After six years of launching with undercooked comedies, pint-sized documentaries, and one scorching drama made by relative unknowns, the Milwaukee Film Festival will for the first time kick off with a movie directed by a major international figure.
Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” which stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as entertainment legends trading jokes and wisdom at a Swiss spa, opens the festival Sept. 24 at the Oriental Theatre at 7 p.m. The Italian Sorrentino may not be a household name—he’s not exactly Hitchcock—but cinephiles have long revered his virtuosity, flaunted most recently in the dazzling three-picture run of “Il Divo,” “This Must Be the Place” and “The Great Beauty” (the latter deservedly won an Oscar).
Given how “Youth” polarized audiences in May at the Cannes Film Festival, its selection is simultaneously splashy and risky, making it a welcome detour for a slate that otherwise steers down a well-traveled road. There are no new divisions and for the third consecutive year the festival will screen both a silent classic with live musical accompaniment and a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece sponsored by former Brewers pitcher John Axford.
Although Harold Lloyd takes ample chances in his 1923 thrill comedy “Safety Last!”—if you squint, you’ll notice that he performs his throat-clutching stunts with a prosthetic thumb—there’s something ironic about how the festival has disregarded the title’s directive. After all, “Safety Last!” is a guaranteed crowdpleaser, rightly one of the silent era’s most celebrated and recognizable triumphs.
If you’ve never seen Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) on the silver screen, here’s your chance to catch the snowbound gothic presented in glorious 35mm—it’s fitting that this horror show about isolation, madness and a haunted hotel will be projected via a ghostly medium like actual film rather than a hard drive.
Also back from the dead is the newly restored Avalon Theater in Bay View, which joins the festival’s roster of historic sites after being shuttered for nearly 15 years. For Washington County filmgoers, the closest venue remains the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill in Whitefish Bay. Other screens include the Times Cinema in Washington Heights and the Oriental and Downer Theatres on the East Side.
It’s hard to say how Milwaukee neighborhoods will respond to the Centerpiece film “Peace Officer,” an acclaimed documentary about William “Dub” Lawrence, a former Utah sheriff who begins investigating nearby officer-related shootings after his son-in-law is killed by a SWAT team. In the age of Dontre Hamilton, David Clarke, and All Lives Matter, the scheduled post-screening discussion with Lawrence and the filmmakers will likely have local reverberations.
Heavy social themes fuel many of MFF’s nonfiction titles, including “He Named Me Malala,” Davis Guggenheim’s portrait of the now 18-year-old Pakistani girl who survived a Taliban attack, and “Welcome to Leith,” about a North Dakota town rattled by a white supremacist determined to convert their community into a haven for extremists.
Fanaticism, albeit of a much brighter variety, is also the subject of “Raiders!,” the festival’s closing night selection. The documentary tells the story of resourceful teenagers who spent seven summers collaborating on a shot-by-shot backyard version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Steven Spielberg’s 1981 adventure touchstone. And if you are (Indiana) jonesing for more Spielberg, the festival will show “Jaws,” another movie about obsession, in 35mm as part of its Cinema Hooligante strand.
The Passport division presents eight movies set in Sweden, all recent films directed by women except for Ingmar Bergman’s 1956 morality play “The Seventh Seal,” about a tormented medieval knight challenging Death to a game of chess. Once a giant, Bergman has slipped out of fashion, I’m afraid, but to these eyes “The Seventh Seal” contains some of the most arresting images and philosophical musings ever entered into the canon.
Bergman’s not for children, but if the babysitter cancels, the Rated K: For Kids program offers age-appropriate features and short film packages. Let me vouch for two excellent family picks: On its 20th anniversary, “Babe: The Gallant Pig” is ripe for re-discovery, while the hand-drawn “Song of the Sea” is a wondrous Irish fantasy steeped in Celtic folklore about the children of a lighthouse keeper who uncover their family’s magical secret. These lovely storybooks are overflowing with imagination and a rare emotional intelligence.
Spotlight presentations include Bob Byington’s “7 Chinese Brothers,” a comedy starring Jason Schwartzman as a shiftless hater in Austin, and Sydney Sibilia’s “I Can Quit Whenever I Want,” a huge hit in Italy about an unemployed researcher who entices his fellow academics to invent a new narcotic. Both Byington and Sibilia are scheduled to attend.
Over 15 days MFF will present a record 303 films from 50 countries. The total includes 118 feature films, 185 short films, three world premieres, and dozens of favorites from the global festival circuit, including the latest works from distinguished filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer, Albert Maysles, Mia Hansen-Løve, Pablo Larrain, Peter Chan, and Jessica Hausner.
The popular Cream City Cinema division showcases features and shorts made by area talent. Other sections collect new movies about food, artists, music, and the African-American experience. For the first time, a cash prize will be given in the Documentary category, joining the Herzfeld Award for films in the Competition strand. Winners will also be picked among short films, local productions, and audience favorites.
Five public forums are planned, with a keynote lecture by Michael Phillips, film critic for the Chicago Tribune and a Racine native. Special events include concerts, a wine tasting, a petting zoo for kids, and karaoke at Landmark Lanes.
The festival runs Sept. 24 through Oct. 8. The full lineup is online at mkefilm.org.
Most tickets are $12, but discounts are available for seniors, students, and children. Starting Sept. 10, tickets can be purchased online, by phone, or in person at the Oriental Theatre box office. During the festival, tickets can be purchased at all five venues—but screenings often sell out, so reserve your seat early.