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Movie Reviews

Want to learn more about the films we’re screening at UICA?

Tune in to watch movie reviews by our very own Film Coordinator, Nick Hartman as well as cameos from local and regional film aficionados and cinema lovers.

Learn more about why we booked the film, why we think it’s important, and interesting facts about the filmmaking process.

Interested in participating in a review? Contact Nick at nick@uica.org

The Innocents (2016)

The Innocents
by Mitch F. Anderson

From its opening scene, Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents establishes itself as a film about a difficult topic, one that has remained relevant throughout our history and one that will likely remain relevant for generations to come; the reckoning of one’s beliefs and devotions in the face of a society that has seemingly rejected them. In The Innocents’ opening moments, a convent of nuns in 1945 Poland gathers to practice their hymnals. As they sing, a prolonged scream is heard from somewhere within the convent walls. As the screaming continues and grows even more pained and animalistic, the singing also continues, despite the visible discomfort of several of the nuns. It is a powerful, impressive metaphor, one whose placement at the very beginning of the film would seem almost too easy if the rest of the film’s dynamic portrayal of faith and devotion in relation to personal shame and societal pressure didn’t extend beyond simply “looking the other way”.

The film’s plot concerns members of the convent asking for the help of Mathilde (Lou de Laage), a French Red Cross surgeon assisting Polish victims of the Holocaust. When Mathilde visits the convent, she makes a horrifying discovery: several of the sisters are in the late stages of pregnancy following an invasion by Soviet soldiers and their subsequent rapes of the sisters at the end of the War, and are increasingly unable to hide their pregnancies from the outside world. When the convent’s Reverend Mother (Agata Kulezsa) is confronted by Mathilde, an avowed atheist, about the situation, she tells her that the shame and scandal that would come with revealing the sisters’ circumstances and seeking help or justice would be overwhelming for the convent and damage its moral fiber beyond repair, reluctantly agreeing to arrange foster care for the infants once Mathilde helps deliver them in secret. Mathilde must also grapple with the affections of a fellow physician and whether or not to alert him the the nuns’ predicament, her own emotional awakening in the face of the nuns’ continued devotion, and the continued presence of the Soviet Army, keeping a close eye on the French’s aid effort and posing a threat to Mathilde should her plan be discovered.

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There is no weak link in the film’s cast, with all actors giving performances that sidestep what these characters would be and how they would behave in a more simplistic, straightforward film. de Laâge, a French actress who between this and last year’s fantastic Breathe seems poised for an international breakout, embodies Mathilde with a multilayered sense of humanity minus any pluckiness or hotheaded confrontation, an embodiment of the long-held doctor’s creed to “first do no harm”. Kulezsa, a remarkable actress previously seen in 2014’s Ida, gives the Reverend Mother a true sense of weight and inner turmoil about the situation presented to her, raising her above simple “hero” or “villain” caricatures that dot most pop culture depictions. The lived-in dynamics she displays with the assorted actresses playing the convent’s sisters convey a deeper truth, and make the film’s underlying question of faith all the more difficult to examine: why wouldn’t a group of devout women assume that a horrible event like this was something their God wanted to happen to them?

Most impressively with material of this stature, Fontaine achieves a true blending of emotion and tone; though never a “light” watch, The Innocents invests the chilly weight its settings and circumstances deserve, matched by Fontaine’s Wintery frames that are enough the give the viewer a shiver, yet resists the trap of cold, expressionless misery that more often than not plays as dull to the viewer in films such as this. These characters have moments of true joy, and moments of utter tragedy and defeat. By its surprisingly powerful final scene, in which the film’s already multi-faceted title earns yet another dimension, Fontaine has proven herself a master of tone, and a keen observer of one of life’s basic truths; tragedy cannot exist without hope, and hope cannot exist without tragedy.

The Innocents is screening in the UICA Movie Theater August 26th – September 8th. 

Men & Chicken (2016)

Men & Chicken
by Ryan Gimarc

You can’t really be prepared for Men & Chicken. Or at least, I wasn’t. If you’re expecting a frolicking three-stooges-style physical comedy, you’ll get a few more emotional beats than you had anticipated. If you’re expecting a smart, Lanthimos-style cut of a metaphor about society, you aren’t wrong; but there’s just a lot more hitting each other with stuffed foxes, too. 

Brothers Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) are both a little odd (Elias far moreso), and it all begins to make more sense after the death of their father. In the traditional “videotape from the grave” format, the boys’ father tells them that he is not their real father, and that their true parentage can be found on the small Island of Ork, in the giant, rundown home of a formerly disgraced scientist. Just like that, Gabriel and Elias find themselves on the front porch of their father’s house, being beaten mercilessly at the hands of their three half-brothers (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Soren Malling, and Nicolas Bro). Over the rest of the runtime, the five new-found siblings learn what it’s like to live when more people like themselves, in a blend of physical violence, haunted house-type titillation, and outrageous character beats. 

For the most part, the film hums along as would be expected, even if a few of the character beats seemingly come out of nowhere. Much of the narrative feels like the inner pieces of a puzzle, wherein it’s difficult to clarify in the moment, but where Men & Chicken finishes during its third act is really a clear picture the closer we get to the closing credits. There are secrets in the house which are understood right as our two main characters arrive: they aren’t allowed upstairs, they aren’t allowed downstairs, they’ll surely go in the cage at some point. Hooks like these aren’t innovative, but at least they still give the film a sense of direction, if not any more purpose. 

And so while director Anders Thomas Jonsen’s comedy is a bit imbalanced, there’s a smidge more context that nearly gets lost around the edges. Gabriel and Elias are both introduced during the opening moments of the film in their element, which is to say alone and with little connection to the world around them. Gabriel sits at the edge of his dying father’s bed, looking comfortably alone and downtrodden, while Elias goes on what we learn is one in a procession of failed dates. The process of finding, meeting, and “bonding” with their half-brothers give them a feeling of relevancy, a theme reflected in the town itself, as the mayor of the Island of Ork struggles to (literally) keep the island on the map.

Men & Chicken doesn’t quite have the consistent tone necessary to be characterized as a fever dream, but sometimes it comes pretty darn close. Nevertheless, the film is unlike anything else you’ll see this year, with a comfortably bizarre Mads Mikkelsen leading a truly bizarre comedy. 

Men & Chicken is screening in the UICA Movie Theater Jun 10, 2016 – Jun 23, 2016.

The Lobster (2016)

By: Ryan J Gimarc

Just a handful of films into his directorial career, it’s important to note that Yorgos Lanthimos refuses to do anything halfway. In his 2009 film Dogtooth, the featured children live in an environment with nearly zero contact with the outside world, an accentuated and bewildering version of overparenting. In this newest (and much funnier) film, The Lobster, a larger-than-normal Colin Farrell butts heads with this same uncompromising logic. When checking into a hotel, he is asked if he is gay or straight, as there is no room for anything else. He is asked for his shoe size, and like with the movie itself, there are no half measures. In this world, you’re either single, or in a relationship. Would that it were so simple.

David (Colin Farrell) is newly single after his wife departs with another man, and is therefore sent to this unnamed hotel. Upon check-in, he’s told the rules of the lodge (even though he already has some awareness of it thanks to his brother). Here, he has 45 days to find a new partner. Should he fail to do so, he will be swiftly turned into an animal. In this world, the animals are as segmented by species as the humans are by their relationship status. One of the hotel directors informs him that if he is turned into a penguin, he can’t possibly live with a wolf, or a camel with a hippoppotamus. “That would be absurd. Think about it” she says, as deadpan as very nearly every character in the film, save the charming John C. Reilly as Lisping Man and Ben Whishaw as Limping Man (both also residents of the hotel). Should it not work out, David chooses a lobster. They live long, they’re blue-blooded, they stay fertile, and they live by the sea. Fair enough.

Certainly this can feel a bit on the nose. Lanthimos’ story begs for essays about the societal expectations of cohabitation and pairing, and also those which come with living alone. This facile interpretation isn’t wrong, and that reading of The Lobster is often what makes much of the film so bleakly funny (along with a few one-off slights, like that about electronic music). However, much of the commentary is far more nuanced, giving color to a world, which is otherwise quite cold and rigid. As Farrell tries to traverse two worlds, that of those coupling in the hotel and the world of the literal singles-only club he finds later in the film, he finds neither to be desirable in a way that’s both understandable and a bit melancholy.

In the end, it’s actually hard to believe how emotional a film The Lobster becomes. Farrell never breaks his deadpan, even when an eventual romance takes over the central premise in a move taking full advantage of Rachel Weisz’s immense talent. However, their pint-size rebellion against the inertia of the cruel world Lanthimos paints around them is somehow warm and tender, a development which I can’t guarantee the director was actually aiming for. As a whole, The Lobster serves plenty of metaphor alongside beautiful production design and a swath of great performances--one of the best films to be released so far as we near the halfway point of 2016.

 The Lobster is screening in the UICA Movie Theater Jun 3, 2016 – Jun 30, 2016

 

April and the Extraordinary World (2016)

by Patrick Feutz

The first animated film adaptation of the works of graphic novelist Jacques Tardi may lose the distinction of being his first film adaptation at all to Luc Besson’s live-action The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec in 2010, but co-directors Christian Desmares’ and Franck Ekinci’s April and the Extraordinary World more than makes up for the missed opportunity to call itself first by remaining remarkably loyal to the look and feel of Tardi’s work - and likely meeting Tardi’s approval, considering he’s credited as Graphic Creator for the film - rendering his steam swept, stopped-watch vision of an alternate early 20th century in a crisper, cleaner detail, all the better to goggle at Tardi’s mechanical contraptions born of boilers, bicycle chains, and blimps. It’s hard not to wonder what other marvels of stunted technology wait further down the gondola line past the twin Eiffel Towers central station, but the eyefuls of grubby industrialist cityscape delivered by the animation team are already a joy to behold as the eponymous heroine and others chase each other across a gaslamp fantasy Paris.

Flashing back to the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, we witness the halting point of history as we know it, with Napoleon III getting unceremoniously blown up during a disastrous visit to Gustave Franklin, a scientist whom the emperor charged to provide with an invincibility serum for his soldiers. Fast forward to 1931, then again to 1941, and we see the continuation of a dominant French Empire, a mechanized civilization operating in a blasted landscape under the command of Napoleon V. A better substitute for the Third Reich? Sure. But only insofar as it hasn’t decided to obliterate any one race of people in its desperate attempt to win the “Energy Wars” in which it’s been pitted, thanks to the mysterious disappearances of notable scientists throughout the decades, all of whom would have contributed to the development of newer, better technologies. If there’s anyone to remind us that France’s military pursuits were at one time on par with, or even greater than, the suicidal insanity of the Kaiser’s or the Fuhrer’s, many of his readers would be quick to point to Tardi, who’s well known for his pacifistic views and fixation on the horrors of World War I. So instead of genocide, Tardi offers a government that hunts down and conscripts what scientists remain to its cause, allowing for zero experimentation outside of the arms race. Hardly a model for sustainability, but disturbingly relevant in a world that still wavers on climate change and argues against funding for NASA.

It’s against this backdrop that we join the young April, granddaughter to Gustave Franklin and scientist in her own right, who was orphaned in 1931 when her researcher parents vanished in a freak electrical storm running from the police. With only her sick, talking cat Darwin for company, she seeks to recreate Gustave’s serum in time to heal her feline friend. Thanks to the intervention of bumbling police inspector Pizoni, who’s hell-bent on restoring his reputation after his pursuit of April’s parents ended in calamity, and aided by two-timing snitch Julius, she finds herself drawn deeper into the mystery of the world’s disappearing scientists as she runs from one gloriously over-engineered locale to another in an attempt to uncover the fate of her parents.

Throughout its many set pieces and interludes, April carries an air of self-satisfaction that never comes across as smugness, acting like a corrective to the bombast typical of North American animated features. Here there’s no impression that Desmares and Ekinci are trying to impress. Instead, April’s production team embody the essence of the tinkerer in his attic workroom, producing gadgets out of thin air as much for his own amusement as for ours. No amount of peril can squash the collective twinkle in their eyes as they strive to find the wry humor in their depictions of rampant consumerism and the physical comedy inherent to Tardi’s fantasy world’s goofily intricate machines. By eschewing the soap box, April avoids drawing too much attention to any one aspect of its being, be that its whimsical wonder at invention, its mature comprehension of subtext, its environmentalist angle, or its childish sense of adventure.

Far be it for some aspects to fly too far under the radar, though. The greater conflict to reveal itself amounts to a primal battle of the sexes, and April herself is a female role model for the ages. While some people busy themselves petitioning Disney about every princess under the sun, April is present and accounted for, a scrappy intellectual defined entirely by the quality of her mind. Even Julius, who dismisses her at first for being plain, and thus unworthy of his attention, is won over in the end, but his attraction to her takes a distant third place to April’s concern for her family and the world at large. Given the charm instilled by Tardi’s creation, she doesn’t come across as too proud, but selfless. The same could be said for April and the Extraordinary World in general, a film that embodies a lot of great ideas without being a brat about it.

April and the Extraordinary World is screening in the UICA Movie Theater May 20 - June 09, 2016

Creative Control (2015)

by Ryan J Gimarc

Creative Control is the cinematic equivalent of your cool best friend who knows just how cool they actually are. From a snappy title that just falls off your tongue, to the Helvetica-like typeface of the opening and closing credits, Benjamin Dickinson’s tribute to keeping your s--t together in the incredibly-near future feels familiar and comfortable, simply because of how comfortably put together it all is. 

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Life (2015)

by Nick Hartman

Life directed by Anton Crobijn has been given mixed reviews – both positive and negative. While some critics are saying it’s a humdrum film with dull performances that leave viewers frustrated, others are saying it’s charming, beautifully written and directed, and that the acting is excellent.

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Entertainment (2015)

by Josh Spanninga

In the past few years Rick Alverson has made a career out of subverting audience’s expectations and creating uncomfortable, confrontational films that experiment and defy conventional narratives. His latest film, Entertainment, finds Alverson managing to do all of this in what can be described as his most mature, well-rounded film yet. 

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The Assassin (2015)

by Ryan J. Gimarc

Much of The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s latest film derived from Tang Dynasty legend, operates not unlike the film’s title card. In deep cuts of red, the Chinese symbol depicting the film’s title lays atop the serenity of a pond, the crimson of the title laying on top of the orange hues of daybreak, the water reflecting the seemingly endless sky. Every part of the shot has been carefully captured into the relatively skinny 1:33 frame, and we hold this for no less than forty seconds. To say that The Assassin unfolds slowly is bit of a red herring—like Hou’s films often are, this movie is deliberate and stately, as though the characters are not just performing for the camera but for the director himself. I suppose, in a way, they are. 

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BAD*SS Women in Film

by Nick Hartman

I'm excited to announce November's line up of films and here’s why. When booking films for UICA, I simply look for the best independent cinema that I can get my hands on. It’s not often that I curate the films we show in the UICA Movie Theater based on a theme, but November is a different story. This month, we’re honoring leading ladies by celebrating BAD*SS Women in Film. 

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Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (2015)

by Joshua Brunsting

It’s safe to say that there are few, if any, moments in this nation’s history more formative than the start of the 1970s. Stuck in the middle of a seemingly never-ending and unwinnable war, a revolution was being waged in the culture, finding younger and younger voices speaking out in new, aggressively antagonistic and boundary pushing ways.

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Queen of Earth (2015)

by Josh Spanninga

Alex Ross Perry, writer/director of last year’s Listen Up Phillip further cements his status as up-and-coming-director-to-take-note-of with his latest release Queen of Earth. Both films use heavy sardonic dialogue and wit to cut to the bone, but while Listen Up Phillip did so in a darkly humorous way, Queen of Earth strives (and succeeds) to create an atmosphere far more unnerving. 

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The Look of Silence (2014)

by Ryan J. Gimarc

It’s not an overstatement to say that where the U.S. had slavery and northern Europe had the Holocaust, Indonesia had the anti-communist purge of the mid-1960s. These events have a significant and obvious impact on current Indonesian society, and in Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest film about the mass killings, The Look of Silence, one word is omnipresent in conversations about the country’s dark history: wound.

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Affliction (1997)

by Victoria Mullen and Deb Havens

Nothing shrieks “isolation” like a miserably bleak, winter landscape. Set in a fictitious small town in New Hampshire, Paul Schrader’s Affliction offers absolutely no warmth or respite for sheriff Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) and those who people his life. Here is a cautionary tale of how one’s devastating childhood can destroy one’s future.

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Tom at the Farm (2013)

by Ryan Gimarc

We join Tom (Xavier Dolan) as he visits the farmhouse of his now-deceased boyfriend Guillaume in rural Quebec. After an initially shocking and awkward introduction with Guillaume’s mother, Agate (Lise Roy), Tom is welcomed into the household, albeit with a specific veil of secrecy: Guillaume’s brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), has ensured that Agate holds no suspicions about Guillaume’s sexual orientation, and that Agate is under the impression Tom is simply a coworker and close friend. Introductions aside, Francis begins a routine of physical and psychological battery on Tom, putting him in a place somewhere between a prisoner and a convert, and in the process opens himself and his past up to the emotionally loaded Tom. 

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015)

by Josh Spanninga

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the final film in Swedish director Roy Andersson’s self-proclaimed “living” trilogy (preceded by Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living). The films fit together nicely as a trilogy not in the sense that they follow the same narrative, but that they all feature Andersson’s dark sense of humor played out through absurd and grotesque situations, all seeking to answer the question of what it means to be human. 

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Taxi Driver (1976)

by Shirley Griffin

Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” written by Grand Rapids native son Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, and Harvey Keitel, is a story of a nowhere man who doesn’t fit in. And in this way, our awkward, anti-social leading man Travis Bickle (DeNiro), as John Lennon sang, is a bit like you and me.  

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Gabriel (2015)

by Nick Hartman

Writer and director Lou Howe delivers his debut film titled Gabriel, a low budget independent drama about a troubled kid starring, Rory Culkin. Gabriel follows a disturbed young man who is struggling to keep it together in the wake of his father’s suicide. Gabriel is released from an asylum and is in pursuit of a girl he once knew named Alice whom he hasn’t seen since childhood.

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