by David Ashley
Milling around the lobby of the ornate Oriental Theater for press check-in. Others critics – all male, all late 20s – chat in small groups. Filmmakers, rich middle-aged white men and the Mayor enter and do the red carpet step-and-repeat, which I record “just in case”. I’ll flash forward into the future a few moments and retrospectively note that J. Hoberman emphatically praised the wonderful Oriental Theater more than once. Hurrah!
We’re led in to the enormous main screening area. The excitement. Speechifying for opening night featured about five men including Jonathan Jackson, Tom Barrett and a few others. The overall message? Milwaukee. Milwaukee. Milwaukee. Barrett told the crowd that the festival’s program guide served as a ‘playbook without any bad plays,’ clearly tuned in to his audience.
This is my fourth year covering the Milwaukee Film Festival. What has changed? To promote a more walkable, community-oriented experience, the suburban North Shore and the bumble-eff Ridge Cinemas have been expunged from the schedule and Whitefish Bay’s Fox Bay Cinema Grill has been added, though I venture that would still be a formidable walk from the East Side. There are also fewer abstruse art films and more focus on documentaries (turns out it was possible for more focus to be placed in that area). The sponsor trailer we view before every film is certainly an improvement over the quirky commercial products of the past two years, yet still not up to the standard reached in 2009.
Let’s begin with Starbuck, the festival’s opener and alleged Canadian mega-hit – and it’s easy to see why, being such a polished, easy, pleasing formula film. Minimal piano score, twinkling indy soundtrack…you’ve heard it before a thousand times. It is about an unambitious middle-aged man name David Wozniak (Patrick Huard) who delivers meat, as well as his laziness allows, for the Wozniak fam biz. Shock greets David when the announcement of his girlfriend’s pregnancy coincides with a litigious heads up: Remember that sperm bank where your youth was spent (my own pun, thank you)? An impossible snafu has led to your samples fueling over 500 ova. Congratulations! Oh, and you may be getting a phone call or two. Suddenly faced with the responsibility of developing a conscience, Wozniak tracks down dozens (out of the 142 who wish to be contacted) of his brood and does whatever he can to make a single positive difference in their respective lives. He even stumbles into a society for the children of Starbuck (Wozniak’s jizz moniker). As a formula film, Starbuck is pleasant enough and there is intelligence and compassion behind it. It’s cute. The End.
From here we’re off to the only other event of the evening, the Opening Night Party at Discovery World. First time I attended and was not sure what to expect. Lots of sexy well-dressed everybody, lots of Grolsch beer (a sponsor this year), and a cool Chinese Lion show to highlight this year’s festival on the country. Big Party, Big Deal, Big Milwaukee. Good times had by all.