Sundance Screening Room series returns with “Krisha,” “Born to Be Blue” and “The Family Fang”

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With all the ownership news going on around Sundance Cinemas, any signs that things haven’t changed is a welcome one. The Madison theater was bought by the Carmike Cinemas chain in October, but the theater’s new owners seemed willing to let the popular arthouse continue as it was.

But the news that AMC Theatres, the largest chain in the country, was buying Carmike is a little more troubling. AMC tends to own large urban and suburban theaters (like the 16-screen AMC Fitchburg) showing mainstream movies, and what they’ll do with a six-screen theater focused on independent movies is anybody’s guess.

But both Carmike and AMC says nothing will change until the deal is finalized, probably close to the end of 2016. In the meantime, things at Sundance look to stay as they are, and movie lovers that want to keep it that way might want to consider voting with their dollars and supporting the theater, and the kind of movies they want to see there, whenever they can.

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When it comes to bonus features on the “Uncle John” DVD, Mother knows best

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It’s a standard bonus feature on a DVD. The director or the screenwriter gets interviewed about the making of the film. Sometimes it’s in the context of a polished featurette, other times it just seems like raw Q&A footage from the set. The interviewer is usually unseen and often unheard.

But the makers of “Uncle John” (my review is here) tried something a little different for the DVD release of their rural thriller, out this month from Kino Lorber Films. They turned interviewing duties over to their moms.

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No movies? No problem for the Missed Madison Film Festival

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For a city its size, Madison does pretty well when it comes to getting movies on the big screen. Between Sundance Cinemas, the Wisconsin Film Festival, WUD Film, the UW-Cinematheque, the MMOCA Spotlight Cinema series, Micro-Wave Cinema and more, we get to see films theatrically that the big boys in Milwaukee and Minneapolis have to wait to see on DVD or Netflix.

But with hundreds of movies being released every year, many of them getting the barest theatrical runs in New York and L.A. before heading straight to video-on-demand, we can’t get everything. That’s where the Missed Madison Film Festival comes in.

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Sundance Screening Room Calendar returns in 2016 with “Mustang,” “Viva” and “A Perfect Day”

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The purchase of the Sundance Cinemas chain by Carmike Theaters in October doesn’t seem to have had much of a visible effect on the Madison theater. Which is a good thing for fans who have been flocking to the Hilldale Mall theater during this very busy winter movie season.

And now comes word that another favorite Sundance tradition will survive the change-over — the Sundance Screening Room calendar returns on January 29 with a new slate of foreign, documentary and independent films. The calendar locks in some terrific films on the schedule through mid-March, and I’m planning to return to do some post-show chats after some of the films. Stay tuned.

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The 10 worst movies of 2015

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I was on the fence about whether to do a Top 10 worst films of the year, a) because I haven’t seen “Point Break” yet and b) because it felt like taking one last, mean-spirited kick at some films that had already taken plenty of abuse. But then friends on social media essentially began chanting “Kick! Kick!” so I decided to give the people what they wanted.

There are some very bad movies on this list. Just very bad and wrong and not good. But there are also some movies that, while not technically horrible, were just such massive disappointments, such wastes of potential, that in some ways I find them worse than the actual bad movies.

Anyway, let’s cleanse ourselves of these stinkers and leave them behind in 2015. Maybe 2016 will be nothing but great movies! Maybe.

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Marquee Film Festival Day 4: “Tu Dors Nicole” and “The Black Panthers”

Photos de plateau du tournage «Tu dors Nicole» de Stéphane Lafleur, une production micro_scope

Photos de plateau du tournage «Tu dors Nicole» de Stéphane Lafleur, une production micro_scope

The free four-day festival at Union South’s Marquee Film Festival, 1208 W. Dayton St., finishes up with another strong selection of films, plus a preview of next weekend’s Polish Film Festival.

Amour Fou” (1 p.m.) — The formal rigor of this Austrian film set in the Romantic era camouflages a rather strange and wicked story, as a young man searches for a woman who loves him in order that they can execute a suicide pact together. And he might just have a taker.

Tu Dors Nicole” (3:30 p.m.) — This languid French-Canadian comedy-drama follows an aimless post-graduate young woman who spends the summer lounging around her parents’ house, watching her brothers’ band practice, trying to figure out the next move in her life. With gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and gently offbeat humor (like the guy driving around the neighborhood listening to whale noises, which actually has a totally plausible explanation), “Tu Dors Nicole” is a winning film.

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The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” (5:30 p.m.) — As America grapples with a new generation of racial issues, this documentary looking back on the ’60s black activist movement couldn’t be more relevant.

Call Me Marian” (8 p.m.) — Next weekend’s Polish Film Festival gets a preview with this empathetic documentary about Marianna, a transgender Polish woman struggling to find acceptance among her family as she transitions.

Marquee Film Festival Day 3: “Breathe” and “The Second Mother”

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The 2015 Marquee Film Festival has a full day of free programming slated for Saturday, from noon till midnight, in the Union South Marquee Theater, 1208 W. Dayton St. Visit wudfilm.com for more details. Saturday’s lineup seems to emphasize world cinema, with new films from Austria, Brazil, Mexico and France.

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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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“Bridge of Spies”: Doing the right thing, doing the smart thing

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Those going to see Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” last weekend might have thought, based on the trailers, that they were getting a white-knuckle thriller in the vein of “Argo.” All the scenes of men drinking scotch and negotiating were left on the cutting room floor.

But hopefully audiences were able to adjust expectations, slow down their heart rates a little, and appreciate “Bridge of Spies” for the top-notch and engrossing film that it is. Featuring a director, actors (Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance) and screenwriters (playwright Marc Charmin and, on rewrite, Joel & Ethan Coen) working at the top of their game, “Bridge” is immensely enjoyable and something of a companion piece to Spielberg’s last film, “Lincoln.” Both are historical dramas about men doing the right thing against immense obstacles, both because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s the smart thing to do.

Spielberg’s touch asserts itself in a witty opening shot, in which Russian spy Rudolph Abel (Rylance) is using a mirror to paint his self-portrait, likely an allusion to Norman Rockwell’s “Triple Self-Portrait.” Rockwell was the quintessential American, and so it seems is the quiet, normal Abel, who moves through 1957 Brooklyn with his ill-fitting coat and paintbox. But, of course, he’s also a Russian spy.

Spielberg reasserts this with his bravura ten-minute opening sequence, devoid of dialogue or music, in which Abel, shadowed by FBI agents, goes about his day — taking the subway, painting a landscape, and, oh, picking up a secret message in a hollow coin taped to the underside of a park bench. In its evocation of the authentic sights and sounds of 1950s New York, this opening could be a spy sequence as envisioned by “On the Bowery” filmmaker Lionel Rogosin.

From this wordless sequence, we go right into a sequence full of words, as we see insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) negotiate a case. In one exchange, he shows himself to be canny, direct, and above all absolutely sure of what constitutes fair and unfair. I didn’t realize until the closing credits that Joel & Ethan Coen had done a rewrite on the screenplay, but of course their fingerprints are all over this scene in its use of quick, juicy dialogue to establish character.

Donovan is tasked with defending Abel in court, and the first half of “Bridge of Spies” is rather familiar one-man-against-the-system courthouse drama (not unlike Spielberg’s own “Amistad”). When even the judge is openly siding against you, you know you’ve got a losing case, and Donovan becomes a pariah for not just defending Abel, but defending him to the best of his abilities.

Two things stand out of this first half of the film for me. The first is how important the relationship between Donovan and his client Abel are. Donovan is no bleeding-heart, and recognizes Abel as a foe of his country. But he also respects the man as a fellow good soldier who plays by the rules rather than taking the easy way out. These are both practical, honorable men. It helps that Rylance turns in such a sly and winning performance, with Abel concealing a dry wit underneath that hangdog face.

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The second thing is how Donovan plays the case. In front of the Supreme Court, Donovan talks in flowery terms about America and the need for America to put its best foot forward, to play by the rule book, as an example to the rest of the world. He believes this. But in private, especially when he’s arguing sentencing with the judge, Donovan brings forth more practical arguments. Keep Abel alive, and he’ll be good insurance in case an American spy is ever caught by the Soviets. Treat Abel well, and our future captured spy might be treated as well in return.

This is where “Bridge of Spies” has its strongest linkage to “Lincoln,” which focused on President Lincoln’s political efforts to get the 13th amendment abolishing slavery passed into law. It’s the right thing to do for the country, but it’s also the smart thing to do for a divided country. “Lincoln” is less about big speeches and more about the hard work of politics, of calling in favors and twisting arms and using your power strategically to achieve a desired outcome.

And that’s what the second half of “Bridge of Spies” is all about, set in 1960, as Donovan goes to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange of Abel for U2 pilot Gary Powers and American grad student Frederick Pryor. The first half of “Bridge of Spies” has beautifully set up the second. The scenes of Donovan sipping Scotch with Russian and East German officials (each with competing agendas) may not making for thrilling spy cinema. But, just like in “Lincoln,” it does become thrilling to watch Donovan use his powers of negotiations, of understand when to bend and when to stand firm to achieve a desired outcome.

Rylance’s droll presence is missed in this second half, although the screenplay (presumably the Coens) includes some funny touches, such as the fact that these Cold Warriors all have actual colds. (When the cynical CIA agent catches Donovan’s cold, it’s a nifty metaphor for how he’s coming around to Donovan’s way of seeing the world.) And that last scene on the bridge, a pre-dawn stalemate, is suspenseful because the film has laid the groundwork for how shaky this agreement is, how it’s built on human relationships that could go wrong at any time.

Many critics have drawn connections between “Bridge of Spies” and contemporary American politics, whether it be Guantanamo Bay or drone strikes, and whether they reflect American values. I think that’s accurate, but the film is making an even broader point about the way America engages the world.

The Cold War was often described as a chess game between superpowers, and “Bridge” would like to see us get back to that mindset, to start thinking two or three moves ahead, to foresee what consequences might arise from what we do, instead of reacting rashly. To do the right thing, because it’s also often the smart thing. To keep talking to our enemies. And to carry some insurance.

 

 

 

“Deutschland 83”: Cold War skullduggery gets a synth-pop soundtrack

TV STILL -- DO NOT PURGE -- Season 1 Episode 1 -- Jonas Nay - in the SundanceTV original series "Deutschland 83" - Photo Credit: Conny Klein

TV STILL — DO NOT PURGE — Season 1 Episode 1 — Jonas Nay – in the SundanceTV original series “Deutschland 83” – Photo Credit: Conny Klein

For those of us who lived through the ’80s and the paranoia that nuclear war was imminent, it’s no consolation to learn that the feeling was mutual on the other side.

In the opening scene of SundanceTV’s “Deutschland 83”, East German agents nervously watch Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech and worry about an American first strike. This is how wars happen, with each side assuming the worst of the other and feeling pressured to act first. As another East German says later in the series, quoting Chekhov, “Don’t put a rifle on stage if you’re not going to fire it.” And there were a lot of rifles on stage in 1983.

“Deutschland 83,” a German TV series created by the husband and wife team of Anna and Jorg Winger, plays off that sense of mutual nervousness in giving us an antihero — a young East German spy who has infiltrated the West. Comparison’s to FX’s “The Americans” abound, but young Martin (Jonas Nay) earns our sympathies even as he’s responsible for some terrible things, because he’s idealistic and thinks he’s doing good. This is not a story of good vs. evil, but of two sides who don’t understand each other, don’t trust each other, and could blunder into Armageddon if they’re not very careful.

Martin is basically kidnapped by his spymaster aunt (a chilling Maria Schrader) and sent to West Germany, where, under the tutelage of a debonair Bonn professor and East German agent (Alexander Byer), he’s tasked with impersonating the aide to a West German general (Ulrich Noethen). He feeds information on NATO strategies back to the Stasi in East Berlin.

“Deutschland 83” is an enjoyably odd series in the way it mixes Cold War paranoid and ’80s pop culture, the slinky synth of Eurythmics and snap of The Police playing as background music to Martin’s espionage. (The lyrics to Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” make for a great joke in the third episode.) The ’80s spy tech Martin uses is delightfully clunky; his superiors stare at a “floppy disc” as if it might bite them, and his wonderment at the luxuries of the West (the discovery of the Walkman sends him into rapturous delight) is good for a few chuckles.

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Just when we’re lulled by the Reagan-era kitsch, “Deutschland 83” suddenly twists the knife on us, as Martin’s subterfuge has real-world consequences on those around him. The fate of a NATO secretary who falls for his youthful charm is particularly tragic, and, back home, his girlfriend is spying on his ailing mother, who may be smuggling black-market books behind the Iron Curtain. As fun as “Deutschland 83” is along the way, we can’t see how any of this turns out well for anybody.

Of course, we know that the Wall is just a few years from falling, and none of this will matter in the end. But that only makes the moral corruption of Martin more tragic, not less. There are rumors that the Wingers might do two more series, one just before German reunification and one after. If so, I’m looking forward to more thrills and twists as the Wall comes down, likely as Jesus Jones’ “Right Here Right Now” plays on the soundtrack.