Movies from Madison: The Wisconsin Film Festival

The LA Film Festival is upon us!  My pass is purchased and I have some intense schedule-planning ahead of me so I can fully soak in cinema from June 14th through June 24th.  However, before I turn my attentions to the independent fare offered by my fair city of angels, I want to share my recommendations on movies from Madison, my other fair city and home to the Wisconsin Film Festival.    Out of the thirteen films I saw, I have four favorites that you should put on your Netflix queue immediatement!  That’s right – the French – and French Canadians – ruled this year.

1) MONZIEUR LAZHAR – Set in Montreal, an elementary school teacher commits suicide and her young classroom struggles to make sense of the tragedy.  Enter a kind, contemplative substitute teacher, Monsieur Lazhar, to help in their healing process.  An Algerian immigrant, Lazhar has his own personal demons to battle and the pain of his past finds solace through the new friendships of his present – particularly with one young student, Alice.  While I know the premise is heavy, the film is a beautiful balance of pathos and levity.  It’s subtle and true.  This one is still in select movie theatres so catch it if you can.

2) TOMBOY – Another nuanced, meaningful film that left me with a lump in my throat.  I missed it when it screened at the LA Film Fest last year, so I’m grateful I got the chance to experience it in America’s Dairlyland.  It’s a French film that tells the story of Laure, a ten-year-old girl who moves to a new town with her family.  It’s clear from Laure’s short, cropped hair, athletic clothing, and tomboy tendencies that she’s not one for ribbons and dresses, but you can’t help but worry when the kids in her new neighborhood mistake her for a boy and she happily – and effectively – plays along with the ruse, even adopting the name Mikael.  What will happen to her when they find out the truth?  Like MONSIEUR LAZHAR, the film has a soft humor to counteract the deeper social undertones and it observes the behavior of children in an energetic, realistic, and occasionally heartbreaking way.  This one was my favorite of the fest.  And you’re in luck because you can rent it on iTunes.  C’est magnifique!

Just one of the boys

3) PELOTERO – Major League Baseball has two offices: one is in New York City and the other is in the Dominican Republic, a country from which 20% of professional ball players are recruited.  The documentary PELOTERO follows the recruiting process in Santa Domingo and how it represents an escape route from the country’s intense poverty for those young athletes gifted enough to get signed.  In profiling two such talented teen players, Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano, the movie also reveals the exploitation and corruption that occurs when future hall-of-famers are seen as simply a monetary prize being bartered.  The film is due in theatres and on demand in mid-July, so keep an eye out for it.

4) PAUL WILLIAMS STILL ALIVE – this documentary caught my eye because I remember Paul Williams guest starring on all of my favorite childhood shows, including THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW and THE LOVE BOAT.  Obviously, he’s known for much more than that, which is why filmmaker Stephen Kessler wanted to film a documentary about him.  Williams was the quintessential songwriter of the seventies, penning hits like We’ve Only Just Begun, Evergreen (for which he and co-writer Barbara Streisand won an Academy Award), and, of course, The Rainbow Connection.  But like many people who achieve staggering success, Williams fell victim to the excesses that often accompany the lifestyle.  Kessler’s documentary finds the present day Williams twenty-years sober (in fact, he’s a certified drug and alcohol counselor) and still playing a variety rooms, ranging from small San Francisco cabarets to arenas in the Philippines, to his very devoted fans.  Williams isn’t comfortable just having Kessler follow him around with a camera, though – he pretty much insists that Steve engage with him during the shoot.  And the result is a humorous, sometimes contentious relationship that reveals an artist who continues looking forward despite his own setbacks and the filmmaker who admires him.  While you may go into the movie thinking you’ll feel sorry for Williams, you come away from it feeling inspired by him.

Alive and Kicking!

I do want to note that I had one disappointment at the Wisconsin Film Festival.  Well, “disappointment” doesn’t really suffice.  It was a film that was simultaneously boring and infuriating – the few glimmers of interesting character moments or thoughtful dialogue were far outweighed by its laborious, painful pretension.  I actually felt angry after spending two-and-a-half hours suffering through the piece.  And this happened to be a film by a respected indie filmmaker, populated with an impressive, recognizable cast – many of whom have enjoyed massive Hollywood success.  Just another reminder that bigger isn’t always better.  So here’s to the small films out there that get the job done and pack an emotional punch without the marquee names and inflated gravitas.

Okay, I’m off to pore over the LA Film Fest schedule!  Thanks again for another encouraging film fest, Wisconsin!


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