Conversation: Critics Eric Beltmann and Shelly Sampon React to the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival

The Times Cinema in Washington Heights is one of five venues that hosted the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival. Photo by Eric Beltmann.

The 10th annual Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed Nov. 1, brought more than 300 films to audiences in southeastern Wisconsin. Critic Speak contributor Eric Beltmann and The Cinemaphile blogger Shelly Sampon discuss how the election and festival seasons overlapped and why “Support the Girls” was the perfect emblem for a festival dominated by gender themes.

Eric Beltmann: For devoted attendees like you and me, it’s easy to imagine the Milwaukee Film Festival as a 15-day snow globe—we’re trapped inside a closed system, racing from venue to venue, film to film, surrounded always by flurries of opinions and reactions and questions. To make sense of it all, I kind of need the shaking to stop. So let’s start by not thinking at all. Just answer, Shelly, with your very first thought. Pop quiz, hotshot: When you think back on the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Shelly Sampon:  Exhaustion! While two weeks is an amazing opportunity to see dozens and dozens of films outside the mainstream, it’s also a crazy long time period to sustain a packed schedule. I don’t know about you, but I started strong and because of work obligations and you know, LIFE, I really started to lose steam just after the halfway mark. Truthfully, I completely conked out (I’m running out of transportation metaphors here) by the final few days and unfortunately had to stop going to films, both for my own mental health but also to balance those aforementioned work/life activities. Don’t worry—I’ll have forgotten my mental color bars within a month and start counting the days until MFF 2019. But for now I’m content to wrap things up and put my press badge in my Turner Classic Movies lunchbox with the other 15 or so badges.

Eric: I store my badges, too! We’re such dorks.

Shelly: With my whining out of the way, let’s focus on what I did manage to see this year. I haven’t worked on my own wrap up piece for my blog yet, but I suspect that, like every year, I somehow managed to see more documentaries than narrative films despite my intention to see more of the latter. Of the narrative films I saw, I believe I saw more of the American Independents slate than any other and was really pleasantly surprised by how much I liked most of the films in its program. Did you have any pleasant (or unpleasant) surprises?

A scene from "Lake Michigan Monster"
A scene from “Lake Michigan Monster”

Eric: Well, there’s no accounting for taste, but God help me, I laughed all the way through the micro-budgeted, locally-produced comedy “Lake Michigan Monster,” which contains more than a few rapid-fire quips worthy of Monty Python. The festival program book compared it to Guy Maddin, which is a preposterous reach—yes, it’s a free-wheeling, black-and-white hybrid of antique styles, including scratchy silent film, but after that it’s much closer to a descendant of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. At times it plays as a screwball parody of Ed Wood, complete with a spot-on allusion to 1955’s “Bride of the Monster” (followed, naturally, by a reference to “The Seventh Seal”). The revenge plot concerns a delusional “captain” assembling an unqualified crew to help him, with escalating incompetence, hunt down the titular creature. It’s as silly as it sounds—one scene is shot inside the Streets of Old Milwaukee attraction at the Milwaukee Public Museum—but the final stretch, thanks to some of the most weirdly compelling special effects I saw at this year’s fest, does achieve a kind of lo-fi poetry.

Within the American Independents strand, I saw two movies, “Night Comes On” and “Pet Names,” that didn’t quite work but were impossible to dismiss. The Wisconsin-shot “Pet Names,” directed by Carol Brandt, is a likable hang out movie with decent performances—it’s about two exes who spend a getaway weekend in the woods, arriving at quiet decisions about their futures—but it lacks real spark. It wears its Kelly Reichardt influence a little too awkwardly (there’s even a brief “Wendy and Lucy” moment with a lost dog) and cannot summon the kind of ache and wisdom that courses through Reichardt’s work. It’s a much more promising effort, however, than Brandt’s previous feature, “Dear Cowards on the Moon,” which premiered at MFF last year.

A scene from "Night Comes On"
A scene from “Night Comes On”

Somewhat better was “Night Comes On,” a schematic yet lived-in road movie about two young sisters—the oldest, Angel, is only 18—traveling to see, and maybe hurt, their estranged father who long ago murdered their mother. Its main subject, though, isn’t revenge but PTSD from childhood trauma, and it contains passages that are surprisingly cathartic. “I miss my mother’s eyes,” Angel says, and the movie cuts to a closeup of her little sister’s innocent eyes. After all, those eyes, freighted with mom’s legacy, are the ones that matter now.

What was your favorite movie among the American Independents?

Shelly: The biggest surprise I experienced in the American Independents section, and probably in the entire festival, was how much I ended up loving Andrew Bujalski’s comedy-drama “Support the Girls,” which starred Regina Hall and Haley Lu Richardson (who also starred in last year’s MFF entry “Columbus,” which was in my top 10 favorite films of the year). When I first saw the trailer for “Girls” a few months ago, I brushed it off as another tacky comedy featuring hot women in tiny outfits cavorting around their put-upon boss. Its entry into the American Independents program gave me pause, so I took a chance and boy am I glad I did. I thought “Girls” was refreshing and well-acted, with no hint of exploitation; rather, I felt completely empowered coming out of it. I mentioned in my review of the film (where I gave it a rare five-star rating) that the film started with tears and ended in a primal scream, and in light of so many things going on in our country today I really needed that final imagery that created a truly visceral reaction in me.

Eric: I’m glad to hear that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for “Support the Girls,” which placed on my top five list. Regina Hall’s performance as the hardworking, empathetic restaurant manager finds the perfect groove between vulnerable and resilient, and Haley Lu Richardson, at this point, looks set to conquer the world. That’s a perfect segue to my next question: How did you feel about the festival’s effort to ensure that nearly half of the programmed features were directed by women? What were the best female-centered movies that you saw?

Shelly: I was definitely feeling the grrrl power this year and I loved that, though I hate that we’re still in an age where it proudly has to be declared “a thing” instead of just being the norm. In addition to “Support the Girls,” I also really enjoyed a number of documentaries that were female-centered. Front and center would be “Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits,” which made me ache for my old Chuck Taylor high tops on which I wrote all of the names of my favorite punk bands when I was a freshman in high school. The Slits were proudly displayed on them, of course, and this documentary let me revisit their greatness and often overlooked visionary influence on various music genres like world music and the (second) ska revival of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. “Heard” features jaw-dropping archival footage that includes home movies of soon-to-be iconic musicians, including Sid Vicious, Joe Strummer and Chrissie Hynde, who all hung out with the all-female punk quartet as they all blazed a trail for London’s punk scene. I would highly recommend this film, especially for music lovers but also because the story and production is also really quite good.

A scene from "Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist"
A scene from “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist”

There were a couple of films that weren’t quite as successful for me but still stood out as great examples of the festival’s female-centric theme. “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist” was a documentary about the original punk goddess, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, and while it was interesting to again see the London punk scene from another angle, it just felt hollow to me and I wasn’t all that impressed. Even more disappointing was “Madeline’s Madeline,” written by Josephine Decker and starring Miranda July, who I really love, and Helena Howard in a truly amazing breakout role as the title character. The film is a stream-of-consciousness trip following Howard as she deals with psychological issues that are becoming more and more exploited through the work she does with an experimental theater group. On paper this one looked really interesting, but it just didn’t do it for me. There were a few more decent documentaries that come to mind, like “The Heat: A Cooking (R)evolution” and “Time for Ilhan,” which ended up being very timely, as it was a documentary about Somali-American Ilhan Omar’s 2016 run for Minnesota’s House of Representatives. Last week she became one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress.

A scene from "United Skates"
A scene from “United Skates”

Eric: With the Nov. 5 midterms right around the corner, there were plenty of timely documentaries for political junkies at the fest, including two that did not fulfill my high hopes. As someone who misspent his youth at Shorty’s, a local roller rink, I was drawn to “United Skates,” which uses rink ethnology to explore the preservation of black culture in the face of institutional racism and gentrification. That’s a great subject, but there’s only about 40 minutes of strong material and novice directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown neglect opportunities to enlarge their canvas, including obvious parallels to related subcultures such as breakdancing, skateboarding, krumping or, if you want to go full “Style Wars,” graffiti. At least I gleaned a few things from “United Skates,” which is more than I can say about “Capturing the Flag,” which chronicles activists’ efforts to prevent voter suppression in North Carolina during the 2016 election. Their work is crucial, of course, but that fact doesn’t excuse how the movie is feeble journalism—I literally learned nothing new—and, perhaps worse, pedestrian cinema.

Far more galvanizing as a work of art was Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” a thorny sociological study of three young men in Rockford, Illinois (their skateboarding circle includes the director) that lithely ponders class, race and underemployment only to arrive at startling revelations of domestic abuse. (The makers of “United Skates” should take notes.) Better still was “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” which captures black life in Alabama by presenting an experimental daisy chain of fragments that veer from rough-hewn verité to ruminative collage to painterly beauty. It announces director RaMell Ross as a major talent, and I’m glad he won the jury award in MFF’s main competition.

A scene from "Hale County This Morning, This Evening"
A scene from “Hale County This Morning, This Evening”

Shelly: I found that I was more fascinated by “Hale County” and in awe of its visuals than actually “liking” it, though I couldn’t help but give it a really favorable review for its photography and uniqueness alone.

Eric: It’s precisely their unique expansion of the cinematic form that helps “Minding the Gap” and “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” add heavy political ballast to their snapshots of life in America right now. Were there any political films that particularly electrified (or enraged) you?

Shelly: I usually (sadistically) savor the feeling of outrage during at least one or two screenings at each festival, but I have to be honest that I have been so disheartened and deflated by the political climate of the last couple of years that I intentionally tried to avoid films I knew would incite that outrage this year. I just feel like I live it every day and was seeking escapism this time around. Despite this, I did see “Netizens,” a documentary about the victimization of women on the internet, which was terrifying and, indeed, rage-inducing. Rather than leave me with a sense of complete outrage, however, the film also showed the fight to bring perpetrators to justice and left me with an overall sense of hope, and in this #MeToo climate I kind of needed that.

A scene from "Zero Weeks"
A scene from “Zero Weeks”

There was probably no film that angered me more than “Zero Weeks,” which chronicles the plight of families around the United States who are affected by our country’s lack of government-mandated paid leave policy. That’s right. Out of all of the developed countries in the world, the United States is one of two that do not have a policy protecting its residents. (The other is Papua New Guinea, btw.) Director Ky Dickens was prompted to make this film after she and her wife had a child and neither of them were granted any kind of paid leave because they did not live in one of the handful of states that have a paid leave policy. “Zero Weeks” is full of facts and figures, and is a big pill to swallow, but it is extremely well-produced and highlights such an important social topic. I think it should be required viewing for legislators and business owners at the very least, and I could not recommend this film more highly.

Let me go back to “Madeline’s Madeline” for a minute. It was released by Oscilloscope, which is one of the many boutique labels like A24, Cohen Media Group or Criterion that I will pretty much trust sight unseen to at least watch, and in the case of Criterion, blind buy. So it was a no-brainer that I would check out “Madeline’s Madeline” and despite not really liking it, I’m glad I did. I also know that the first thing I looked for when I picked up my MFF film guide was whether the latest Kore-eda film “Shoplifters” was screening. Are there any directors or distributors (but especially directors) you will drop anything to see at the Milwaukee Film Festival?

Eric: That’s a tricky question, since MFF doesn’t quite have the clout to program new movies by many of the world’s greatest filmmakers. I’m going to limit my answer to those directors whose work might realistically appear. This year I didn’t have to think twice to choose the Brewers over movies when the NLCS overlapped with MFF’s opening weekend, but I might sacrifice a World Series game to see anything by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, brothers from Belgium with a nearly perfect track record since first breaking through with “La Promesse” in 1996. Their working-class parables, always shot with hand-held cinematography and available light, exist within an urgent moral universe. For me, their high-water mark remains 2002’s “The Son,” which stars Olivier Gourmet as a mourning carpenter whose new apprentice challenges his closed-off sense of grief and inability to forgive.

I’d be willing to sacrifice my first-born (too far?) to see the latest from Jafar Panahi, still one of the world’s greatest filmmakers despite receiving a notorious 20-year ban on filmmaking after making too many movies critical of his home country of Iran. (“The Circle,” for example, uses sharp-eyed realism to indict the way women are marginalized in Tehran.) In fact, the few movies he’s covertly smuggled out of Iran, including “Closed Curtain,” my favorite movie at MFF five years ago, rank among his most formidable achievements. Given his prior inclusion at MFF (and the old Milwaukee International Film Festival, too), I was terribly disappointed this year when the program guide didn’t list “3 Faces,” Panahi’s newest work and a screenplay winner at Cannes, anywhere in its pages.

A scene from "Everybody Knows"
A scene from “Everybody Knows”

At least “Everybody Knows,” the latest from Asghar Farhadi, was included. If Panahi has a rival for the title of Iran’s greatest film director, it would be Farhadi, whose previous four features each can be called a masterpiece. (Two of them, “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” have won Oscars for best foreign language film.) Unfortunately, “Everybody Knows,” an over-egged kidnap drama not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, breaks his streak. Before the movie loses its way, though, there’s a big wedding scene set in a Spanish village that echoes Coppola, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it. Did you find any tiny pearls inside lesser movies that made the entire experience worthwhile?

Shelly: There were a couple of films that I couldn’t grant more than an average rating but that had moments or themes that I really enjoyed. “Bee Nation,” a documentary about the inaugural First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee in Saskatchewan, was no “Spellbound” but the incredible support these kids received from their families was really heartwarming and has stayed with me since the screening. “Keep the Change” also had some good moments and while I’m not a big fan of modern romantic comedies, its use of autistic actors telling the story of a burgeoning romance of an autistic couple was refreshing, particularly as it didn’t blink during potentially awkward moments.

A scene from "Ideal Home"
A scene from “Ideal Home”

You mentioned a top five earlier, and all of this retrospection has caused me to think about what my top five films of the festival would be. Looking at them as a list I have to admit that they are not as “challenging” as I normally prefer but I think that is a reflection of my desire for some escapism and also my packed work schedule that required me to work nearly full time during the festival, something I haven’t done in a few years. In addition to “Support the Girls,” I would also count “Ideal Home,” a comedy starring Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan as a couple who have to contend with the arrival of an unexpected grandson; “Pick of the Litter,” a documentary that follows a litter of dogs as they embark on a training program for guide dogs; and “White Rabbit,” a really charming little indie nugget about a performance artist trying to make it in Los Angeles. Probably my favorite film of the festival this year was “The Guilty,” a tremendous thriller from Denmark about a policeman on emergency phone duty who tries to solve a kidnapping with just the use of his wits and his phone. The film is shot entirely in one room and for the most part we only see the main character and the voices on the phone line. The theater I saw it in was packed with people and you could have heard a pin drop, and there were several times when I had to remind myself to breathe. It was truly a great film and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for a home video release so I can share it with others.

Eric: “The Guilty” definitely ranked among the most universally loved movies of the festival—I made a point of catching its final screening after hearing so many rave reviews—so I feel a little churlish in confessing that I somewhat resisted its reliance on plot contrivance and elements that were too neatly arranged. It didn’t help that I guessed the big twist very, very early in the film, which punctured the suspense for me. (Within the confined-to-the-phone subgenre, “The Guilty” is light years better than, say, “The Call,” but not as gripping or substantial as “Locke.”) Still, thanks to the surly lead performance by Jakob Cedergren, the movie expresses an intriguing ambivalence about law enforcement’s misuse of power. Invited at first to cheer the officer’s rogue decisions, audiences are ultimately interrogated about that loyalty. It’s a good thriller that certainly benefits from being seen in the claustrophobic environment of a darkened theater. Despite my reservations, I’m happy that I caught it at the festival rather than merely adding it to my Netflix queue.

Shelly: I didn’t see nearly as many films as I wanted this year and once again another 20-30 films are going on my ever-growing future watch list. With the death of Filmstruck, I may actually have a chance to see some of them sooner than I have past festival films (I’m still working on seeing some films from my 2014 list!), but I do wish I could have seen more of them on the big screen this year. And despite the several bad reviews I heard about the pop up Jan Serr Studio Cinema as a new venue, I still wish I had taken a look at that and the new media lounge for those of us with press passes, just to check it out. As we wrap this up, do you have any regrets or anything you would like to have done differently?

Eric: My biggest regret is not seeing “Bisbee ’17,” a documentary about an Arizona town re-enacting the violent deportation of immigrant laborers that, 100 years ago, left an enduring black mark on the community. Like “The Guilty,” it provoked a great deal of festival buzz, and the way it reportedly mines human rights history for contemporary allegory, it seems to be right up my alley. I’m also bummed about missing “Madeline’s Madeline,” “Black Mother,” “3 Days in Quiberon” and the revival screening of Robert Zemeckis’ “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” which conflicted directly with “Shoplifters.” There was no way I was skipping “Shoplifters” (it ended up being my favorite film of the festival), but if I could do things over again, I’d reshuffle my schedule so that I could have shared “Roger Rabbit,” one of the formative movies of my childhood, with my own kids.

The Jan Serr Studio Cinema, a “pop up cinema” that repurposed the top floor of an East Side arts building as a short-term, fully functional movie theater, made its debut this year. Photo by Eric Beltmann.
The Jan Serr Studio Cinema, a “pop up cinema” that repurposed the top floor of an East Side arts building as a short-term, fully functional movie theater, made its debut this year. Photo by Eric Beltmann.

This year I saw two programs at the new Jan Serr pop up theater. Filmgoers were ushered in groups via elevator to the top floor of the building, where drapes and risers made a jerry-rigged cinema. The screen was small, the folding chairs were comfy and the sight lines were good. It was a cozy yet strictly functional solution to the problem of the Downer Theatre’s decision to exit the festival’s roster of venues. One hopes MFF can patch things up with the Downer for next year—not only is it a much larger space, it’s exactly the kind of classic neighborhood theater, built in 1915, that suits the festival’s Milwaukee brand of cinephilia.