For the Milwaukee Film Festival, the Times they are a-changin’.
The festival is shaking things up for its sixth year, most notably by adding the Times Cinema in Washington Heights to its roster of sites. The cozy, single-screen theater has been a community treasure since 1935, making it a natural fit for a festival that has branded itself as your friendly neighborhood block party—just around the corner, check out unusual movies, rub shoulders with visiting filmmakers, or listen to local bands put on a show.
“It has always been my dream to be a part of this and expand the opportunities for the festival and all of us who love movies,” Times owner Lee Barczak said in a press release.
The Frankenstein statue that gate-keeps the Times Cinema lobby might serve as a metaphor for this year’s bigger-than-ever slate of events. While thumbing through the monster-sized listings of international features, documentaries, midnight movies, short film packages, and revivals, it’s easy to imagine that the 84-page program guide has been fastened with neck bolts rather than staples.
It’s also tempting to picture the festival programmers as mad-eyed grave-robbers, stitching together a schedule from the corpses of other festivals around the globe. Cinephiles won’t be caught unawares—for starters, “Like Father, Like Son” earned Hirokazu Kore-eda the jury prize at Cannes, and Uberto Pasolini’s “Still Life” won four awards at Venice—but the festival still seems to have harnessed some life-giving lightning. More so than in recent years, the catalog feels surprising, shrewdly designed to jostle both viewers and the festival itself out of their comfort zones.
In fact, filmgoers are invited to experiment from the very first frame. Ditching its predilection for opening with a forgettable, crowd-pleasing comedy, MFF instead kicks off with the topical documentary “1971,” about eight Vietnam-era activists who broke into an FBI office in order to steal and leak documents that confirmed the agency’s widespread abuse of power. The film’s theme will be amplified by a panel discussion about the public’s right to know, moderated by WISN journalist Mike Gousha.
The Competition strand, which houses eight films vying for a juried cash prize, also takes new, welcome chances. Last year half of the candidates safely arrived swathed in medals and already available for home viewing, but most of this year’s entries are fresh, unproven projects. If titles alone determined the winner, we could call the race right now for “The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga,” Jessica Oreck’s philosophical essay film about a Slavic folk tale, farming communities in Eastern Europe, and much more.
As part of the facelift, MFF renovated its website, commissioned new artwork, and introduced three new divisions. Film Feast celebrates movies about food, while Art + Artists presents eight documentaries about the creative process. The Black Lens program spotlights African American filmmaking, including 1987’s “Hollywood Shuffle,” Robert Townsend’s likable sketch comedy about a fresh-faced black actor troubled by how his latest role traffics in stereotypes. Townsend will appear and answer questions after the screening.
Also scheduled to attend are Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Wesley Morris, who will deliver a keynote lecture on the state of cinema; director Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”); and documentarian Marshall Curry (“Point and Shoot”). Milwaukee natives Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, part of the team responsible for “Airplane!,” will be on hand to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Top Secret!,” easily their most inspired and most unfairly neglected comedy.
The latest work by John Ridley, Mequon’s favorite son, has been selected as the Festival Centerpiece. “Jimi: All is By My Side” stars Outkast’s André Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix. Ridley won an Oscar last year for penning “12 Years a Slave.” More area filmmakers will be honored in the popular Cream City Cinema division, which offers features and shorts made by local talent. MFF will close with the world premiere of “The Surface,” a Lake Michigan thriller made entirely in Milwaukee.
Over 15 days the festival will present 276 movies from 63 different countries. The total includes 119 feature films, 156 short films, four world premieres, and one silent masterpiece accompanied by a live orchestra. Eight panel discussions are planned, and nightly concerts at Hotel Foster will complement the festival’s Sound Vision collection of documentaries about musicians. The Passport strand highlights films set in Mexico.
Families should travel the Rated K: For Kids province, which includes age-appropriate short film programs and a “Mary Poppins” sing-a-long. There’s wisdom to be found in the Oscar-nominated “Ernest & Celestine,” a gorgeous, understated animated fable about an illicit friendship between a bear and a mouse.
The festival runs Sept. 25 through Oct. 9. The full lineup can be accessed online at mkefilm.org.
Venues include the Times Cinema, the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill in Whitefish Bay, and the historic Oriental and Downer Theatres on the East Side. Most tickets are $10, but discounts are available for seniors, students, and children. Tickets can be purchased online, by phone, or in person at each theater box-office. Screenings often reach capacity—“The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a World War II logician, sold out mere hours after going on sale—so buy your tickets now.