“The Hunt”: An innocent teacher caught in a witch hunt


“The Hunt” plays Monday through Thursday at Point and Eastgate Cinemas. Not rated, 1:52, three stars out of four.

Even  when things get very bad, the little Danish town in “The Hunt” seems so nice. It’s a place where everybody knows everybody, where folks walk to school and drop in unannounced in each other’s homes, where the pews are full on Christmas Eve.

It’s in this bucolic little retreat that director Thomas Vinterberg (“The Celebration”) creates a modern-day “Crucible,” a frighteningly plausible examination of how suspicion can spread through otherwise decent people.

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Milwaukee Film Festival: “Breathing Earth” and “More Than Honey”


Friday was, frankly, too nice a day to spend inside a movie theater. But it was the one day I knew I could make it to Milwaukee for the 5th annual Milwaukee Film Festival. And at least I spent a lot of time outdoors in the two visually stunning documentaries I saw, “Breathing Earth” and “More Than Honey.”

“Breathing Earth” is the latest film from director Thomas Riedelscheimer, who made the wonderful “Rivers & Tides” about a decade ago about the work of artist Andrew Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy’s work was intended to work with the rhythms of nature, letting wind and water gradually erode them away. In “Breathing Earth” he focuses on another artist, Sunumu Shingu, whose work also depends on wind and water.

Shingu’s intricate geometric sculptures are like beautiful weather vanes, spinning and bowing and dipping according to the whims of the air currents. Shingu wants to use his work to celebrate something invisible in nature, and just watching them move is almost hypnotice. Riedelscheimer intercuts these images with gorgeous scenes of nature, wind ruffling through tall grass like a sheepdog’s fur, or an explosion of orange butterflies filling the sky, creating a contemplative and lovely viewing experience.

“Breathing Earth” is less successful in its narrative line, following Shingu’s attempt to build an entire village that runs on wind power. We follow Shingu and his wife from country to country, looking for a suitable spot to build the village, never quite finding the right one. It’s a little dull and pedestrian — far more interesting is Shingu talking about his upbringing, in particular the troubled older brother who inspired him to become an artist.

A stronger film overall was “More Than Honey,” which a film festival volunteer outside the Oriental Theatre said was already being called the “Chasing Ice” of 2013. It is a visually amazing film about the life of bees, with amazing close-up photography inside the hive, and even a jaw-dropping sequence from a bee’s eye view that follows another bee as it darts around a meadow. (That can’t be real, can it?) If ever a documentary deserved an IMAX 3D release, it’s this one.

What’s more, director Markus Inhoof’s film is fascinating as it tells about how bees think, and how their population is being decimated by a host of factors, all of them manmade. In their rush to get every larger and more profitable crops, commercial beekeepers have tried to domesticate bees into become docile little flying cows, with disastrous results for the ecosystem. Fortunately, Inhoof seems hope in, of all things, African so-called “killer bees,” which make pure honey and are too bad-ass to be messed with.

The festival continues until Oct. 10. For a complete schedule and other information, visit mkefilm.org.

“Drug War”: Popeye Doyle goes to mainland China


“Drug War” screens at 7 p.m. Friday at the UW-Cinematheque screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. R, 1:47, three and a half stars out of four. FREE!

Johnnie To’s “Drug War” opens with a man, burned and frothing at the mouth, losing control of his car and crashing through the front door of the store. We don’t know who he is or what’s wrong with him. Get used to that feeling.

To’s exhilarating and complicated police drama keeps the audiences at least a step behind on its plotting, showing us a detail or introducing a character and then only later explaining what it means. It’s an unusual and engrossing plotting technique in such a well-worn genre, but it mirrors the feeling of uncertainty of the film’s heroes, a crack team of police officers trying to break up a meth ring. They, like us, don’t know what’s waiting for them.

That injured man turns out to be Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), who was injured at an explosion in his meth lab that killed his wife and brothers. Manufacturing drugs is a death sentence in mainland China, and Choi is eager to avoid a lethal injection. So he agrees to turn snitch, leading the relentless Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) and his team against the cartel he’s been cooking for.

At first, it seems like the police are more than equal to the challenge, and To stages elaborate setpieces that show off their cunning and preparation. In one bravura scene similar to the Dubai sequence in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” Zhang intercepts a meeting between a supplier and a dealer, impersonating each party to the other one. In another sequence, we see a complicated drop at a traffic light, and a raid on a smuggler’s den that goes off flawlessly, climbing up the ladder to the secretive drug kingpin they know only as “Uncle Bill.”

But To keeps introducing bits of seemingly random visual information that puts us on guard a little bit. Specifically, the same characters keep showing up in the background — a bearded old man, a well-dressed couple — seeming to watch the action from afar. Whose side are they on? Are they on a side? All is eventually revealed, but their presence underscores that there’s a lot more going on than Captain Zhang and his team are yet aware of.

To is known for his spectacularly staged gunfights, and “Drug War” ends on a dilly, a protracted gun battle between cops and criminals that starts out in front of an elementary school and spills out onto a nearby highway. The action is crisply staged, but shocking in how quickly things spiral out of hand for Zhang and his team. This is a grittier sort of action film than I’m used to seeing from To, illustrated by the anonymous highways and streets where the violence takes place, often in pitiless broad daylight. Fans of Hong Kong action will find much to like here, as will fans of dogged police procedurals like “The French Connection.”

Thirteen things you shouldn’t miss at the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival


The 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival kicks off Thursday and runs for two weeks, presenting over 240 films, filmmaker panels, live shows and other special events. The MFF 2013 calendar looks as eclectic as it is impressive, with series devoted to children’s films, music-themed films, and of course films with Milwaukee and Wisconsin tie-ins.

I’m planning to be there Friday to see a few films, so look for my report on the blog on Saturday. I’m tempted to say to just hit Interstate 94 on any given day and just see what’s playing, the quality of films is so high. (And the films play at some of Milwaukee’s most distinctive theaters — the palatial Oriental Theatre, the funky Downer Theatre, and the expansive new Fox Bay Cinema-Grill).

But to get you started on the film schedule at mkefilm.org, here are 13 things that caught my eye:

Break Up Man” (Thursday, Sept. 26, 6:30 p.m., Oriental) — MFF always goes for a crowd-pleaser for the opening night selection, and this year is no exception with this popular German film, about a professional “break-up artist” who must end relationships in order to further his career.

Kids’ Shorts : Size Small” (Saturday, Sept. 28, 10:30 a.m., Oriental) — The festival divides its children’s shorts by running time for little attention spans — here are the quick ones.

Blow Out” (Saturday, Sept. 28, 4 p.m., Oriental) — Brian DePalma’s paranoid thriller will be presented by several writers from The Dissolve website (the Wisconsin Film Festival should have them up next year!)

Wings of Desire” (Sunday, Sept. 29, 3:45 p.m., Oriental) — Any chance to see Wim Wenders’ wondrous film about angels watching over Berlin, one of them yearning to be human, is worth seeing, especially in a lustrous 35mm print.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” (Sunday, Sept. 29, 7 p.m., Oriental) — This documentary on the life of a Hollywood and Broadway legend will be unlivened by the fact that the festival just announced that Stritch herself will be at the screening.

Muscle Shoals” (Monday, Sept. 30, 7 p.m., Downer and Thursday, Oct, 3, 7 p.m., Fox Bay Cinema Grill) — This documentary looks at the legendary Alabama recording studio, where everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Drive-By Truckers have recorded classics.

After Tiller” (Tuesday, Oct. 1, 7 p.m, Oriental) — There are only four doctors in the U.S. willing to perform third-trimester abortions, and this extraordinary documentary chronicles their work in the face of death threats.

Ludwig II” (Wednesday, Oct. 2, noon, Oriental, and Sunday, Oct. 2, noon, Downer) — If you like long, engrossing epics, settle in for this 160-minute biopic of the Bavarian king known as the “mad monarch.”

The Girls in the Band” (Thursday, Oct. 3, 4:45 p.m., Oriental, and Tuesday, Oct. 8, 5 p.m., Fox Bay Cinema Griill) — Similar to “20 Feet From Stardom,” this documentary looks at female musicians overlooked in their time — only this time it’s jazz session musicians who weren’t properly credited in a male-dominated genre.

We Are What We Are” (Friday, Oct. 4, 9:30 p.m., Oriental) — In this stylish and gripping horror film, a father and his two daughters keep to themselves in a small town, and with good reason — they’re cannibals.

An Evening with Paul Attanasio” (Saturday, Oct. 5, 7:30 p.m., Oriental) — This one-of-a-kind evening explores the work of Milwaukee native and Hollywood writer-producer Attanasio, as he presents and talks about his many acclaimed projects for film and television, including “Donnie Brasco” and “Homicide: LIfe on the Street.”

“August: Osage County” (Monday, Oct. 7, 7 p.m., Oriental) — The all-star adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play is one of the hottest tickets at the festival, but some rush tickets may be available at the door.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” (Sunday, Oct. 6, 8 p.m, Fox Bay Cinema Grill, and Wednesday, Oct. 9, 4:45 p.m., Downer) — This documentary on the legendary power-pop band should appeal to fans of Alex Chilton and company.

“Low Movie (How to Quit Smoking)”: Sound and vision collide in Duluth


“Low Movie (How to Quit Smoking)” screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Barrymore Theatre, 2090 Atwood Ave. Tickets are $10. Not rated, 1 hour 8 minutes, three stars out of four.

Phil Harder doesn’t appear on any albums by the Duluth band Low, but they consider him part of the band. The filmmaker has been Low’s go-to guy for videos and short films since its inception in 1993, and on their 20th anniversary, Harder decided to release a compendium of “20 years of not knowing what the hell we were doing,” as singer Alan Sparhawk wryly puts it in the introduction.

So if you’re looking for a documentary about Low, some revealing personal or backstage footage about the band, look elsewhere. (Minnesotans might not be comfortable sharing that much anyway.) Instead, “Low Movie” is like a series of short films built around music, each not having any particular relationship to the other, varying widely in style.

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“Escape From Tomorrow,” “I’m So Excited” part of next Sundance Screening Room series


When I first heard about “Escape From Tomorrow” premiering at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, I naturally assumed I would never get a chance to see it. An edgy, hallucinatory drama shot secretly on the grounds of Disneyland? The mouse-eared attorneys from Magic Kingdom would surely shut that down faster than you can say “It’s a Small World.”

But not only has “Escape” escaped legal threats, but it’s opening Oct. 10 at Sundance Cinemas as part of the next round of its Screening Room series, setting aside Theater 1 for weeklong runs of independent, foreign and documentary films. This upcoming series is only five films instead of the usual eight, presumably because we’re getting into Oscar season, and the theater will want to have all six screens available for some fall heavyweight films.

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Instant Gratification: “Shadow Dancer” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix


Pick of the week: “Shadow Dancer”: My full review is here. In this downbeat, unsentimental film that’s like a British miserablist version of a John Le Carre novel, an IRA terrorist (Andrea Riseborough) turns informant for an MI5 agent (Clive Owen). The film, made by “Wisconsin Death Trip” and “Man on Wire” director James Marsh, is short on thrills but long on mood, building an atmosphere of increasing paranoia around Riseborough’s beautifully controlled lead performance.

Documentary of the week: “21 Up”: Actually, every one of Michael Apted’s landmark series, following a group of British folks every seven years of their lives, is up on Netflix from “21” to this year’s “56 Up.”

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Madison-area drive-ins stay ahead of the digital tsunami


Over the weekend, I wrote a story for The Cap Times on the precarious existence of many of America’s drive-in theatres. The future was already shaky for drive-ins (only about a tenth of the 4,000 to 5,000 drive-ins operating in the 1950s) still exist, and they now face an existential threat — digital cinema.

Most theaters have already switched from 35mm film to digital projection (in Madison, only the second-run Market Square and on-campus venues still show 35mm) as the studios make fewer and fewer film prints available. Digital looks better, it never degrades, and playing a film is as easy as pressing a button, unlike swapping and threading film reels.

But digital projectors also cost $80,000 to $100,000, and that cost has been prohibitive for many drive-ins. Now, as the summer season is over, studios have said they’re all but stopping 35mm prints in 2014, which could wipe a lot of drive-in theaters out. Honda attempted to draw attention to the problem with its projectdrivein.com contest, where fans got to vote for which drive-in theater got one of nine free projectors courtesy of Honda.

Luckily for Madison fans of retro al fresco cinema, our local drive-ins were ahead of the curve. Goetz Sky-Vu Drive In Monroe went digital last year, and Hi-Way Outdoor Theatre in Jefferson was one in the first in the nation to go digital back in 2010.

Read the story here.


“Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey”: It goes on and on and on and on


“Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey” screens Monday through Thursday at Point and Eastgate Cinemas. R, 1:53, two and a half stars out of four.

In 1981, while Journey was packing arenas around the world on its “Escape” tour, the band’s future lead singer was a kid on the streets of Manila, singing for his supper.

Arnel Pineda grew up poor, and for a time was homeless, performing for spare change to live on. His unlikely journey to the spotlight is chronicled in Ramona S. Diaz’s engaging but shallow documentary “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey.”

Steve Perry’s voice was the essential ingredient in ’80s hits like “Open Arms” and “Faithfully,” and he left Journey foundering when he quit the band in the mid-1990s. They went on with a replacement singer, seemingly chosen as much for his physical resemblance to Perry has his vocal resemblance, but when his voice gave out a decade later, the band was stuck.

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The anti-cynical tonic of Cinematic Titanic

CT Group Shot

Did anybody ever deliberately start watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000” on purpose? It feels like every fan I run across (myself included) has an origin story with the cult ’90s TV series that sounds like this: “There was this show on, and I didn’t know what was going on! But it was just so funny, and I just kept watching more and more and more . . .”

That was from the woman sitting next to me at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee for “Cinematic Titanic,” which features five of the creators/performers of the series, including the trio that begun it back in its Minneapolis public-access days — Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, and J. Elvis Weinstein, along with Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl. (The trio who ended the series on Syfy in 1999 — Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett — went on to start the equally worthy Rifftrax.)

Rifftrax has focused on doing new commentaries for famous and recent films that can be synced up to your DVD, as well as live nationwide broadcasts. Cinematic Titanic has kept its focus on old movies, mixing DVD releases with live shows like the Pabst Theatre two-night stand.

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