Marquee Film Festival, Day 2: “I Believe in Unicorns” and “Mistress America”

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There’s nothing “Mini” about the Marquee Film Festival put on by the student programmers at the Wisconsin Union Directorate at the University of Wisconsin Union South’s Marquee Theatre, 1208 W. Dayton St. Originally called the “Mini Indie Film Festival” when it came on the heels of the Wisconsin Film Festival in the spring, the festival was moved to November last year so as not to compete for eyeballs with the much bigger WFF. The “Mini Indie” name was dropped this year.

The festival is a free, four-day, 14-film festival, running Thursday through Sunday, featuring films that either didn’t play Madison or probably didn’t get the theatrical runs they deserved. I already missed writing about Thursday’s double feature of Charles Burnett’s sublime African-American drama “Killer of Sheep” and the wrenching Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy,” but I’ll try and keep up from here on out. Visit http://www.wudfilm.com for a full schedule and other info, and check back here Saturday and Sunday for more previews.

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“All Things Must Pass”: How the Tower of music came crumbling down

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“All Things Must Pass” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:36, three stars out of four.

The numbers on them were usually too high, but I still miss those little yellow price stickers. Whether it was going to the two-story Tower Records on Chicago’s North Side or making a pilgrimage to the massive store on Columbus and Bay whenever I was in San Francisco, there was something special about Tower Records. While the Sound Warehouses and Sam Goody’ses felt impersonal, Tower seemed like that rarity — a successful franchise that was also your neighborhood record store.

But nothing lasts forever, especially in the music business. Tower Records was a billion-dollar business in 2001 and dead in 2006, succumbing to a combination of market forces (hello Napster!) and self-inflicted wounds. The entertaining and elegaic documentary “All Things Must Pass” by Colin Hanks (son of Tom) tells the story of Tower Records’ rise and fall, mixing testimonials from some famous customers (Elton John, Bruce Springsteen) with war stories from the guys who started it all.

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Instant Gratification: “Anna Karenina” and four other good films new to Netflix

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Pick of the week: “Anna Karenina: Director Joe Wright and actress Kiera Knightley reunite from “Atonement” in this bracing adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel, written by playwright Tom Stoppard, in which sets blur into each other, and country houses become stages, the better to heighten the artificiality of Anna’s life. At the center of this maelstrom, Knightley holds her own with a finely-tuned performance as the tragic heroine.

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“The Wonders”: Italian coming-of-age drama is the bees’ knees

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“The Wonders” has its Madison premiere on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. FREE for members, $7 for non-members. Not rated, 1:51, three and a half stars out of four.

“The family who best represents our traditional values will win a bag of money.” If Alice Rohrwacher’s “The Wonders” was just a satire of reality televiison, it would be pretty good for that line alone, niftily summing up the yawning gap between the professed goals and “journeys” of such shows and the greedy underpinnings beneath.

But “The Wonders,” which won the Grand Prix at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, uses its reality-TV satire as a minor ingredient in a luminous and keenly observed coming-of-age story. As Rohrwacher did with her previous film “Corpe Celeste,” she sinks so deep into the life of a pre-teen girl and her flawed but loving family that we feel like we’re immersed in a novel as much as a film.

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“Run Free”: The story of an ultramarathoner who was born to run, and never stopped

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“Run Free” has its Madison premiere on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Barrymore Theatre, 2090 Atwood Ave. Tickets are $12 in advance through barrymorelive.com and $15 at the door.

The alarm goes off before the sun goes up, and, begrudgingly, you haul yourself out of bed and into your workout clothes. While your neighbors are asleep, you hit the pavement for your morning run. It’s a pain, but once you get moving, you start to feel better.

Now imagine if the hard part wasn’t starting to run, but stopping.

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“Coming Home”: Memories become a victim of China’s Cultural Revolution

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“Coming Home” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas, PG-13, 1:51, three stars out of four. I’ll be doing a post-show Q&A after the 7:15 p.m. show on Tuesday, Nov. 10.

Totalitarian regimes don’t just tell the people they oppress what to say and do. They tell them what to think and feel, what to remember and to forget. That point gets driven home in “Coming Home,” a mournful romantic drama from acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

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“Spectre”: The shadow of “Skyfall” falls over the new Bond film

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“Spectre” opens Friday in Point, Palace, AMC Fitchburg and Sundance Cinemas. PG-13, 2:28, three stars out of four.

In the Daniel Craig era, we’ve seen two of the best James Bond films ever (“Casino Royale” and “Skyfall”) and one of the worst (“Quantum of Solace”). But we’ve never seen a middle-of-the-pack, conventional James Bond film yet.

Until “Spectre.” Don’t get me wrong — the pleasures of middle-of-the-pack Bond have been vast and enduring to me over the years, the essential stuff of ABC Sunday Night at the Movies and weekend matinees with Dad. And so it is in “Spectre,” which contains clever action sequences, spectacular locales, colorful baddies, and another assured performance by Craig in his fourth outing as 007. It’s just that the suit seems to fit him maybe a little too well this time.

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“Seymour: An Introduction”: Visiting a pianist in harmony with his world

“Seymour: An Introduction” opens with 87-year-old pianist Seymour Bernstein figuring out a difficult passage of music. Playing the same few bars over and over, he has to strategize, figure out where he needs to put his fingers and when, to make the difficult transition from this chord to that. Finally, after a lot of trial and error, he gets it right.
To the casual listener of the final performance, of course, it might sound like the music just flows out of Bernstein’s fingers. But, of course, it takes thousands of hours of practice to make that music “flow.” The documentary “Seymour” makes a powerful and poignant case for the hard, unglamorous work that goes into making great art, and that making that your life’s work makes for a life well-lived.

“Seymour” was directed by actor Ethan Hawke, who befriended Bernstein after the two were placed next to each other at a dinner party. As Hawke explains it on-camera, he confided to Bernstein that he was having a mid-career bout of stage fright, and couldn’t figure out how to stop being nervous. Bernstein replied wryly that most performers ought to be more nervous when they go on stage.

Bernstein would know. A talented concert pianist who received great reviews from the New York Times and others, he was so anxious about being on stage that he finally walked away from performing at the age of 50, devoting his life to teaching music. Challenged by one of his former students if he had a responsibility to continue performing, Bernstein responds, “I poured it into you.”

The film is structured almost exclusively around interviews with Bernstein, whether he’s talking with Hawke, talking to his current and former students, or looking directly into the camera. His music and his life seem completely integrated with each other; he even speaks like he plays: thoughtfully, calmly, compassionately, perceptively.

“Seymour” moves around in time, shifting from Bernstein’s interactions with young students today to his memories of growing up and serving in the Army, where he would play concerts on the front lines in South Korea for soldiers who had never heard classical music before.

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“(T)ERROR”: Meet the Keystone Kops of counterterrorism

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“(T)ERROR” has its Madison premiere Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. FREE for museum members, $7 for all others. Not rated, 1:33, three stars out of four.

If the consequences weren’t so dire, the ham-fisted FBI “counterterrorism” operation chronicled in the documentary “(T)ERROR” would be comical. You could see the Coen Brothers or Christopher Guest take a whack at this sort of material — an FBI informant and would-be cupcake chef with delusions of grandeur (he’s a big fan of “Homeland”) ensnares completely innocent Muslims in terrorism investigations. And lets a documentary crew follow him around for the whole thing.

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Instant Gratification: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I” and four other good movies on Amazon and Netflix

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“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part I” (Amazon Prime/Hulu) — My full review is here. It’s all setup for “Mockingjay — Part 2,” coming Nov. 20, but it’s effective setup, with Katniss Everdeen and the rebels on the run, planning, waiting, hoping. Those hoping for action in this film will be disappointed — Katniss fires exactly one arrow in the film — but those looking for mood will be swayed, especially as Jennifer Lawrence sings the haunting “The Hanging Tree.” Part 2 better pay off, though.

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