“Camille Claudel 1915”: They tell you how to behave, behave as their guest

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“Camille Claudel 1915” has its only Madison screening at 7 p.m. Friday at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Not rated, 1:37, three stars out of four.

At some point during the making of “Camille Claudel 1915,” writer-director Bruno Dumont surely must have considered featuring Juliette Binoche’s face in extreme close-up for the film’s entire running time. It’s a marvelously expressive, endlessly watchable face, and in the film’s many close-ups Binoche takes us from burning rage to crushing sadness to irrational joy. “Camille Claudel 1915” seems to be that rare film where there seems to be less happening on screen the more people we see.

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15 reasons to get excited about the Spring 2014 UW-CInematheque calendar

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Some use ice fishing. Some use football. Some use bourbon.

For me, not surprisingly, what gets me through a Wisconsin winter is the movies. Luckily, just as the thermometer plunges and the snowblower comes out around this time of year, the big Oscar contenders start hitting theaters. And when the holiday rush is past, there’s always a new UW-Cinematheque winter-spring schedule, and the tantalizing signs of the Wisconsin Film Festival up ahead in April, to keep us going until springtime.

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“A Touch of Sin”: Tales of blood and money in the new China

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“A Touch of Sin” has its Madison premiere for FREE on Friday, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m. at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Not rated, 2:05, three and a half stars out of four.

China is changing and the films of Jia Zhang Ke are changing with them. Jia’s previous films (“The World,” “Still Life”) gazed at ordinary Chinese citizens adrift in a country that was changing around them, uncertain if there was a place for them in it.

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See “Nosferatu” and help UW-Cinematheque convert to digital

On the Set of "Nosferatu"

You really don’t need an extra reason to see Werner Herzog’s 1979 chiller “Nosferatu” on the big screen, especially with Halloween coming up. The 1979 film is effect both as an homage and an update to the F.X. Murnau silent vampire classic; as UW student Ryan Waal said on the UW-Cinematheque blog, “this film is emotionally expressive and scary in ways most films only aspire to be, and a fantastic demonstration of Herzog’s abilities to curate and display pure weirdness on the screen.”

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Michael Gilio’s little film “Kwik Stop” needed a champion, and got Roger Ebert

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Of all the films playing in the UW-Cinematheque summer-long tribute to the late Roger Ebert, from “The Third Man” to “The Producers,” the one you’re most likely not to have heard of is “Kwik Stop.”

But Ebert wanted you to know it.

So, while the Chicago Sun-Times’ film critic’s passing in April is an unfortunate occasion to revisit “Kwik Stop,” he would probably have liked the fact that the sparkling and surprising 2001 indie film is getting another shot on the big screen. The film will screen for free at 7 p.m. Friday at the Union South Marquee Theater, 1208 W. Dayton St., with writer-director-star Michael Gilio talking about the film and Ebert’s impact on it.

For Gilio, now a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, it will be the first time he’s seen “Kwik Stop” on the big screen since Ebert screened it at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago in 2005.

“It’s going to be fun,” Gilio said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’m looking forward to talking about Ebert and remembering the whole thing.”

Ebert’s impact on Gilio’s appreciation for film came at an early age, growing up in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights and watching “At the Movies” with Gene Siskel on Saturday nights.

“I would read his movie book every year,” Gilio said. “I would read all the reviews and being kind of in rural Illinois, you didn’t have access to all these films. A lot of the introduction to film for me was just reading his reviews, and I would imagine the movie in my head when I would read them.”

As an actor and screenwriter, Gilio moved back and forth between Chicago and Los Angeles. For his first feature, “Kwik Stop,” he decided to film in his home city, using the convenience stores and motels and corner bars of working-class suburbs as his landscape.

The film kicks off in a way that makes the viewer think this will be a Calumet City update of “Breathless.” A teenager named Didi (Lara Williams) catches a sharp-eyed drifter named Mike (Gilio) stealing a tube of tartar-control toothpaste from a Kwik Stop. Mike brags that he’s heading to Hollywood to become a famous actor (in a car that seems like something out of a movie, with a cutout of Harvey Keitel in the rear-view mirror). Didi begs to go along.

But instead of being a road movie, or a crime movie, or a love story, “Kwik Stop” contains pieces of all of them, playing with genres before subverting expectations. Mike and Didi’s journey together goes to unexpected places, eventually involving Mike’s ex-girlfriend Ruthie (Karin Anglin, who may be at Friday’s screening) and a surly widower (Rich Komenich).

“Poignancy comes into the movie from an unexpected source,” Ebert wrote in his 2002 review. “Depths are revealed where we did not think to find them. The ending is like the last paragraph of a short story, redefining everything that went before.”

Looking back, Gilio says “Kwik Stop” was made in one era in American movies and released in another. When he began making the film, independent films were hot, and in addition to independent distribution houses like ThinkFilm or Newmarket, studios had their own thriving distribution arms like Warner Independent or Paramount Vantage.

“It was just a totally different age,” Gilio said.  “The narrative went if you could get a couple of dentists to contribute you could od a little movie on the cheap, and then you could break out at Sundance and get picked up by one of the independent companies, and you’d be on your way.”

By the time the film was released in 2001, that independent market had largely collapsed, and distribution sources dried up. Even “Kwik Stop” looked different than the other films it would play with at festivals, shot on Super 16 film rather than low-quality digital video.

“It was already a dinosaur,” he said. “Most of the films being shown were all on video. But this was before HD even, so the quality of the movies wasn’t that great, but everyone was shooting on the cheap. And our movie was still on film. It was a weird time. The movie premiered at a time when things were radically changing.”

It also didn’t help Gilio’s cause that “Kwik Stop” was so hard to identify, mixing comic and dramatic elements, following one character and then the next. It’s a hard film to sum up in a movie poster slogan.

“The things that I feel make the film special and unique were the very things that made the film difficult and challenging to get seen and marketed,” he said.

Luckily for Gilio, the film was accepted into the Chicago International Film Festival, and when Ebert got a private screening ahead of time, he loved the film. He began talking it up to other critics and film people, and Gilio began getting invited to more and more film festivals in the United States and Europe.

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“He just became a huge champion for us,” he said. “He had such a large national and international voice that it brought a lot of attention to this little film that could.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for “Kwik Stop” to get a broad distribution deal. It had a small theatrical release, enough that Ebert could then write a formal review praising the film and Gilio. He invited it to play at his Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign-Urbana, which Gilio says was one of the best professional experiences of his life. When Chicago’s Siskel Center asked Ebert to select one of his Overlooked films to play there, he chose “Kwik Stop.”

The film finally came out on DVD in 2005, and Charles Taylor wrote in Slate that the shabby treatment such a good film received in the industry underscored how much had gone wrong with the independent film scene.

Still, Gilio remains grateful to Ebert for his unwavering support of the film, and has fond memories of spending time with Ebert onstage and off, talking about movies.

“When he embraced the movie, it was a really big deal for me and my family,” Gilio said. “Just a very kind, generous guy who went well beyond. He was very passionate about film and about the little guy.”

Pierre Etaix: The French comic genius you’ve never heard of

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There’s a scene in Pierre Etaix’s “Le Grand Amour” where a middle-aged businessman is lying in bed. As he begins to slip into dreamland, his bed glides out of the bedroom and out of the house, and is soon zipping down a French country lane, the man riding in it serenely, like he was on a Sunday afternoon drive in his Peugeot.

That’s a funny scene, both clever and lyrical. But it was when the man passed another bed stalled out by the side of the road, its grease-stained owner looking perplexedly under the hood, that I know I was in the presence of a zany comic genius.

I had never heard of Etaix prior to the UW-Cinematheque’s announcement that it would show all five of his feature films (plus all his shorts) during its summer series, beginning with “Le Grand Amour” this Thursday, July 11 at 7 p.m. (All the Etaix films are free and will play at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.)  Even then, I was understandably more focused on the main Cinematheque series this summer, a tribute to Roger Ebert through the movies he loved.

But now that I’ve seen two of Etaix’s movies, “Le Grand Amour” and “The Suitor,” I’m excited. This is a master of movie comedy, someone who combines the physical antics of Buster Keaton with the visual absurdities of Monty Python and the social satire of Jacques Tati, along with a healthy dollop of humor all his own. Don’t miss these films.

Etaix made five films between 1963 and 1971 that went largely unseen for decades because they got tangled in an unwise distribution deal he couldn’t extract them from. Finally, last year, Etaix was able to get the films back and supervise their restoration, and after an arthouse revival tour from Janus Films last year, Criterion released a boxed set in April.

Before he got into filmmaking, Etaix was a clown and acrobat, and his first feature “The Suitor” (July 25, 7 p.m.) pays loving homage to his silent comedy heroes. The blankly handsome Etaix plays a Frenchman unlucky in love who, after striking out with one real woman after another, zeroes in on a singing star he sees on television. (In one sequence worthy of Chaplin, he absent-mindedly tries to make a cup of tea as he watches her, transfixed, pouring the milk in the sugar bowl and spreading jam on his empty plate.) When the action finally does move to a circus, we get a tour de force of Etaix’s comic skills on screen.

The hero in 1969’s “Le Grand Amour” should be less likable, but there’s something so elegant and engaging about Etaix’s befuddled screen presence that he somehow wins you over in the role of a mild-mannered businessman who pines for his beautiful young secretary. Part of the charm may be that the man is so befuddled that he poses no kind of romantic threat, and part may be how Etaix’s satirizes his obsession with a freewheeling cavalcade of  dream sequences and other surreal touches. By “Amour,” he had gotten more adept at using filmmaking techniques, and not just his antics wit in the frame, to get laughs; in one dinner scene between the man and his secretary, every time Etaix cuts to the man he looks progressively older, until he’s a doddering old geezer.

The other films in the series are Etaix’s personal favorite “Yoyo” (July 18), followed by a double bill of “As Long As You’re Healthy” and “The Land of Milk and Honey” on Aug. 1.  The latter was a departure for Etaix, a bold documentary satirizing French life. It was not received well by audiences or critics, and essentially ended his career as a filmmaker.

I couldn’t find any Ebert reviews of Etaix’s films, although I bet he would have loved them, and he included links to a couple of his shorts in his “Ebert Movie Club” newsletter. That the world is finally discovering these films within Etaix’s lifetime must be a gift for him; his gift to us is five nearly perfect comic gems.

UW Cinematheque’s summer series to honor the late Roger Ebert

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Usually, the UW-Cinematheque on-campus film program schedules series around the work of a particular filmmaker, or from a certain country, or even a particular genre of film.

But this summer, the Cinematheque is building its main series around something different — a film critic.

That critic is, of course, the great Roger Ebert, who passed away in April. In addition to being the most famous writer about film on Earth, Ebert was a good friend to Madison, coming up for several Wisconsin Film Festivals; on his last visit, in 2006, he and film professor David Bordwell presented the film “Laura” in the UW-Cinematheque screening room at 4070 Vilas Hall.

So it’s fitting that the free summer Cinematheque series, which kicks off July 11, will feature “Roger Ebert: Great Movies, Overlooked Films and Guilty Pleasures.” Ebert loved movies, all kinds of movies, and the series gives audiences a taste of that, mixing established classics like “The Third Man” with lesser-known gems like Tarsem’s visually ravishing “The Fall” (July 26) and the sci-fi kung fu movie “Infra-Man.” (July 19). The series also includes Akira Kurosawa’s epic “Ran” (Aug. 2) and Russ Meyer’s less-than-epic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (Aug. 9), which Ebert wrote the screenplay for.

And, in a major coup for the campus series, the Cinematheque will present the only Madison screening of the much-anticipated new film from Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life”). “To the Wonder,” starring Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, was the last movie that Ebert filed a review for before he passed away.

All the screenings are free and open to the public, and seating is first-come, first-serve. The Ebert series will be much longer than Cinematheque summer seasons of past years, stretching through the rest of the summer. In addition, Cinematheque programmer Jim Healy is showing many of the Ebert selections in the larger Marquee Theatre in Union South. The Ebert screenings will run Friday nights, with a special showing of “To the Wonder” on Saturday, July 13.

On Thursday nights, Cinematheque will show the films of French comic filmmaker Pierre Etaix, whose work is largely unknown outside France but very influential on the works of David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Robert Bresson, among other filmmakers. Those films, all new 35mm prints, will all screen in the Cinematheque’s usual home at 4070 Vilas Hall.

The opening weekend shapes up like this:

Thursday, July 11, “Le Grand Amour” (UW Cinematheque) — Pierre Etaix’s 1969 comedy follows a married businessman tempted to stray by his beautiful young secretary.

Friday, July 12, “The Third Man” (Marquee Theater) — Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles star in this classic tale of intrigue and betrayal in post-World War II Vienna.

Saturday, July 13, “To the Wonder” (Marquee Theater) — Terrence Malick uses rapturous imagery to tell the tale of a French woman (Kurylenko) who comes to live with her new lover (Affleck) back home in Oklahoma.

Visit cinema.wisc.edu for the full schedule.

Is going out to the movies an endangered pastime in Madison?

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As I sat with about 60 other people at MMOCA Rooftop Cinema on Friday night, watching one harvester ant rip the head off another one on the big projection screen, I wondered if the concern that theatrical moviegoing is an endangered pastime might not be so grave.

Which is not to say that there isn’t reason for concern. But if you can fill seats for “The Hellstrom Chronicle,” as MMOCA did, there’s definitely room for hope.

The concern, expressed well by Mark Riechers at Madison Arts Extract last week, is that there’s a large group of movie lovers in Madison who don’t go out to the movies. They’ll come out in droves for the Wisconsin Film Festival, but when independent films come back to Sundance Cinemas and elsewhere, the theaters are nearly empty. Granted, this is a problem everywhere; when I was last home visiting my parents in Denver, I sat in the city’s majestic Mayan Theatre all alone to see “Rust and Bone.”

But I think Madison has a particular challenge, having to do largely with the fact that we’re a second- or third-tier market with first-tier taste in movies. Independent films don’t usually open everywhere at the same time the way “The Internship” does; instead, they roll out slowly, starting in New York and Los Angeles, spreading to cities like Chicago and San Francisco, eventually making their way to some smaller markets if they’re doing well enough. It’s a cinematic Doppler effect: you hear about a movie through reviews in the New Yorker or New York Times, and then weeks or months later you see it. A larger city like Denver can largely dictate when an indie movie will get to their theaters, but for Madison, we seem to largely have to wait and see for many of them to trickle down to our level.

The problem for Sundance is that they don’t often know when the films will finally make it to Madison until, sometimes, the Tuesday before the Friday they open. That’s not much time to build up any word of mouth that a film is opening. If a movie that already has a fair bit of advertising and viewer interest, such as “Before Midnight” or “Much Ado About Nothing,” it has a good chance of making a big splash. Madison will usually come out big to support those films, judging by the lines at the concessions counter at Sundance. But other, lesser-known films might arrive without much notice, and if audiences aren’t willing to take a chance on them, they could open and close in a week. And, as the price of going to the movies goes up, audiences are less likely to take those chances.

Of course, there are exceptions; “Free the Mind,” a film made in Madison about meditation research at the UW, ended up being a surprise hit for Sundance, playing for several weeks. Sundance does broadcast what’s playing through its e-newsletter, and programs smaller indie movies into its Screening Room Calendar, which maps out weeks ahead what arthouse movies will be showing. And there are media resources (such as, ahem, this blog) that feature reviews and news about what movies are playing. But in general, the burden is on the viewer to keep track of what’s playing where and when.

And, as Mark points out, the rise of Netflix Instant and VOD has changed the equation. On the one hand, streaming makes a vast treasure trove of movies available for movie lovers, cheaply and easily. That’s an unalloyed great thing, giving good films that might have tanked theatrically (or never even made it to a Madison theater) the chance to be seen. The trade-off, though, is that there’s no sense of urgency for audiences to go see a film in theaters, because they know it will inevitable end up on DVD. (And yet so called “day-and-date” releases, simultaneously out on VOD and in theaters, seems to be working for indie distributors like IFC and Magnolia. Go figure.)

Yet, in Madison, we’re blessed to have this other strain of filmgoing, exemplified by Rooftop Cinema, Cinematheque and the Wisconsin Film Festival, that seems to do very well. Those Studio Ghibli films that screened Sunday afternoon at the Chazen this past semester were absolutely packed, the festival never seems to go wanting for crowds, and folks will turn up to see almost anything, no matter how off-the-beaten-path, at Cinematheque or Rooftop. The other encouraging sign I’d point to is the continuing success of the “Classics” series at Sundance Cinemas, which often has the biggest crowds of any theater there on a Wednesday night. We actually outpace other Sundance theaters in larger cities like Houston when it comes to our support of classic movies.

All of which is to say that there’s we’re ahead of the game compared to many other places — there’s a lot of movies to see, and a lot of appreciative and hungry movie fans who could go see them. The challenge continues to be making sure audiences know what movies they can get out to see, and why it’s important they do so.

What’s playing in Madison theaters, Feb. 22 to 28, 2013

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With the weather still keeping everyone indoors, it’s another good weekend to take advantage of Madison’s busy movie scene. Here’s what’s playing around town:

“Snitch” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson seems to be in about 15 movies this year, judging by the Super Bowl ads. But reviews say this might be the best, a surprisingly gritty and thoughtful action picture about a dad who tries to save his teenage son from a hefty prison sentence for drug possession by going undercover for the feds.

Dark Skies”  (Point,, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — Another suburban home, another family under siege by some malevolent force (I’m guessing aliens?) and another movie that apparently wasn’t screened for critics in advance.

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III” (Sundance) — Bill Murray. Jason Schwartzman. Writer-director Roman Coppola (“CQ” and co-writer of several of Wes Anderson’s movies. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, pretty much everything.

My Neighbor Totoro” (2 p.m. Sunday, Chazen Museum of Art, 800 University Ave.) — The UW-Cinematheque’s free Sunday afternoon series of films from the master Japanese animators at Studio Ghibli has been a howling success, with audiences lining up over an hour early. Get there extra early for this charmer from Hayao Miyazaki — I’ll bet the theater will be full by 1:15 p.m.

The Loneliest Planet” (7 p.m. Friday, UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall) The Cinematheque is also hosting the Madison premiere of this lush and unnerving film about a young couple backpacking through the Caucasus mountains, and how one brief incident completely upends their relationship. Here’s my review, and the free screening will be preceded by some trailers for movies coming to the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival.

The Lady Eve” (7 p.m. Saturday, UW Cinematheque) — The series of Preston Sturges’ classics as a writer-director concludes with this hilarious but surprisingly elegant 1941 film with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as a con artist and her patsy on a luxury ocean liner. Free!

Argo” (7 p.m. and 9:30 Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, Union South Marquee Theater, 1208 W. Dayton) Catch the frontrunner for Sunday’s Oscars for free at Union South. I’m still rooting for “Silver Linings Playbook” to pull an upset, but “Argo” is terrific filmmaking that shifts from drama to comedy to white-knuckle suspense. Here’s my review from October. Free!

The Raid: Redemption” (midnight Friday and Saturday, Union South Marquee) — If you like action, stay up late for this nonstop shoot- and punch-em-up from Indonesia, about a team of police officers trapped in a high-rise apartment building full of bad guys. Here’s my review from last April. Free!

Miami Connection” (7 p.m. Monday, Union South Marquee) — Once a month, UW-Cinematheque programs a “Marquee Monday” film that’s not highfalutin’ enough for the regular series. That’s certainly the case with “Miami Connection,” a joyfully inept ’80s action film featuring tae kwon do master Y.K. Kim that delivers inept action, synth rock, and, in the words of C’tek, “the single greatest scene of somebody checking their mailbox in the history of cinema.” Free!

Funny Face” (7 p.m. Tuesday, Union South Marquee) — After a pair of documentaries on Diana Vreeland and Bill Cunningham, this series of fashion-related films co-sponsored by the Textile and Apparel Student Association features the darling 1957 film by Stanley Donen, starring Audrey Hepburn as a shopgirl-turned-supermodel. Free!

Stand Up and Cheer” (7 p.m. Thursday, Chazen Museum) — In conjunction with the Chazen’s new exhibit “1934: A New Deal For Artists,” Cinematheque is presenting a new Thursday night series of films from (or set) in that year. First up is this Depression Era charmer about a government “Secretary of Amusement” trying to cheer up the country with the help of entertainers (including Shirley Temple.) Free!

Skyfall” (9:30 p.m. Thursday, Union South Marquee) Catch James Bond’s latest outing (and one of his best), as Daniel Craig’s 007 roots out a threat to M (Judi Dench) in a former MI6 agent (a wonderful Javier Bardem). It’s the perfect blend of classic 007 elements with a deeper psychological and emotional undercurrent than we’ve ever seen before. Free, and it’ll play all next weekend at the Marquee too.