A Courtney Barnett documentary, “107 Mothers,” “Ȋntregalde,” “Claydream,” and other recommendations, in brief, from our film writers. | By Alisyn Amant, Edwanike Harbour, Hanna Kohn, and Steven Spoerl
Last month a number of our writers shared their initial thoughts on the guide for the first in-person Wisconsin Film Festival since 2019. While we were generally thrilled to consider the gems on its pages, both figurative and literal, the collective feature contained everything that first caught our eyes when we first finished turning over the 2022 guide’s newsprint (or tabbing through its equivalent frames in PDF format).
As the festival’s kickoff approaches on Thursday night, four writers—Alisyn Amant, Edwanike Harbour, Hanna Kohn, and Steven Spoerl—dig more into some of the new films getting their Wisconsin premieres at the festival.
We present a gauntlet of early headlines on the season’s latest from around the world (starting in Iran and concluding here in America). If you’ve not finished mapping out a film festival itinerary or circling your picks in the guide’s central grid “at a glance,” let our curiosities serve as your own, a guide to the guide.
From Panah Panahi’s family road adventure Hit The Road (2021), Danny Cohen’s intuitive Courtney Barnett music doc Anonymous Club (2021), Peter Kerekes’ searing drama 107 Mothers (2021), vibrantly stylized anime feature Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (2021), intriguingly elusive social comedy-thriller Ȋntregalde (2021), and playful documentary Claydream (2021) about father of claymation Will Vinton, there is something here for moviegoers of all ages and interests.
You can catch up on the rest of our preview coverage of this year’s festival here.
Hit The Road joyfully and unpredictably journeys across Iran (Friday, April 8, at 3 p.m. & Sunday, April 10, at 2 p.m., AMC Madison 6)
Panah Panahi’s directorial debut Hit The Road never tells us exactly where it’s going. A family of four sets off in a rented car. The father (Hasan Majuni) sits stoically in the backseat, the mother (Pantea Panahiha) plans the next turns in the passenger seat, older brother (Amin Simiar) drives silently, and younger brother (Rayan Sarlak) whirls around in chaos and impatience. And, of course, no nuclear family is complete without the beloved pet dog to fuss over. As they drive across the sandy, mountainous landscapes of Iran, vague details about their destination slowly reveal themselves and set Hit The Road apart from a run-of-the-mill, feel-good dramedy. Without a realistic and grounded plot, though, the heart-wrenching themes that arise as the film reaches its conclusion wouldn’t land as meaningfully and beautifully.
Hit The Road also accomplishes so much through its phenomenal performances. Hasan Majuni’s deadpan stare becomes his signature throughout the film, offering the impression that he wishes he could benevolently scold the viewer, too. Pantea Panahiha nails the role of an anxious mother, but adds nuanced and emotional edges to a caricature that would feel overplayed or reductive in almost any other movie. Amin Simiar’s quiet brooding creates a visceral urge for the viewer to goad him into talking, like an annoying younger sibling would. And Rayan Sarlak gives an admiringly hilarious and personable performance as the annoying little brother.
Contrasting these intimate family scenes with vast Iranian landscapes, Panahi merges competing forces together masterfully. The young brother’s humorous tendency to kiss the ground and praise God at the sight of a lofty mountain or arid plain translates directly to viewers’ feelings in witnessing the grandiose, breathtaking landscape shots. In the end, where Hit The Road ends up doesn’t so much matter, because the journey is thoroughly enjoyable in itself. —Alisyn Amant
Anonymous Club finds celebrated indie rocker Courtney Barnett in a state of uneasy navigation (Friday, April 8, at 6:30 p.m. Union South Marquee)
What happens when we lose our sense of self? How do we chart a path to peaceful resolution when all the surrounding pieces are chaotic? Those are the questions at the heart of Anonymous Club, Danny Cohen’s new documentary about acclaimed Australian indie rocker Courtney Barnett. Intimate and tender, Anonymous Club effectively acts as Barnett’s diary while she battles through a sustained depressive episode, searching for quiet while her notoriety continues to ascend.
Meditative, earnest, and picturesque, Anonymous Club is, by turns, pensively melancholic and forcibly disquieting. Barnett’s audio confessions—recorded over three years at Cohen’s request—play out in voiceover while gorgeous 16mm footage of her band’s tour stops are shown at a mesmeric clip. Split across four distinctly titled sections, Anonymous Club plays like a postmodern vignette collage to underscore both fracture and, ultimately, repair.
“My head is empty. My heart is empty. The page is empty,” Barnett half-heartedly laughs while struggling with writer’s block in the film’s second part, titled “Idling Insignificantly.” Not too long after this moment, Barnett resolves to do a solo tour in an effort to recontextualize the meaning of her songs to create strong new connections to…something. Anything. While Barnett goes through that solo tour in the film’s ensuing section, “Solo-tude,” it becomes apparent that the shows are also allowing Barnett to recontextualize her sense of identity and place.
Anonymous Club gifts its viewers with lasting lessons, but one of the most enduring is the untold beauty in slowing down. We live in an age of cultural immediacy and that immediacy has become weaponized by various industries, leading to debilitating expectations that can take significant tolls on both mental health and physical functionality. Barnett’s position within music is both enviable and arduous, and Anonymous Club excels in demonstrating the depths of the latter while paying respects to the transcendent restorative power that can be achieved by attaining Barnett’s level of artistic (and commercial) success.
Documentaries about contemporary musicians only occasionally strive for this level of unflinching warts-and-all intimacy. That dynamic works to Anonymous Club‘s benefit. An element of voyeurism inherent in the work here can occasionally come across as abrasive and discomforting, but those moments serve a purpose. It’s an incisive commentary on mental health, an essential look at one of today’s more celebrated songwriters, a firm-handed character study, and a compelling narrative wrapped into a small, important film. —Steven Spoerl
107 Mothers vulnerably depicts the innate drive to love and bear children (Friday, April 8, at 5:30 p.m. & Saturday, April 9, at 1:15 p.m., AMC Madison 6)
The new film by Peter Kerekes, 107 Mothers,shows the challenges of motherhood for female inmates at the Odesa prison in Ukraine. It closely follows the fictional Lesya (Maryna Klimova), but is nonetheless based in reality; pregnant women incarcerated in Ukraine are allowed to serve their sentences with their children. However, when a child turns three, the mother must choose to send them to an orphanage or other guardianship.
Kerekes compellingly blends reality and fiction with a range of contrasting imagery. The prison itself is barren and gloomy with fences of barbed wire and walls of chipped paint. Crowded into a hall, the women sleep in twin-size beds. Lesya laments how the days, minutes, and hours blend together, but we glimpse rays of light in the moments when she’s allowed to be a mother. The screen is filled with the color and warmth of human bodies at their most vulnerable when the inmates give birth, breastfeed, or play with their toddlers at the decrepit prison playground. In this sense, 107 Mothers successfully depicts the innate drive to love one’s offspring.
But it also offers broader commentary on sin and forgiveness. Each woman in the Odesa prison commits a crime, and the ones that are briefly explained all relate to the women’s relationships with their lovers, husbands, or boyfriends. Whether they were caught in the act of adultery or otherwise, the inmates are highlighted as the consequences of a woman scorned at the same time as their bodies are celebrated for the biological oddity of bearing children. Viewers must decide whether they are willing to digest that inherent conflict. —Alisyn Amant
The curious and stylized animation of Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko elevates its predictable narrative arc (Saturday, April 9, at 3:15 p.m., Wisconsin Union Theater)
Though a somewhat standard coming-of-age narrative, Ayumu Watanabe’s Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko offers jaw-dropping scenes of colorful, imaginative animation, and uniquely lovable characters that firmly captivate. Based on the novel by Kanako Nishi, the film follows 11-year-old Kikuko (voiced by Cocomi) as she navigates both the experiences of adolescence and her relationship with her scatterbrained mother, Nikuko (voiced by Shinobu Otake).
Studio 4°C, the animation team behind the film, perfectly visualizes that archetype of a child on the cusp of understanding her mother’s and her own conscious personhood. Kikuko is innocently philosophical, pondering the baffling behaviors of the foremost adults in her life. In the opening scenes, she narrates her mother’s multiple affairs in a mystified tone, encapsulating that consistent theme best: Nikuko’s suitors are shaded silhouettes with no discernible features other than blanket labels like “The Writer” or “The Businessman.” Her mother, however, remains as colorful and boisterous as ever, designed with rosy, plump skin, and tacky but vibrant clothing. Like Kikuko, we find ourselves honed in on Nikuko throughout the narrative, and therefore see their life in a small, coastal town on the same terms: unstable and confusing, but full of spirit and humble happiness.
Ultimately, Nikuko’s character becomes as endeared to viewers as she is to her daughter over the 90-minute runtime. Even when the protagonist bemoans parental embarrassment, the stunning depiction of sentimental attachment toward a parent holds the film together. While the narrative arc itself is nothing particularly groundbreaking, the style that accompanies the study of a relationship between mother and daughter is one deserving of high praise. (This film is screening in Japanese with English subtitles.) —Alisyn Amant
Social comedy Ȋntregalde tensely masquerades as a thriller (Monday, April 11, at 8:15 p.m. & Tuesday, April 12, at 1 p.m., AMC Madison 6)
My first foray into Romanian films was seeing The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu during the 2006 Wisconsin Film Festival. What was billed as a comedy was actually a painfully slow and plodding farce marching to absolutely nowhere. I decided to give it another shot seven years later during the 2013 fest after I watched Beyond The Hills. That drama film, which moved at a snail’s pace, tested my patience in a similar manner, and I decided that was enough. This year, I hoped the third time might just be a charm and decided to give Ȋntregalde a chance, putting a moratorium on my Romanian film embargo.
Clocking in at 109 minutes, this film, directed by Radu Muntean, hits a relatively good stride in terms of pacing, in contrast to the aforementioned titles. Three friends—Maria (Maria Popistasu), Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu), and Dan (Alex Bogdan)—are part of an organization that packs up goods and supplies for less fortunate hill-dwelling folks along the Romanian countryside, who are primarily Romani and do not have many of the modern trappings of an urban lifestyle. While the friends are travelling to deliver their goods, they run across an elderly man (Luca Sabin) who is in need of a ride. Reluctantly, they allow the stranger to tag along while working on their deliveries, to somewhat comical results. Just when viewers begin to question where it can possibly go next, it ends—not abruptly, but it puts a nice period at the end of a somewhat rambling sentence.
Contrary to promotional pitches, Ȋntregalde is not a horror story. Although the premise sets it up to be one almost perfectly, this film is more of a story of the divide between the haves and have-nots, and the lenses with which we look at each other. While it boasts some comical touches, some of the scenes in the Romanian forest are downright harrowing and build a chilly sort of tension. If Ȋntregalde captures more of the spirit of modern-day Romanian cinema, viewers like me can definitely look forward to more of what’s to come. —Edwanike Harbour
Claydream punctuates a cautionary tale of art and commerce with cartoony flair (Saturday, April 9, at 8:15 p.m. UW Cinematheque & Wednesday, April 13, at 3 p.m., AMC Madison 6)
Claydream takes a technicolor peek into the trials of artistic grandeur. Marq Evans’ expansive documentary covers the rise and fall of claymation king Will Vinton. The film makes an argument for the incompatible enterprises of art and business with footage of judicial hearings in boardrooms, skeptical employees, and interviews with the offspring of scorned artistic collaborators. The documentary portrays Vinton’s vision as being aligned with Walt Disney’s empire, and it reaches for an explanation of his ultimate downfall connected to that very idea.
Claymation, craft, and experimentation take center stage, highlighting Vinton’s early days of artistry at University of California-Berkeley and his work leading up to winning an Academy Award with collaborator Bob Gardener for their wildly expressive short claymation feature Closed Mondays in 1974. Although it was Vinton’s kickstart into Hollywood, his animation house and production were notably based in Portland, Oregon, and siphoned from a foundation of enthusiastic and “out-there” artists who seemingly shared the sentiment about the early days feeling like a combination of art school and vacation. Evans mixes this expression with tensions that Vinton’s studio faced when momentum kicked in and the enterprise was pressed to produce content. The studio had to further pull its weight for investors, like Bill Knight of Nike, rather than pursue creativity for creativity’s sake as the business succeeded in pumping out clay-animated and CGI characters for commercial TV campaigns of Dominos (avoid the Noid!), California Raisins, and M&M’s.
As the twists of the documentary feature mold into conventions of pleasant daydreams and recurring nightmares, the film makes good on its title. I was entertained and shocked to watch the drama of an artist and entrepreneur unfold with punctuations of pop culture and cartoony flair. At its best, Claydream is a cautionary tale of the lifecycle of an artist’s fiery vision, burning too brightly until it reduces itself to the ashes of financial loss and obscurity. —Hanna Kohn