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Six Films To See at the Milwaukee Film Festival

A member of the festival's program committee gives his recommendations.

Labor Day weekend marked the release of the Milwaukee Film Festival's Program Guide. The annual fest begins Sept. 22 and is set to feature more than 100 films from the Milwaukee area and around the world. Over 11 days, these films will play at four area theatres - The Downer and Oriental on Milwaukee's east side, Ridge Cinema in New Berlin and North Shore Cinema in Mequon.

Over the summer, I had the great honor of serving on Milwaukee Film's Program Committee. We met twice weekly and screened over 50 films, which we judged in hopes of narrowing the festival's selections.

Not every film we watched was great, but some of them were. Especially strong this year is the crop of entertaining and powerful documentaries.

Here are my favorites, which I strongly recommend:

Give Up Tomorrow - USA, United Kingdom/2011/95 min

This Audience Award winner from the Tribeca Film Festival follows the tumultuous story of Paco Larrañaga, who, at the age of 19, was charged with committing a heinous crime on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. However, all evidence points to him being on an entirely different island on the night in question.

As more of the story unfolds, national corruption, frenzied media headhunters, political maneuvering and laziness are exposed as culprits in this grave injustice which still continues today. This powerful film might be one of the most upsetting documentaries I've ever seen, but it's also one of the best.

Saturday, Sept. 24, 4:30 p.m. - Ridge Cinema                        

Sunday, Sept. 25, 7:00 p.m. – Oriental Theatre                          

Friday, Sept 30, 4:45 p.m. – North Shore Cinema

Marathon Boy - India, UK, USA/2010/98 min

Budia Singh's coaches are hopeful he'll make the Olympics in 2016. Why the long wait? Because, at the beginning of this documentary, he's not quite 4 years old. From this early age, he's doing something that many adults are incapable of - running marathons.

Watching this young man complete these unbelievable feats will leave you in awe, but the film also brings to the surface questions about child exploitation and physical limitations, which erupt into a bitter political struggle. Marathon Boy is amazing for the way it makes you consider your own feelings on the matter without leading you in one direction or another. 

Saturday, Sept. 24, 5:00 p.m. - North Shore Cinema                  

Friday, Sept. 30, 4:30 p.m. - Downer Theatre

Becoming Santa - USA, Canada/2010/93 min

This film is a crowd-pleaser of epic proportions. Writer, Jack Sanderson, decides to insert himself into the peculiar world of department-store Santas. Being already portly and bearded, it seems like a natural fit and although he jokes a great deal along the way, Jack develops a deep respect for the culture and history of Saint Nick.

Of all the films screened at committee, Becoming Santa might have received the most unanimous praise and easily the most laughs.  

Sunday, Sept. 25, 9:30 p.m. - Oriental Theatre                            

Wednesday, Sept 28, 4:45 p.m. - Downer Theatre              

Thursday, Sept. 29, 4:30 p.m. - Ridge Cinema                       

Sunday, Oct. 2, 7:15 p.m. - North Shore Cinema

The film festival isn't all documentaries though. There are plenty of great narrative films as well.

The Athlete - Ethiopia, Germany, USA/2009/93 min

This film tells the inspirational true story of Abebe Bikila, the man who won gold in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics without so much as a pair of shoes. His story features a great many ups and downs, including a career-ending injury. However, he'll allow nothing to put out his competitive fire.

Featuring a great performance by its lead and utilizing unique form in telling Bikila's story, The Athlete is a real winner.

Saturday, Sept. 24, 2:15 p.m. - Ridge Cinema                          

Friday, Sept. 30, 7:15 p.m. - Downer Cinema

The City of Life and Death - China, Hong Kong/2009/132 min

This harrowing depiction of the Nanjing Massacre perpetrated by Japanese forces in 1937 is haunting. Rarely do you find such stark portrayals of the horrors of wartime as you'll find in The City of Life and Death. The film follows the Chinese resistance, made up of men, women and children fighting to stay alive as well as one Japanese soldier tormented by his own actions and those of his comrades.

This film, shown in stunning black and white, is not for the feint of heart, but it's also not to be missed. This is the best war movie I've seen in some time and one of the best films I've seen all year.

Thursday, Sept. 29, 4:15 p.m. - North Shore Cinema

Viva Riva! - DRC, France, Beligium, South Africa/2010/96 min 

The subject of resounding praise at festivals around the world, Viva Riva! has the distinction of being the Congo's first feature film in decades and it certainly doesn't waste the opportunity. The film's titular character, Riva, is a smooth, small-time hustler who returns home with a valuable stash of stolen gasoline in tow. It isn't long before Riva finds himself in trouble with a local crime boss and vicious men in search of their gas.

Viva Riva! is ridiculous at every turn, featuring shocking, over-the-top violence and flamboyant characters that bring to mind the best-loved exploitation films of old.

Saturday, Sept. 24, 9:45 p.m. - Ridge Cinema                 

Thursday, Sept. 29, 4:30 p.m. - Oriental Theatre                

Saturday, Oct. 1, 3:30 p.m. - North Shore Cinema

This year's schedule offers much more than what I've listed above, including a great many films I haven't seen, as well as extensive children's and short film programs, so be sure to pick up a program book in the coming weeks or check out the schedule online.

Tickets for the Milwaukee Film Festival go on sale Sept. 7 to members and Sept. 8 to everyone else. They can be bought online, by phone (414-727-8468) or at any one of the four theatres above.

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