My 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival

This year's iteration of the Wisconsin Film Festival -- its fifteenth -- ran from April 11 to April 18. It was a longer festival than in previous years, with no screenings east of the UW campus, and with a new regime in charge of film selection. These changes were met with...some consternation, particularly among longtime festival attendees.

Being relative WFF rookies, my wife and I didn't necessarily feel the changes with the same sting as some of our fellow moviegoers (though we definitely sympathize with those friends who were significantly and personally impacted by the festival's changes). And as we live as far from campus as you can while still living in Madison, we would have driven to our screenings regardless; we're the ideal car culture festival attendees.

This is not to say that the 2013 Fest wasn't well-attended. Sell-outs were common, and when folks no-showed, the rush tickets got snatched up fast. Kristine and I saw four films, and I saw a fifth with friends. My initial, one-tweet reviews were posted shortly after each screening, but here's a more detailed review of my 2013 Film Fest experience.


Mussels in Love (L'Amour des Moules)

I was born to a Dutch citizen, and I wore my best orange hoodie to the Friday screening of the Dutch-made Mussels in Love. This documentary promised a certain amount of charmingly awkward bivalve boinking, and it delivered -- but there was plenty more than just the visual innuendo of mussel anatomy.

Yes, much of the film was a light-hearted discussion of the lengths to which the Low Countries go to preserve and farm the mussel population, with some Holland vs. Belgium verbal sparring for good measure. Though the main players in the narrative threads were never really introduced, the mussel biology specialist was especially charming, and the skipper of the mussel boat could have been on a lower-stress, continental version of Deadliest Catch. Call it Friendliest Catch.

In one perfect sequence, a bed of mussels are shot in time-lapse as they naturally shift, wriggle, and eventually form clusters; their feet, looking more like tongues, reach out for purchase and drive the mussels closer to their bedmates, over and over and over, until the scene shifts abruptly to a Dutch beach, where groups of humans cluster and pair off to reach for each other and kiss. Nothing weird about mussel love, the film says; we're not that different.

For all that, though, there were darker elements. The simmering legal battle between those who would farm mussels at the seabed rather than on artificial breeding pilings, and the governments who are outlawing seed-collecting and bottom culturing; the rather dramatic statement from the boat captain that humanity may have outlasted its welcome on the planet; and a closing shot that in retrospect is perfectly logical, but has an unnerving effect on those of us who love the occasional moules-frites.

140-character (or less) review: MUSSELS IN LOVE (2012, A-): Better translated as PASSION OF THE MUSSEL. A delicate, loving consideration, with 2 surprisingly dark moments.


The Final Member

And if a movie about seafood getting busy wasn't primed to make the audience giggle, how about a documentary about an Icelandic man who runs a penis museum, and the two men poised to donate their units to his collection? Yep, that'll do it.

The Final Member, a Canadian documentary, exists on two levels. On one level, it's a story about three driven men, and the unlikely but non-sexual passion for penises they all share. The curator's health is failing, his renowned countryman's dong is shrinking with age, and the monomaniacal American suitor who is willing to give his penis to the museum pre-death is getting more and more desperate for fame.

The second level is the experience of viewing this film in a crowd. Oh, the middle-aged women in the theater -- especially the ones seated right behind us, who felt the need to not only laugh and hoot and giggle at the most mundane moments (to say nothing of the truly outlandish), but also discuss the events on-screen at a wholly inappropriate volume. Clearly, the curator has been on to something in presuming that there still exists a taboo in taking the penis seriously.

So if you can find it, watch it. It's a gorgeous, funny, and respectful movie that actually manages to maintain the suspense right to the end.

140-character (or less) review: THE FINAL MEMBER (2012, A+): Yes, funny, but not THAT funny, or merely crass. If I called it a touching film, would you hold it against me?


Room 237

Here's my confession: I had never seen The Shining until literally the day before I saw Room 237, the documentary about meta-commentary on Kubrick's film. I knew more about the Halloween episode of The Simpsons that spoofs The Shining than I did the original. There it is. I'm not a total film guy.

So there was some Schrödingerian influence at play here, since I had read the WFF description of Room 237 before seeing The Shining. I knew that some people interpreted the original as a commentary on Native American relocation and genocide. Others felt it was Kubrick's admission that he'd worked on the staged moon landing footage. When the sweater showed up, I spotted it immediately. (You'll just have to watch if you don't already know what I'm talking about.)

This documentary isn't built the way most "expert testimony" docs are; there are no talking heads in front of black backgrounds, name plotted on the screen below them. We never see or meet the theorists, which is probably for the better; we'd probably be judging their haircuts. As it is displayed, we are forced to give some of these very bizarre postulations a little bit of credit. Sometimes a very little bit.

140-character (or less) review: ROOM 237 (2013, B+): Film psychoanalysis both boggles & illuminates. Freud might say sometimes a continuity error's just a continuity error.


Stories We Tell

I couldn't have picked Sarah Polley or any of her previous narrative work out of a lineup prior to seeing Stories We Tell, but I can say that this was a fun one to experience unemcumbered, unspoiled. As such, I will tell you very little.

The basic jist of the film is Polley's exploration into her late mother's biography, and the forgotten stories and unknown unknowns she discovers in the process. I honestly don't want to tell you any more than that; just hold tight, and watch closely.

One nice thing, something you don't see very often, was the official film Twitter account, @StoriesDoc. Whoever's running that account has been really active online, responding to and retweeting peoples' film commentary.

This was part one of our festival-closing double feature, which of course meant that we got choice seats for the second part.

140-character (or less) review: STORIES WE TELL (2012/3, A): Tablecloth pulls and false doors. We are all our own unreliable narrator, and could not be ourselves otherwise.

photo credit:

Much Ado About Nothing

And then here we were, in a theater packed to the gills with Whedonites, and I'll be damned if this movie didn't exceed my expecations, which weren't exactly low to begin with. Even the crowd was polite, not the raucous crew I figured we'd be saddled with, shouting "Shiny!" and "Gorram!" and whatnot.

In what is steadily turning into Hollywood legend, Joss Whedon made this adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in the 12 days between principle photography and editing of The Avengers. He cast a lot of folks who had worked in his television projects, as well as a couple folks associated in various ways with Avengers.

It's black and white, and the script is 100% Shakespeare -- except maybe one or two pronouns with flipped genders as a result of a brilliant decision to remake a male sub-villain into a female. The setting, however, is 2011 in Joss Whedon's house, which gives the film a dreamlike, unreal vibe. People don't say "an" instead of "if" when they're listening to music from iPods, WHAT IS THIS PLACE.

Amy Acker is, quite simply, amazing in this film. Emma Thompson played the role of Beatrice with aplomb in Kenneth Branagh's version of Much Ado, but Acker grabs this film by the lapels and plants a big ol' kiss right on it. It is suffused with her energy. The only reason this isn't an A or higher is one scene with a couple moments of ill-timed humor.

140-character (or less) review: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (2012, A-): Lively and well-staged. Bravura performances: 1) Shakespeare. 2) Amy Acker. 3) Joss Whedon's house.

This is a much later recap than I intended, but hey look at that. Stories We Tell had a limited release on May 17, while Much Ado About Nothing will see its North American release on June 7. Mussels in Love should be released on DVD in July, if the film's website (and my Dutch) is to be believed. Room 237 was released on DVD for Region 2 (UK) on April 1, but no US date has been announced. But the lonely straggler, The Final Member, doesn't seem to have any release dates in the US or elsewhere coming up. You'll just have to see where it pops up next.