“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”: Is Studio Ghibli getting spirited away?

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“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” has its Madison premiere on Friday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. at UW-Cinematheque screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. FREE! Not rated, 1:57, three stars out of four.

UW-Cinematheque will also show “The Wind Rises” on Saturday, Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. And the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1208 W. Dayton St., will show “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” on Saturday, Feb. 28 and Sunday, March 1.

Responsible for some of the most delightful and imaginative animated films in the last 50 years (“Spirited Away”, “Ponyo”) from his Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki has been called the “Japanese Walt Disney.”

I’ll bet he hates that.

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“Love is the Devil”: A portrait of a cruel affair

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Take away the drinking, the sadomasochism, the horrific visions, and the fact that one of Britain’s great modern painters is involved, and “Love is the Devil” might be just like any other love story. Boy meets boy, boy falls for boy, boy loses interest in boy, boy has nightmares about sitting perched on the end of the diving board screaming and covered in blood.

Okay, maybe not that last bit.

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Instant Gratification: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix Instant

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Pick of the week: “Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyMy full review is here. An unlikely spy thriller masterpiece, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel about British intelligence rooting out a mole is both a twisty, engrossing mystery and a meditation on those who keep secrets.

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Looking forward to the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

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Last January, at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, I was at the second screening ever of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” which has gone on to top critics’ best-of lists, and, perhaps more surprisingly, be a serious contender at this year’s Oscars. I missed the festival’s opening-night film, “Whiplash,” which has also gone onto a lot of Oscar attention.

Also at that festival, I was one of about 100 people crammed into a room for a discussion on digital storytelling, which included the world premiere of a new show for the then-fledgling Amazon Prime Video. That show was “Transparent,” which went on to also top critics’ best-of lists and win Golden Globes last week for Best Comedy/Musical Show and Actor.

The idea that the Sundance Film Festival is a hothouse for precious indie films destined to wither away once they hit the cold cruel world of the marketplace doesn’t seem so valid anymore.

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Sundance Screening Room returns with Oscar shorts, “Mr. Turner,” “Hits”

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The Sundance Cinemas Screening Room calendar is revving up again at the end of the month, presenting foreign films, documentaries and indies every week start on Jan. 30.

I’ll be back doing post-show chats for a couple of the films (more of those to come), and I’ll have some details coming soon on how you can win tickets to those movies. But until then, here’s a look at what’s coming:

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“Finding Fela” explores the man, the myth and the musical

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Alex Gibney’s “Finding Fela” is a very good documentary about the legendary African musician and political activist Fela Kuti. It is also a pretty good documentary about the creation of “Fela!” a Broadway musical chronicling his life.

It’s when “Finding Fela” tries to be both at the same time that it gets a little shaky. Gibney’s film is now out this week on DVD and on Netflix Instant.

“Fela!” does seem like a terrible idea for a Broadway musical, as Questlove of The Roots says about when he first heard of it. What does the politically-charged, hypnotic music of Kuti have to do with the well-to-do audiences in Manhattan? But under the guidance of artistic director Bill T. Jones (who is coming to the Wisconsin Union Theater on Valentine’s Day), the musical captures the contours of Kuti’s story as well as the spirit of his music. With the excellent Afrobeat band Antibalas serving as house musicians, performances erupt into wild onstage parties that seem to have little to do with the carefully orchestrated corporate-backed musicals elsewhere on Broadway.

What Gibney does is use the play as a visual device through which to tell Kuti’s story. We’ll see a few lines from the musical as the actor Kuti describes his upbringing in Nigeria, then cut to archival footage and interviews with people who were there. And beneath it all is the music — humming, throbbing Afrobeat songs that could be propulsive and energetic, or stretch out to a simmering half-hour or so. It was Kuti’s ambition in part that thwarted his efforts to make it big in America — record labels kept asking him how they could turn a 28-minute song into a three-minute hit on the radio.

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While Kuti was an inspiration and a hero to many in Nigeria and across Africa during a turbulent political time, Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) doesn’t flinch from some of the less laudable aspects of his character. His treatment of women was abysmal, and his house was filled with his many wives, all sitting around waiting to serve him.

There is plenty of live footage of Kuti, both in interviews and onstage, and the live performances from “Fela!,” bold and colorful, add a great deal of excitement to “Finding Fela.” But the film falters when it lets the musical take over, lets Jones interpret the facts of Kuti’s life that we’re seeing for us. You can feel Gibney’s and Jones’ different agendas grinding against each other at times, and when “Finding Fela” slips into “behind the scenes at a play” mode it’s much less interesting.

But then, it wouldn’t be a documentary about Kuti if it was neat and well-behaved.

 

 

 

“Selma” uses the cliches of historical dramas to challenge them

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As I wrote on Friday, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” is a magnificent film, an urgent historical drama that makes the civil rights battles of the 1960s feel painfully relevant to the civil unrest of today. Much of the film’s potency comes from DuVernay’s refusal to wrap the events in the film in the gauzy cloak of history. Everything about the film, from the screenplay bracing honesty to the nuanced and convincing performances, is designed to give the film a we-are-there immediacy.

But DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb also use two familiar techniques of historical dramas, things we see in almost every movie based on real events. At first, these techniques come almost as a comfort, we’re so used to seeing them. But then it becomes clear than “Selma” is using them in a clever and even subversive way, as a rebuke to the traditional historical narrative about civil rights.

The first is the use of scene-setting text throughout the film to orient the viewer as to where we are in a given scene and who we’re seeing. This is a pretty common narrative technique in historical drama (“The White House, Jan. 24, 1963).

But the text in “Selma” is presented as if taken (and may very well be taken) from the secret files that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover gathered on King. Hoover had King under surveillance, tried to discredit him for his infidelities and even nudge him towards suicide, and the text reflects this suspicious tone. For example, when King calls legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson because he needs to “hear the Lord’s voice,” the text sneers “King contacts Negro entertainer.”

We’re so used to seeing such text take an omniscient, God’s Eye perspective on historical events that it’s jarring to see such biased, even prejudiced text in a film. DuVernay’s point is that observations like these were the official history of King, according to the white power structure in the South and in much of Washington, D.C. Putting it on-screen gives such official prejudice a terrible weight, underscoring the magnitude of what King was struggling to overcome.

The other technique also involves on-screen text, and comes at the end of the film. As King gives his thundering speech in Montgomery, Alabama, the camera finds several of the players in the film, and shows us a sentence or two about what happened to them. There’s John Lewis, future 14-term Congressman. There’s Alabama Governor George Wallace, who seven years later will be paralyzed by an assassin’s bullet. These kind of where-are-they-now messages were a familiar part of historical dramas since well before “Animal House” made fun of them.

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But then the camera finds a protester, a white woman named Viola Liuzzo, listening raptly to King’s speech. And the text tells us that, five hours from now, she will be murdered by Klansmen on the way home from the event.

It’s a shocking detail that abruptly breaks through the glow of victory that pervades the final scene. To tidily package away these events as history, as something that happened then and not now, does them a disservice, DuVernay is saying. And it reminds us that the struggle was far from over, there were still lives that would be lost, and the questions that “Selma” asks — about racial justice, about violence, and about who gets to tell the story of our shared past — still need asking.