The 14th Annual Milwaukee Film Fest, April 21-May 5, Oriental Theater, 2230 N Farwell Ave; Avalon Theater, 2473 S Kinnickinnic Ave; Times Cinema, 5906 W Vliet St (mkefilm.org/festival)
It’s been over 900 days since the Milwaukee Film Festival welcomed movie lovers to in-person screenings. Starting today, the Festival welcomes audiences back for two weeks’ worth of dozens of films at three vintage area theaters: The East Side’s Oriental, the festival’s flagship venue; Bay View’s beautifully restored Avalon; and the recently reopened Times in Washington Heights. All of them are great places to watch movies. My only regret is that the Oriental’s newly acquired vintage theater pipe organ will not be installed in time for the festival, as was projected last fall. On the other hand, it will be interesting to have the festival taking place in the springtime, rather than when autumn winds are descending upon Milwaukee. Either way, the popcorn will still taste great!
Like I said, dozens of titles are on this year’s schedule…Full program and ticket information is available at the link listed above. Also, if you prefer streaming your movies, many of the festival offerings have a streaming option available through the conclusion of the festival on May 5. Again, check the link above for information on what movies are available and information on how to stream them. What follows is my list (in no particular order) of festival films I’m eagerly anticipating.
The Pez Outlaw, April 21-22 (Oriental)
Seinfeld fans will be attracted to the Fest’s Opening Night selection, but don’t let that stop the rest of you from checking out this rollicking documentary about Midwesterner Steve Glew, who embarks to Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall to illegally smuggle limited-edition Pez dispensers into the US! Sounds like a scheme Kramer and Newman would concoct! This earned Glew the nickname which also serves as the film’s title, and also made him a wealthy man (something that would probably never happen to Kramer and Newman!). But things take a nasty turn when he becomes embroiled in the cutthroat world of Pez dispenser collecting. No, Hollywood couldn’t come up with a script this crazy…and it didn’t! The filmmakers and Steve Glew himself will be on hand for the Opening Night screening.
The Martha Mitchell Effect, April 23 (Avalon)
Back in the day, she was the butt of jokes by standup comedians on TV talk shows. But she was the linchpin of the unraveling of President Richard Nixon’s White House. When Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell (and also chairman of the infamous Committee to Reelect the President-aka CREEP), became a whistleblower for what was going on behind the scenes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, people listened. And as ex-president Nixon himself said in 1977, “If it hadn’t have been for Martha, there would have been no Watergate…” This documentary is her story.
Vinyl Nation, April 23 (Avalon)
April 23 is Record Store Day, which over the years has grown into a worldwide celebration of independent record stores featuring live music performances and DJ sets along with oodles of special new vinyl releases sought by collectors of stacks of wax (Sadly, this will be the final RSD for Wisconsin’s decades-old Exclusive Company chain, as all its store locations will be closing shortly after this RSD). To mark the occasion, MFF presents this documentary about the recent resurgence of vinyl and presents, in Mister Rogers style, the history of the beloved LP and what drives collectors to scour crates of albums in their insatiable quest to find those golden nuggets of sound.
Ali & Ava, April 23 (Avalon), April 25 (Oriental)
This charming story from 2021 features music from Milwaukee’s Sylvan Esso and scored BAFTA nominations for the film’s director and screenwriter Clio Barnard. Ali and Ava are two lonely people who share an affection for a young boy-She’s his teacher, he’s the boy’s family’s landlord who gives him rides home from school. Slowly the pair build a closer connection, if only their past relationships don’t get in their way. You’ll have to check out the movie to see how this story gets resolved.
The Exchange: Kaukauna & King 50 Years Later, April 24 (Oriental), May 1 (Times)
Veteran Milwaukee TV news reporter Joanne Williams directs what is one of the festival’s most fascinating offerings. In 1966, during the heights of American Civil Rights unrest, a student exchange was arranged between white students from Kaukauna High School and black students from Milwaukee’s Rufus King High School. This interaction resulted in Martin Duberman’s play In White America. This film reunites many of the students from both schools over 50 years later, reviving the play featuring themselves along with a new generation of students, injecting the play with a new burst of energy during these uncertain times.
The Automat, April 25 (Avalon), May 2 (Oriental)
Long before the fast-food restaurants that transformed America, there was the humble Automat. It was a mainstay of urban America, vending machines that provided servings of fresh food from lemon meringue pie to creamed spinach (No doubt Popeye frequented these places!). This fun and quirky 2021 documentary shows how these self-service places were a pervasive part of the American scene, along with reminisces from Automat fans including Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner and many others.
Finding Loren, April 26 (Oriental), April 29 (Avalon)
This film had its Milwaukee premiere last September as the first event held in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s new home, the downtown Bradley Symphony Center. This viewer knew the moment I saw it that this remarkable film was a prime candidate for the Milwaukee Film Fest. And so it is the film is getting two screenings on the fest schedule. This documentary tells the story of Bay View native Loren Hintz, who was a fighter pilot shot down over Italy in the waning days of World War II in Europe. But it doesn’t end there. More than 70 years later, many of Hintz’s descendants, spearheaded by grandson Hans Wronka, traveled to Italy in an effort to retrieve Hintz’s remains in order to give them a proper military burial. Loren’s son, the late Milwaukee writer Marty Hintz, was also part of the efforts to “find Loren,” and his widow, Pam Percy, produced, wrote and directed this amazing story. Not to be missed.
We Feed People, April 26 (Avalon), May 4 (Oriental)
Since the start of the Ukrainian War, we’ve been hearing a lot about World Central Kitchen and its mission of providing food to disaster areas worldwide. Group founder/chef Jose Andres and his grassroots volunteers have been at it for 12 years, never more than right now. This film tells their amazing story.
Buddy Guy: Chase the Blues Away, April 28 (Oriental), May 2 (Times)
As usual, the Milwaukee Film Fest will be presenting several great music film presentations. Among the best is this biography on Buddy Guy, one of the last of the great classic blues guitarists. This Chicago guitar slinger (who will be appearing later this year at the Riverside Theater with Special Guest John Hiatt with Sonny Landreth) continues to tour tirelessly, as well as holding court at his Chicago club called-what else?-Buddy Guy’s. This film traces his journey from Louisiana to Chicago, winning eight Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame along the way. Carlos Santana, Gary Clark Jr and John Mayer are among those paying homage to this blues giant.
Navalny, April 29 (Oriental)
Definitely the Centerpiece Selection of this year’s fest, this documentary film was the surprise winner of the 2022 Sundance Festival. It follows Alexei Navalny, the foremost opposition leader to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, particularly during a 2020 episode where he was poisoned on a plane flight returning to Russia. No doubt much to Putin’s chagrin, Navalny survived and wound up being thrown into a prison in the Russian gulag. Yet he continued to speak up against Putin from prison, like a Russian Nelson Mandela. He also ran against Putin in the last several Russian presidential elections, only to be punished with additional prison time, most recently getting another 9 year sentence. President Zelenskyy isn’t the only hero of the Ukrainian War, with Navalny encouraging dissidents from prison to voice their opposition to the war. If you can see only one film during this fest, this is it.
For the Left Hand, April 22 (Times), April 30 (Oriental)
Another outstanding music selection in this year’s fest, this biography tells the story of Norman Malone, a piano prodigy who at age 10 was attacked and ended up having his right side paralyzed. Undaunted, he carried on, becoming a master of piano works composed for the left hand, keeping his quest a secret. Now, 70 years later, he has emerged from his exile to resume his career as a concert pianist, an artistic triumph this film celebrates.
David Byrne’s American Utopia, April 30 (Oriental)
You may have seen this film during its many showings on HBO, but chances are you haven’t seen it the way it should be seen, on the big screen. This year the fest is giving the always-popular Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense a break by making Spike Lee’s 2020 film of David Byrne’s hit Broadway show one of its special one-night-only presentations. Byrne and his amazing band (including Milwaukeean Angie Swan on guitar) present a program featuring Talking Heads classics and Byrne solo songs with an incredible sound mix and Lee’s camera work placing you onstage alongside the performers in a way that the Broadway audiences could never experience! And you can dance to it!
The Good Boss, May 1 (Oriental)
In what could be described as a Spanish-language version of The Office, Javier Bardem stars as Blanco, the charismatic owner of a family-owned factory, who is feverishly pursuing a local award for business excellence. Of course, everything myst be perfect. Inevitably, the best laid plans of mice and factory owners go awry when unending roadblocks and landmines are strewn in Blanco’s path. This wickedly funny social satire was a huge success in Spain, garnering an eye-popping 20 Goya (the Spanish Oscar awards) nominations, winning six of them. Brush up on your subtitle reading skills, and enjoy this cinematic treat!
Cha Cha Real Smooth, May 1 (Oriental)
The comedy continues with this 2022 film from writer, director and star Cooper Raiff, as Andrew, who finds his calling as a DJ at bar and bat mitzvahs. Dakota Johnson, Brad Garrett and Leslie Mann are along for the ride in this Sundance Audience Award winner!
Klondike, April 24 (Oriental), May 1 (Oriental)
This drama from Ukrainian filmmaker Maryna Er Gorbach is essential viewing for anyone interested in learning the roots of the current Ukrainian War. It’s the story of expecting parents Irka and Tolik who live in Ukraine’s Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine at the onset of the Donbas war in 2014. Compounding their nervous anticipation of the birth of their first child is the nearby crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 after being shot down by Russian missiles. Again, your efforts in reading the English subtitles will be well rewarded in this gripping, intense film.
Messwood, April 23 (Oriental), May 3 (Times)
This fascinating 2021 film chronicles the 2018 joint venture of predominantly white Shorewood High School and predominantly black Milwaukee Messmer High School to field a football team representing both schools. It focuses on the 2019 season, when a number of graduating players from the 2018 season need to be replaced. As it follows the ups and downs of the 2019 season, the film also zeroes in on these teenage athletes’ attempts to make sense of their adolescence along with the perceived and tangible racial fissures in southeast Wisconsin.
Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, April 25 (Avalon), May 4 (Oriental)
In a time when politicians are not among those listed on the world’s most admired people, this outstanding 2020 profile of California congresswoman Barbara Lee is a breath of fresh air. She is the highest-ranking black woman in the US Congress and a true pioneer of American civil rights who was the lone voice in opposition of authorizing military force following 9/11. It also profiles her current work (which includes a Milwaukee visit to meet with Rep Gwen Moore) that shows her uncompromising and conscientious voice for economic and racial justice and peace. This is especially recommended to fans of the film RBG.
Calendar Girls, April 23 (Times), May 5 (Oriental)
For all of you familiar with the Dancing Grannies, the senior ladies dance team who make appearances at various events around the Milwaukee area, meet Florida’s answer to the Grannies! This 2022 Swedish profile shows a group who perform to pop hits and literally shake up any images of “little old ladies.” Beneath the surface, it also shows the deep human need for creativity and friendship at all ages, especially at a point in life where identity and gender roles may be changing. As you may have surmised, this film works on a number of levels.
The Job of Songs, April 22 (Oriental), May 5 (Oriental)
Attention Irish Fest fans: This film is for you! This 2021 documentary is set in the west of Ireland, specifically Doolin in County Clare. The soulful, acoustic sounds emerging from the pubs of living rooms of Doolin attract music lovers from the world over. And the residents of this unspoiled coastal village of tight-knit neighbors and unlocked doors revel in the passion and history of their traditional folk songs, using music as a thread to create community, connection, and joy. Not to mention it’s a fantastic way to get ramped up for this year’s Milwaukee Irish Fest in August!
Petite Maman, May 5 (Oriental)
The Closing Night selection of the 2022 Milwaukee Film Fest is starting to build a very loud buzz, and you’ll be among the first Americans that get to see this French gem! This followup of director Celine Schiamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is getting raves from Rolling Stone and rogerebert.com, but it’s a story that could hardly be more different. It’s the fairytale story of 8 year old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) who travels to her mom’s childhood home following the death of her grandmother. During the cleaning out of grandma’s house, Nelly finds her mother inconsolable, so she begins exploring the neighborhood around the house. It is there where she meets Marion (played by Josephine’s sister Gabrielle Sanz), another girl she connects with instantly, although she bears a striking resemblance to Nelly. You can get more details by seeking out the RS review at rollingstone.com, but better yet, come and see the film yourself and prepare to be amazed by this movie worthy of closing this year’s festival!
So see you at the movies, but before I wrap up, the MFF isn’t the only opening on the agenda this week!
The Amazing Lemonade Girl, April 22-May 15, Todd Wehr Theater, 929 N Water St (firststage.org)
First Stage’s spring production is a world premiere production written by veteran Wisconsin actor James DeVita and directed by First Stage alum and another Wisconsin veteran actor Molly Rhode. It’s the story of Alex Scott, and she truly has a story to tell-about her life and her legacy, her humor and her heart. She is a young girl who is fiercely determined to make a difference despite the challenges she faces. Her true story reminds us all that a single person can change the world-one act, or even one cup, at a time. Featured in the cast are First Stage favorites Karen Estrada, Rick Pendzich and James Carrington. So what role does lemonade play in this story? You’ll just have to check out the play for yourself to find out….You’ll find it will be well worth your (and your family’s) time!