TV. It may be a hard sell for non-art enthusiasts, but from a visual perspective it is a crowning achievement. And finally, Lila Avilés’ sophomore effort “Tótem,” which takes place over the course of a day and follows a family’s preparations for a birthday party they are throwing for Tona, a terminally ill family member. Largely seen through the eyes of Tona’s 7-year-old daughter, the film is filled with conflict, love, and creativity, and executed in a beautifully organic way, unlike similarly themed films, where conflict and creativity can become insufferable.

These are totally different films in totally different settings and languages, and yet I highly recommend all three.

Eric: “Tótem” was added to the Criterion Channel during the festival, on the same day that I saw it (and loved it) at the Avalon Theater. Had I known it was available from my couch, would I have still traveled those 45 minutes? That’s a question that wouldn’t have made sense 20 years ago; we currently live in a mixed-up world where film distribution has seemingly gone feral. More than ever, it’s difficult to keep track of when and where titles can be seen.

Shelly: What a wonderful world we live in where we have so many options for finding films in both physical media and streaming format. (And how overwhelming it can be!) Eric, if you could provide a couple of films that people could look up on their own now that the festival is over, what would you recommend we check out?

Eric: Thankfully, as Prometheus gave humans fire, the Internet has given cinephiles a tool called JustWatch. An intrepid movie lover could program a dazzling, wide-ranging at-home version of the festival. Along with the Criterion Channel titles you just mentioned, and also “Four Daughters” and “The Taste of Things,” which we discussed earlier, let me highly recommend these titles that are already available to stream: “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” “Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World,” “How to Have Sex,” “Joan Baez I Am a Noise,” “Late Night with the Devil,” “The Settlers” and “The Sweet East.” I’m especially keen to steer people toward “Monster,” Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wonderfully humane drama about miscommunication and misunderstanding among a mother, a teacher and two young friends. According to JustWatch, it’s available to stream via Amazon, Apple TV and Fandango at Home.

This brings up something I definitely wanted to ask you about. In 2020, the pandemic forced the festival to go strictly virtual. After returning to in-person events in 2022, the festival continued to make many titles available for streaming. Last year, though, the online offerings were severely curtailed, and this year they disappeared entirely. How do you feel about the festival’s decision to completely abandon its virtual component?

Shelly: From a reviewer’s perspective, the lack of readily available screeners was difficult to work with. Even pre-pandemic, Milwaukee Film had a long list of available screeners for use, and reviews could be posted after the first screening of the film during the festival. This was a wonderful tool to have for several reasons. We could watch and review films early to publish them as soon as the film screened, thereby giving our readers the opportunity to catch the film later in the festival. It also gave reviewers the opportunity to see, review, and publicize more films, especially shorts programs, which in the past were always readily available on the screening list.

The Milwaukee Film staff is amazing, and Robyn Ehrlich, the communications and public relations coordinator, could not have been any more helpful and friendly, but I always felt bad about bugging them for more screeners, especially as the festival grew closer since I knew it was probably insanity. So, I hope they go back to the former availability of screeners for reviewers because I think it is only a positive thing for everyone.

Eric: It would help. Traditionally I wrap things up with a top five list, but I’m sure I missed some contenders this year—looking at you, “Bye Bye Tiberias”—simply because there was no way to fit them in my schedule. Such gaps have always been inevitable, but in recent years they could at least be minimized. Anyone could purchase a “virtual pass” that granted home access (via an app) to a select yet sizable menu of titles. That ease invited viewers to take more and bigger chances. As someone who works full time during the festival and lives 50 minutes north of the Oriental, it also helped mitigate exhaustion!

If the sidewalk small talk is any measure, lots of people missed the virtual pass as much as I did. Are we just spoiled after being given a few years of convenience? Also, many distributors have cooled on the idea of making their films available on a festival’s streaming platform, so MFF’s hands are likely tied. On some level, the distributors are right: There’s no substitute for the big screen experience. Maybe the termination of the festival’s virtual tier is simply a sign that things are finally returning to normal?

A scene from "Riddle of Fire"
A scene from “Riddle of Fire”

Shelly: From an attendee standpoint, I do think that having (even a limited) online presence after having one during the pandemic would be beneficial. I know that some people are not crazy about crowds or may have special needs that don’t enable them to stand in line, so even though the desire to see festival films is there, the ability just isn’t. I also have several friends and family who live out of state and would have happily purchased an online pass to experience festival films. What a wonderful opportunity to increase the scope of the Milwaukee Film Festival by publicizing it outside of the Milwaukee area. In-person attendance isn’t going to wane because there are other options out there, especially since all films would likely not be offered online, so why not give it a shot?

Eric: Speaking of people being made happy, should we describe our favorite crowd-pleasing moments? For me, presenting “Riddle of Fire” in 35mm inside the Oriental’s majestic main auditorium was probably gift enough. But then this ramshackle oddity about three Wyoming children on a bonkers fetch quest—director Weston Razooli remembers exactly how playing with your friends could make summer vacation feel like an Arthurian legend—corners its young heroes. They have reached their boss level. There is no escape. And that’s when, with the sublime timing of a ninja, one of the kids lays waste to the baddie’s wrinkle berries. It’s an all-timer nut punch. The crowd went wild.

Shelly: Since I didn’t witness any crowd-pleasing moments firsthand, I would have loved to have seen “Remembering Gene Wilder” with an audience. There were so many laugh-out loud-moments both from his film clips and the interviewees that I would have loved to laugh and appreciate his comedic genius with others. It’s no surprise that film won the Audience Award, and while it would have been a great Members-Only choice, I’m glad that the general public was able to see it. I also imagine that although I thoroughly enjoyed “Thelma” by myself that it would have been even more enjoyable in an audience. Who can resist watching a 93-year-old woman seek revenge on the people who conned her out of $10K, and who has an adorable relationship with her adult grandson to boot?

Eric: My money was actually on “Thelma” to win the Audience Award, although “Ghostlight,” a clever comedy-drama about the cathartic power of art, seemed to be surging near the end of the fest. Dan, a construction worker grieving a child who died by suicide, can only confront his repressed emotions by joining a local theater production of “Romeo and Juliet.” As the play begins to mirror his own life in more ways than one, it becomes a little too diagrammed for my liking—things lock into place in ways that feel very “written”—but the performances are excellent and the storytelling is undeniably funny and moving.

A scene from "Remembering Gene Wilder"
A scene from “Remembering Gene Wilder”

The Audience Award historically tilts toward hagiographic documentaries, though. I’ve spent my whole life watching Gene Wilder movies (one of my earliest memories is making my father laugh by quoting “Young Frankenstein”), so of course I enjoyed the documentary about him. Like you, I saw it at home and can only imagine how the Wilder magic must have electrified a live crowd. Still, MFF offered one of its strongest overall slates in years, so why squander a prize on a movie that’s basically a glorified highlight reel? “Clips and reminisces are tinker toys! I am talking about the art of cinema!”

Shelly: Oh yes, “Young Frankenstein” was a staple in my movie-loving household growing up, and it is still quoted often in my own home today. I do a pretty mean impersonation of Frau Blucher (whinny!) if I do say so myself, and “He was my BOYFRIEND!” remains one of the funniest and best delivered lines in film history.

After about four years of either missing the fest or only having time for a couple of films because I decided to go back to school in my late 40s and get a degree in history and film studies, I think that even though I hoped to have been able to see more, the slate I was offered was a good gateway for a more robust 2025, which was just announced for April 24 – May 8. If anyone wants to get a taste of the festival before then, Milwaukee Film also just announced the Dialogues Documentary Festival. Slated to run Sept. 26-29, its objective is “dedicated solely to starting conversations utilizing the power of documentary,” according to their press release. As someone who somehow unintentionally gravitates more to documentaries during the festival than narrative films, I’m excited to see what they have to offer.

I love our conversations about the festival (and movies in general throughout the year!), so thank you for sitting down with me to discuss the 2024 Milwaukee Film Festival—here’s looking forward to 2025 (you may have recuperated by then).

Eric: “It’s not rotten! It’s a good brain!”