Milwaukee Film Festival: “The Russian Woodpecker” and “Wisconsin’s Own”

The Russian Woodpecker
A woodpecker sound was detected over radio waves in the 1970s. The sound originated from the Soviet’s over-the-horizon radar system, Duga. Duga consisted of three radars, one of is located in Chernobyl. Chad Gracia’s debut film follows Fedor Alexandrovich’s investigation into the cause of the Chernobyl disaster, one he survived but was affected by as a child. As he walks the ruins of the worker’s village in Chernobyl, sometimes wrapped in plastic wrap while carrying a torch, his search leads him to the looming antennas of Duga, sitting there haunting the irradiated countryside.

The journey leads to questioning former Chernobyl and Soviet officials, making the safety of Alexandrovich and the film’s crew increasingly precarious. Although the film yields a rather convincing argument surrounding the Chernobyl disaster, it may seem far-fetched for some viewers.

This does not detract from the success of the film as Gracia has created a documentary that plays like a mystery-thriller with a magnetic personality at its center. While the film tackles Duga, Chernobyl, the rising tensions between Russian and the Ukraine and Fedor’s dreams of him naked, wrapped in plastic wrap and carrying a torch–it’s oddly less weird when you see it–it manages to handle all of these threads while making a well-paced, engrossing film. Throughout the entire thing is the theme of the USSR rearing its ugly head again as we see the problems that arose from the Soviets in the 1980s.

Even if the film doesn’t convince audience members the theory presented is true, it manages to suck you into the paranoia of post-USSR Ukraine while showing why it’s important to question the past in order to prepare for the future.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wisconsin’s Own

Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club

The supper club is a Wisconsin institution I admit to have not participated in yet, but Holly L. De Ruyter’s documentary on supper clubs is a thorough and delightful look at the family-owned restaurants. The film has interviews with supper club owners and patrons, as well as historians to explain what makes supper clubs an endearing part of Wisconsin dining culture.

De Ruyter’s documentary, although short, feels as though it covers all of bases on the topics while coming across some interesting characters, such as a particular supper club patron who has some interesting insight into why she enjoys supper clubs. The film features great graphics, including one explaining how the brandy old fashioned sweet is made, and an amazing opening title sequence. Knowing De Ruyter had edited out some of the interview makes one wonder if there’s uncovered territory, but on the other hand she avoids the problem of having a movie that goes on too long and feels over stuffed.

4 out of 5 stars

Tale of the Spotted Cow

The New Glarus Brewering Company has gained a reputation for producing delicious beer only for sale in Wisconsin. The documentary, directed by Bill Roach and written by Curry Kirkpatrick, tells about how Daniel and Deb Carey started and continue to run the brewery in what is essentially the ideal story of the American Dream. Deb Carey had a hard childhood and money for them was tight, but they took a risk and started the brewery one year in the 1990s. The brewery took off and started to grow before Carey made the decision to have it sold only in Wisconsin. It has continued to grow with Spotted Cow being the number one draft beer in Wisconsin.

Although this is a story that should be told, Roach and Kirkpatrick were not the people to tell it. The film has a very amateurish feel starting with the use of rolling dark clouds when going back in time to discuss Deb Carey’s troubled childhood. The film’s biggest problem is the use of a narrator who has a distinctive accent that is not one of a Wisconsinite. It becomes a distraction during the film about something that is unique to Wisconsin, causing the film to lack authority.

The script for the narration is riddled with cliches and hackneyed lines, including one at the end quoting St. Francis of Assisi and connecting it to New Glarus’ beer. The film only really works when it focuses on the interviews with the Careys–which thankfully makes up a lot of this film–who are both vibrant personalities behind a Wisconsin legend. Had this film, which is only a little more than half an hour in length, focused on them with b-roll from both the brewery and the town and archival photos from the subjects, it would have possibly worked. Unfortunately, the film lacks the polish to tell this story as well as it could have.

Two out of five stars

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Thoughts on “Fun Home”

“Fun Home,” Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her relationship with her closeted father and her coming to terms with her sexuality, was a book I found heartbreaking and brilliant when I read it as a freshman at DePaul University. Bechdel, whose work I was familiar with having read “Dykes to Watch Out For” in the gay newspaper in Iowa, managed to use a medium usually viewed as trivial and tell a very cerebral story without coming off as pretentious. Naturally I was curious to see how the musical adaptation turned out simply because it seemed like the least likely source material for a musical, but there’s currently a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, so 2015 is the year of Daring Concepts on Broadway Actually Being Successful at the Box Office. (“Fun Home,” although not grossing nearly as much as “Hamilton,” is consistently selling out.)

The musical “Fun Home,” written by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, manages to be an incredibly smart show without taking line-for-line what Bechdel wrote in her memoir. Discussions are had about “Collette,” kids sing lyrics about aneurysm hooks and the lyrics have motifs that work well to convey the pain of the Bechdel women living in the stifling facade of Bruce (Michael Cerveris). In one scene where Bruce seduces Roy (Joel Perez), the handyman, Helen (Judy Kuhn) sings “Maybe not right now. Maybe not right now” while in another room, aware of what is happening. A few scenes later, those lyrics and music pops up when Small Alison (Gabriella Pizzolo at the performance I attended) wants to wear sneakers and a shirt instead of a party dress, but is told no by her father before he tells her she can dress how she wants if she’s okay with everyone judging her. Somehow the show manages to still feel accessible even when book titles and discussions are being tossed around.

Kron and Tesori manage to avoid having any numbers that feel unnecessary. Out of context, “Come to the Fun Home” and “Raincoat of Love” could give an impression of being numbers where the show grinds to a halt, but both of them serve important narrative functions. “Come to the Fun Home” shows how the Bechdel children tried to have a normal childhood while also helping in the family funeral home, which then leads in very well to Small Alison being shown a dead body by her father. “Raincoat of Love” is a fantasy sequence where Small Alison imagines her family happy and Partridge Family-esque, not torn apart by her father’s secrets.

The production also manages to succeed because it’s staged in the round–I don’t know how this show can be taken on tour–and since it’s a memory musical, we see Alison (Beth Malone) interloping in her memories, cringing at the awkwardness of her as a first-year student at Oberlin College. It also makes it incredibly easy to watch everything happening on stage. There are also brilliant flourishes such as the items in the Bechdel family house disappearing through the trap doors, leaving large holes in the stage as Bruce sings right before committing suicide.

The only potential problem I could see people having with the show is Bruce is viewed as being gay by Alison, but Helen simply explains he’s had affairs with other men. In Bechdel’s novel, she writes the reason she refers to her father as gay instead of bisexual is possibly because it then gives them a connection. I didn’t have an issue with it since sexuality is complicated and I feel like the show dealt more with the very complex relationship Alison had with her father.

Sam Gold has done a fantastic job directing a terrific cast, with standout performances from Cerveris, Malone and Kuhn. (I was silently sobbing during “Days and Days,” Helen’s big number. The 2014-15 season on Broadway was a good season for supporting actors giving fantastic performances.) I have been incredibly lucky to see three productions this season where it felt like every element of the production was perfect. It really feels like a bold new musical and theater is better with it in existence.