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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

My Friend Dahmer

By Sarah Vesely

Calm, cool, collected; curious, contemplative, capricious. Jeffrey Dahmer is a boy like many we all knew in high school: Quiet, yet bright. Serious, yet humorous, in an absurdist way. Marc Meyers’ film My Friend Dahmer gives us a glimpse into Jeffrey’s formative years, on the cusp on discovering himself on more than one level.

This coming-of-age film is reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), in that the viewer almost feels a bit of sympathy for this inevitably malevolent character. But instead of being a true crime adaptation of the guilty pleasure, dark and disgusting criminal acts of Jeffrey Dahmer, this film takes a more psychological and contemplative approach to peeling back the layers of his life. Between the atmospheric score by Andrew Hollander (Waitress, 2007) and the calm cinematography of Daniel Katz (Funny Games, 2007), this film is a slow burn, not unlike the weak acid he uses to dissolve the flesh of his latest roadkill finds.

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Ross Lynch’s performance as Dahmer is a fantastic surprise. Considering his extensive background with Disney and family-friendly films alike, this dark and introspective role could have easily been over-acted. But the way he melts into his character is as curious and meditative as Dahmer himself.

My Friend Dahmer is a wonderfully hypnotic, disturbingly compelling coming-of-age film with a poisonous twist. Like driving past an accident, only to have the firetruck block your vantage point, Dahmer’s story will leave you cautiously curious. His troubled teen years will feel distantly relatable, tugging at your teen angst heartstrings, while still subconsciously waving red flags of psychopathic warning. And like the slow, warm burn of hydrochloric acid, this foreboding film will slither under your skin, and simultaneously fascinate and disturb you.

My Friend Dahmer  is screening at the UICA Movie Theater November 11 - November 21

A Ghost Story

By Mitch Anderson

A Ghost Story is a film where talking about “what” happens in it is not nearly as important as talking about “how” things happen in it. Indeed, the “what” that happens could fit into a few sentences: a married couple, known only to us as C and M (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, respectively), experience disagreement and tension over C’s reluctance to leave their house behind as they prepare to move. When C is killed in a car accident on the street outside the house, he returns as a spirit to inhabit the house from beyond, watching M’s grieving, acceptance, and eventual move, before being a silent witness to the succession of the house’s occupants after her departure.

Again, the film’s “plot”, as it were, is relatively easy to describe. However, the film’s immense beauty and profundity rests in writer/director/editor David Lowery’s framing of the story (this is meant only partially as a pun; the entire film is framed by a 1:33:1 aspect ratio, “boxing” the image and making the frame look almost like an old photograph). Lowery, who has always been an open book in regards to his influences and who has directly stated that the tone and feel of A Ghost Story is an homage to the “slow” cinema of international directors such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Pedro Costas, asserts his command over the viewer early on, and prepares us for the film’s progression into increasingly ambitious territory (even though the plot description given above lays out the basics of the story, it is very much worth entering this film knowing as little about its latter story as possible. Rest assured, any plot points of this kind will only be vaguely discussed in this review). It’s not that he doesn’t give us room to breathe; in fact, we have almost too much room to breathe.
 

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Even before C’s death and return, Affleck and Mara are framed in beautiful, mostly silent tableaus. An early shot of the two lying in bed and holding each other lasts past the point of comfort, instinctually making you wonder what is going to happen to resolve the moment. But nothing does; eventually, you begin to study every detail about the shot; the bends of Affleck and Mara’s arms, the nuances of their faces, present even in sleep. The way they lie in bed, Mara’s body bent slightly towards Affleck’s. That’s to say nothing of the already infamous “pie scene”, in which we watch Mara’s M, in the midst of silent, almost passive grief, sit on the floor of her kitchen and, in a single, unbroken shot, eat almost an entire pie given to her as a condolence, as the phantom C watches on in the background.  This five-minute shot is A Ghost Story in a nutshell; pondering without crossing the threshold into punishing, emotionally complex, and slyly underlined by humor.

Regarding this last point, it is to the film’s credit that one can discuss it at such length before even touching on its core visual gambit; C’s ghost is represented by his body being covered by a hospital bedsheet with eyeholes, not unlike the costumes worn by the children in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. However, it is a credit to Lowery’s mastery of tone that if you remain hung up on this detail, A Ghost Story is likely not for you. Additionally, credit must be given to Casey Affleck’s performance as the ghost (and supposedly he was underneath the sheet the entire time during filming), a pantomime built entirely through careful movement and restrained body language, blending into the space of the house and standing out from his surroundings with equal skill. It is simply remarkable that a “face” consisting only of a pair of eye holes can clearly express so many emotions with no dialogue. And I would be remiss to not mention Daniel Hart’s string score, a cacophonous, at times unsettling, at most times unbearably gorgeous piece, to say nothing of “I Get Overwhelmed”, a song by Hart’s band Dark Rooms that is repurposed here as a composition by Affleck’s character that takes on cosmic significance as the film progresses.

Ultimately, A Ghost Story’s true star is Lowery himself. A brazenly experimental tone poem meditating on themes of loss, legacy, and the physical manifestations of emotion, the film represents a major leap forward for a filmmaker already blazing a distinct, impressive trail after only three feature films (it isn’t necessary to know going in that literally days after wrapping post-production on his big-budget, fantastic Pete’s Dragon for Disney, Lowery and a skeleton crew traveled to Texas to film A Ghost Story, but it helps). In a style already hugely informed by storytelling and its influence, A Ghost Story symbolizes a filmmaker more than ready to leave his stamp on the modern cinema scene. Patient, ambitious, and deeply moving, A Ghost Story is easily one of the best films of 2017.
 

A Ghost Story is screening at the UICA Movie Theater September 1st – 19th.

The Bad Batch

By Mitch Anderson

Terms like “visionary” and “the next big thing” are thrown around entirely too often in the world of independent and low-budget cinema, to the point that it can almost feel dull when a new filmmaking talent is widely described as such. These labels are particularly numbing in the modern film climate, where a striking low-budget debut usually means an immediate vault into blockbuster fare huge in scope but whimpering in creativity, as one promising young filmmaker after another becomes a studio cog whose decisions are entirely at the whims of faceless executives and shareholders more concerned about brand management than quality product. Fortunately, in only two films, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has not only dodged this mechanistic fate, but has proven herself worthy of independent filmmaking’s loftiest terms. That’s not to say that Amirpour, after turning heads with her 2014 debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, hasn’t massively expanded her scope and ambition for her sophomore feature The Bad Batch. In fact, the film is that too-rare beast; a burst of pure imagination and originality that still functions as proof that its writer/director is more than ready to play in a bigger sandbox.

The film stars Suki Waterhouse as Arlen, a young woman who, in the first shots of the film, is dumped and abandoned in fenced-off Texas desert territory, marked by a sign reading that the land beyond it is no longer considered property of the United States. Venturing forth on her own, it isn’t long before Arlen is chased down by golf-cart-riding cannibals, captured, and separated from an arm and a leg. After devising a… resourceful escape plan, Arlen makes her way to Comfort, a settlement in the desert whose titular promise seems contradicted by the despondent and insane who line its streets. Still, at least the cannibals are kept out. Several months later, having fashioned a makeshift leg and adapted to life with one arm, Arlen sets out on a mission of revenge, resulting in an odyssey which includes raves, adopted pet rabbits, portraiture, hallucinogens, and the warring attentions of two men known as Miami Man (Jason Moama), the leader of the cannibals, and The Dream (Keanu Reeves), the enigmatic leader of Comfort whose plans may be more nefarious than he lets on.

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If this all sounds like a recipe for an ambitious but overstuffed misfire, it’s because the film could so easily become one. But Amirpour announces her confident style early and never abandons it over the film’s sprawling-yet-thrilling 115 minutes. The first act of the film, depicting Suki’s abandonment, capture, and escape, is almost entirely dialogue-free, Amirpour instead packing her striking widescreen frames with detail and visual information. Though the film’s dialogue gets the job done (Reeves in particular delivers every line in a gleefully dry Jim-Jones-esque stupor), it’s in the visuals that the true story of the film plays out, from Miami Man’s always-visible eponymous chest tattoo to a character known only as The Hermit, a silent wanderer of the desert whose alliances shift in seemingly every scene (played by Jim Carrey in top-form vaudeville pantomime). After her debut’s black-and-white cinematography, it’s easy to see Amirpour savoring the chance to use color, filling her desert vistas with dusty neon and day-glo; Sergio Leone by way of Harmony Korine. Additionally, the film is driven beginning-to-end by a killer soundtrack, spanning the electropop spectrum from Die Antwoord to Culture Club, and bracing sound design; Amirpour’s real-life partial deafness drives her soundscapes just as Nicolas Winding Refn’s colorblindness drives his visuals. This is a film to watch loud.

All of this is engaging and entertaining on a surface level, but it wouldn’t add up to much without Amirpour’s command of tone and the clear abundance of ideas at play here. The social implications of a group of people cruelly cast out of society are more than potent, particularly in the current political climate, and while Amirpour doesn’t spell out for us what exactly happened to allow America to reach this sorry state, hints of everything from plain-faced intolerance and bigotry to nuclear fallout are dropped. Coupled with the eventual reveal of The Dream’s true plans for Comfort, the unforced glances at class and race within this society of scavengers (particularly complicated by Amirpour’s point-of-view as an Iranian-American), and the notion of “kill or be killed” morality, The Bad Batch is about the furthest from a “message” movie as you can get. Indeed, the film’s unforgettable final shot would feel like a mean, nihilistic joke, were it not for the clear feeling and passion in everything that precedes it.

The Bad Batch is a gonzo low-budget blockbuster, a dispatch from an alternate world where ambitious, large-scale films for the adult crowd are plentiful and allowed to co-exist with popcorn fare, and its mixed reception here only seems to prove how unprepared our current environment is for such bursts of pure, unrestrained creativity. The film moves with the confident abandon of a proven veteran, making its status as only its writer/director’s second feature even more remarkable. In this just world, Ana Lily Amirpour’s name would be at the top of every studio’s consideration list for the next entry in their major franchise. However, in a truly just world, she would be allowed to continue to make films as bizarre, striking, and downright entertaining as this.

The Bad Batch is screening at the UICA Movie Theater August 18th – 30th.

Director's Spotlight- Daniel Schippers (OPN People's Choice Award)

Daniel Schippers short film You Too was the Open Projector Night 19 People's Choice Winner. We sat down with the filmmaker to learn more about his work, inspiration and future projects.

 

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Who is Daniel Schippers? Give us a short bio.

I am a Michigan native and live with my wife and two daughters. I started making short films in 2006 and started Cinema and Sugar. Time outdoors has always been time well spent to me. I am an avid fly fisherman, primarily for pike and the ever-elusive musky.

What is/are your favorite film(s) and why?

David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Terrence Malick’s Badlands and David Lynch’s Eraserhead are the first to come to mind. These are favorites mostly because they’re so visually strong. There isn’t enough dialog in the world to create the sensation I get with the imagery in these films.

Who and what inspires Daniel Schippers?

Bruce Bickford is an amazing animator and has an unnatural level of patience. I admire his solitude and the way he single-handedly creates these bizarre worlds. There is a documentary on him called Monster Road that is totally worth checking out. Beyond that, inspiration for me can come in waves. There have been times I’ve been uninspired for a huge amount of time. Sometimes it floods in. When I’m in a creative rut, its probably time to get out for a bit and see something new in the world. Anything. Something as simple as driving to a small town I’ve never been to or a finding a new chunk of woods to walk through can get things going again.

 

Tell us about your film You Too. What's the overall narrative?

You Too is a pretty simple story. It’s about the best of friends spending the day fishing together. Though their catches are polarized, the two friends remain close.

How did the project form?

I had wanted to rotoscope a project and developed the look and behavior of the characters. I knew before the story came that it would be narrated and the characters would open their mouths as though delivering the line as well as having 3 fingers on each hand and 5 teeth. It stemmed from these really bad drawings that were my best efforts of illustrating people as lifelike as possible and the results were laughable. So I wanted to play into that. During that time Steven Bakker and I met up to write a new short. I think we spent maybe the better part of an hour outlining the story and by the end of it I knew I wanted to apply the look that I was working on. It is very much based on our friendship. A lot of the dialog came from our many conversations. Because it is so innocent in nature I wanted the narration to be in the same vein as a children’s book like “Frog and Toad”. They’re best buds as well. We did a number of tests on what would be the right rotoscoping method. The consensus was that it had to be done on paper with sharpies rather than digitally. Once everything was shot and recorded it was just a matter of drawing it.

What's your next project?

My next project will be predominately experimenting with a couple animation techniques. If things go well, then writing a story that suits the approach. I also am itching to make a live-action project that has been on my mind for some time now. Everything is in its infancy stage, which has always been one of my favorite parts of the process.

Can you talk about your creative process? Overall, explain to me from the point an idea is born to the finish product. What falls in between?

For me everything starts with two primary ideas: how I want it to look/sound and what the actual content will be. They should behave like a healthy marriage and compliment each other. I like to experiment with looks ahead of time. It was particularly important in the case of You Too. All of this pre-production work is the backbone for all of what’s to come. Artistic decisions made in production and post come a lot easier when you know the foundation thoroughly. I have learned from many mistakes where projects did not blossom as I had hoped simply because I did not have enough ground work done ahead of time.

Tell me about your first film/animation related experience, what hit you and made you want to pursue the world of film/animation?

This moment is crystal clear. It was in 2003 and Mathew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle came to Grand Rapids. I went to Cremaster 3 for a class I was in at the time. I walked out of the theater in disbelief. I had no idea there were films like that in the world. It flipped a switch in my brain. It was gorgeous, and equally grotesque at times. To this day, I cannot articulate why or how it impacted me so greatly which is the exact reason I loved it so much.

Can you provide advice to aspiring filmmakers?

Have a good balance between healthy criticisms and allowing yourself to make mistakes. Projects are bound to not shake out as you hoped but get right back on the horse. Also, get used to putting your work out for people to see. Utilize opportunities like Open Projector Night.

Any words about Open Projector Night?

Open Projector Night was fantastic. My only regret is not knowing about these sooner. It was the perfect platform to see local filmmakers showcase their work.  The films were so unfiltered and honest which was driven home by the open dialog with the audience at the end.

If you were granted a large budget and could make your dream film what would it be?

It would most definitely be a fantasy-adventure film with lots of practical effects, highly detailed puppets and copious amounts of slime.
 

Person to Person

By Patrick Feutz

Character is at the heart of all four-ish to five loosely connected vignettes in Dustin Guy Defa's New York City ensemble Person to Person. Each thread speaks to a different subset of viewers, marching to a different tune but all taken from the city's songbook. One could accuse Defa of cherry picking from the best of day-in-the-life New York cinema, co-opting the city's split personality of hustling to survive and navel-gazing neuroses to mimic narratives that have been warmed over seven times since Sunday, but he ties it all together with a breezy, quietly celebratory approach that's happy to report that, despite how small some of its characters' dramas might be, by God it's great that there's drama to be found anywhere. In that respect, the natural atmosphere he builds and channeling of chatty cinematic heavyweights like Woody Allen make for a film that washes over you, inviting you to appreciate, if you can, the idiosyncrasies of his characters one scene at a time, without giving too much thought to charting the action across each story.

Morning routines offer our first glimpse into the lives of the characters before their paths sprawl out in all directions. Waking up to face the new day is a wide roster of talent, ranging from old hands and familiar faces like Philip Baker Hall and Michael Cera to cult stars on the rise Abbi Jacobson and Tavi Gevinson, to very welcome newcomers like George Sample III and Bene Coopersmith. As coffees get shared and slugged, Defa plunks one aberration from the norm into each story, just enough to make us wonder how everyone copes down the line. How Jacobson will handle her first day as an investigative journalist under Cera's unhelpful direction. How record shop owner Coopersmith will come out at the end of a deal on a rare mint-condition record. How Hall will fare with a troubling watch repair. How Sample III will makes amends for a pretty darn unforgivable act. And how Gevinson will take a step toward understanding herself.

As the youngest lead in the youngest leaning story, Gevinson (who's probably heard enough about her jaw-dropping resemblance to Scarlett Johansson) gets the most abstract dilemma as a moody teen who spends the day trading barbs with and avoiding the romantic machinations of her oversexed friend. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Jacobson and Cera, whose story of workplace alienation and quarter-life crisis shakes off any shade of nuance in favor of the zany deadpan the two specialize in. In between falls the rest of the material, which relays evenly between farce and sincerity and lets its actors completely inhabit their roles. Coopersmith (a record shop owner in real life, so that's easy) may unwittingly have to take the law into his own hands, but it's his enthusiastic quest for feedback on his new shirt and his ever-reaching optimism that wins you over. Comedy and tragedy are to be found in the smallest of details, be it a minor digression into a bit player's compulsion to gamble away the spare cash he earns out of the blue, or the way tears fall down a stony-faced Sample III's cheeks when he confronts the person he's wronged. Hell, one look at Philip Baker Hall and a lifetime of toil in the same neighborhood through the decades flashes before your eyes.

The success of Person to Person can't be attributed solely to its script, or its ensemble's delivery, or Defa's direction. It's not a landmark film, and there's nothing so revolutionary about it. It's simply in love with the ordinary, and it excels in pulling the surreal out of the banal. For the most part its characters aren't up to anything special. They collect things, fix things, and report things. They're on the margins. Skyscrapers tower in the distance as they mingle in parks or chase each other down alleyways. They think too much or not enough. They get by the best way they know how. On that note, it's easy to find one story in this collection that strikes a chord, whether it's in a teenager's struggle to accept herself, an elderly shopkeeper's determination to do right by his customer, or somewhere else in the lighthearted quotidian chaos of the big city.

Person to Person is screening in the UICA Movie Theater June 30th - July 13th 2017.
 

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki

By Patrick Feutz

Want to see boxing fans’ jaws hit the mat? Show them Juho Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, a sports biopic that charts the days leading up to the titular real-life boxer’s infamous 1962 World Featherweight Title bout with reigning champ Davey Moore. Just don’t tell them about the scene when two days before the big fight, Olli stops in his tracks to fly a kite he found in the woods when he should be trying to make weight. Because this isn’t your average sports flick about rivalry, pride, or overcoming the odds. Nor is it the kind of biopic full of dark secrets and personal tragedies that fuel its subject’s professional success. Instead, it’s a delightful, totally artistically free look into the private life of a boxer who shies away from promoting the biggest fight of his life thanks to falling in love. You could call it the anti-Rocky if you weren’t afraid none of your sports-fan friends would want to see it, but then again, this is a movie that caters to the kind of people who eat it up when their idol claims the proudest moment of their life is when they got married.

 

Aside from his talent for boxing, small-town boxing sensation Olli Maki (Jarrko Lahti) is introduced as the epitome of the down-on-his-luck everyman. His car won’t start in the first scene, he’s dropped down to featherweight class so his manager Elis Ask (Eero Milinoff) can arrange the big fight, and he hunches, making his short stature all the more glaring, particularly when placed next to a leggy model for a photo shoot. Kuosmanen shoots in grainy black and white 16mm to achieve a simultaneously fresh and aged look, capturing the story of Olli’s ennui in a serendipitously period-specific New Wave style that emphasizes the bare, unfiltered truth, a choice made stronger by the presence of an in-film documentary crew who stage shots and hilariously applaud the awkward acting skills of Olli and Elis.

 

Elis, played with a hidden desperation by the imposing Milinoff, can’t imagine what Olli could be upset about, and he misunderstands the uplifting effect made by Olli’s new girlfriend, Raija (Oona Airola). A distraught Raija gets it wrong too, leaving town to let Olli focus and bringing the story’s central conflict to a head. Lahti plays the heartsick Olli as a slouching, rudderless mess, unable to pretend to play the hero, and realizing too late that a pro boxer’s lot in life is as a source of other people’s entertainment. All three struggle with trying to live up to expectations, and their angst is thrown into relief against the dour visage of Finnish moneymen and the easy professionalism of Moore and his entourage. None are more uncomfortable in their own skin than Olli, though, who sees his passion for boxing hijacked by big business, and any care for his personal needs discarded.

All of that isn’t to cast a shadow over things. The Happiest Day is positively lighthearted and charming, a jaunty, verite portrait of a soul in torment that makes it easy for us to sympathize with our navel-gazing antihero and laugh while he single-handedly and unintentionally deconstructs the blustery power politics of professional sports swirling around him. Lahti and Airola are sweetness personified as a bicycling, stone skipping new couple, overflowing the measure of humanity needed for Kuosmanen to endear us to them while proving that a sports movie can mean nothing about sports and a biopic can have nothing to do with biography. By the same token, the movie reveals more about the sport and the man than any truer-to-fact telling could, and uses its finale to impart a more intense catharsis than a fistfight between two men ever could.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is screening in the UICA Movie Theater June 30th - July 13th 2017.

Director’s Spotlight - Zac Clark (OPN People's Choice Award Winner)

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Zac Clark’s short film Private Slum was the Open Projector Night 18 People's Choice Winner. We sat down with the filmmaker to learn more about his work, inspiration and future projects.

Who is Zac Clark? Give us a short bio.

Zac A. Clark is from the Southwest Side of Chicago, who envies the homestead his grandparents built on the outskirts of Kalamazoo, MI. He has worked with Emmy-award winning filmmakers, Pulitzer-prize nominated photojournalists, had his photography featured at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and has worked around the continent. He believes in telling true stories, within fiction or non-fiction. He has worked with Emmy-award winning filmmakers, Pulitzer-prize nominated photojournalists, had his photography featured at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and has worked around the continent. He believes in telling true stories, within fiction or non-fiction.

Who and what inspires Zac Clark?

Who: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Nicolas Winding Refn, Stanley Kubrick, Wong Kar Wai, Richard Linklater, Reed Morano, and Natasha Brier.

What: a synesthetic approach to music

Tell us about your music video Private Slum. What's the overall narrative?

Alfonso Cuaron mentioned in his recent Cannes master-class that each of his films are like an ex-wife. Yes, I read that in nofilmschool.com. I'm going to steal the metaphor, but interpret a different meaning. There are four music videos I have directed and produced that are catharsis for relationships coming to an end in my life. Relationships with places and people. This film is about a relationship in reverse, two people covered and blinded at the beginning, bare at the end. It's a place that I wish our relationship had started at, rather than finished, gasping after struggle.

How did the project form?

Graham Parsons, the front man from the Kalamazoo based-band The Go Rounds whose music makes the foundation of the music video, had me taking photos for the band while they toured Mexico in summer of 2016. On a bus--which was really a tightly packed van--Graham suggested that we start another music video project for the band's new album, i promise i wont get hurt. (We had collaborated before on their song Lay With Love.) He had liked the idea of performance, and asked about exploring abstract dancing in this video, and from the back seat, Adam Danis, the band's drummer, creeped out yeah, and make sure its viscous. So I went from there.

What's your next project?  

Which one!? I just produced a tech-heavy music video project called Bones for the band Low Roar, which was a project created down in Mexico and directed by the cool Toño Trillo of Pause & Play. And Westra and I just completed a stoner nightmare music video, Into The Smoke, for the Austin metal band Destroyer of Light. The project I want everyone to check out is Small Town for Last Gasp Collective. We're premiering that project in Kalamazoo, June 23rd, at The Wellspring Theatre, before it hits the festival circuit. It's the last story I could tell in Kalamazoo, where I've created most of my films. (Links below!)

Can you talk about your creative process? Overall, explain to me from the point an idea is born to the finish product. What falls in between?

It almost always begins with music and sound and that causes images to start playing around in my head. I need to search out new songs and artists. A good dream journal will take me far, as well. I'll wake up every hour or so at night with visions free of self-doubt or criticism, jot them down on paper, and go back to sleep. Above all, I have to find a place of discomfort for myself. Filmmaking is problem solving.

Tell me about your first film related experience, what hit you and made you want to pursue the world of film?

Mufasa falling down the canyon wall into the stampede. I cried.

Honestly, all of my parents have been involved in performance and theatre. Film mimics theatre in many ways, but I believe it should an extension of performance.

I guess I am just their kid.

Can you provide advice to aspiring filmmakers?

Love your crew. Take care of them. Without them, you are nothing. Surround yourself with people who you believe are better filmmakers than yourself.

Any words about Open Projector Night?

I have shown my work at festivals since I was still a student at Kalamazoo College in 2013. Open Projector Night is the first to project it on a cinema screen, with accurate and vibrant color renditions, theater sound, plus we have moved beyond any skipping DVDs! I've never had the chance to see my work presented so honestly, as intended.

If you were granted a large budget and could make your dream film what would it be?

Ever seen "Jodorowsky's Dune"? Yeah. Something like that.

See more of Zac Clark’s work (and future projects) at the links below.

1. Bones by Low Roar, https://youtu.be/hprK_bVg2ro

2. Into the Smoke by Destroyer of Light, https://youtu.be/aAj8TZhOOZU

3. Small Town Premiere, http://www.lastgaspcollective.com/store/p1/Small_Town_Premiere.html


Want more of Zac Clark? You can find more of his work at: Facebook.com/clarkcamera

RAW

By Sarah Vesely

RAW (2016) is a film unlike any other. Marketed in broad strokes of gratuitous gore and the feminist agenda, this film is actually quite digestible (pun partially intended) for cinephiles of many types. Note that yes, this is a graphic film and not for the faint of heart, but the graphic content is not cheap or gimmicky as seen in Hostel or others of the “gore porn” era. The graphic content is tasteful (oh boy) in that it’s a fantastic metaphor for body awareness and sexuality.

This coming-of-age story, centered around Justine, a young vet school student, is told through meticulous editing, careful art direction, and impeccable cinematography. Writer and director Julia Ducournau executes this film with seemingly effortless care. The visuals in the film unify the story just as well as the Dude’s rug tied his room together: the viewer gets a sense of the pressure and confinement Justine feels as a freshman in med school through the labyrinth-like architecture and puzzling layout of the campus. The subconscious psychology of the layout of the film alone seems to give a quiet nod to the impossibility of the Overlook Hotel’s floor plan in Kubrick’s 1980 classic, The Shining.  Even beyond the production design, various moments of intimate framing and unique angles amplify Justine’s inner turmoil, making this all the more a successful psychological thriller as well as horror.

 

Recurring throughout the film is the parallel of humans to animals in an assembly line, heartless science kind of way. Don’t get me wrong-- this is not secretly a PETA film; it’s that the metaphors and underlying theme of the film are a fantastic commentary on how humans are just statistics and stereotypes, churned out like cows in a slaughterhouse, in the eyes of today’s culture and media. However, RAW focuses in on a young woman discovering her true self and becoming hyper aware of her own body. On the surface, yes, she craves raw flesh, but the subtext of that is the taboo around sex and sexuality. Justine craves the secular flesh, as it were. But the message of sex and sexuality in this film is not as one would expect. There is no meet-cute, there is no slut shaming, and there certainly is no grandiose rom com hook up. Instead, Justine’s second puberty, as it were, is a ride on a different crimson tide (sorry, not sorry). Befittingly yes, the menstrual color red is symbolic in this film for change: change in character, change in maturity, and change in tone.  Julia Ducournau’s RAW is modern cinema at its finest, turning sexist cinema on its head.

The film has several subtle nods to staples of cinema, such as Psycho and The Godfather, and plays well into traditional movie structure. The horror elements are there, but not overbearing. The graphic scenes are visceral and disturbing, yet they are an integral part of the film. The score has subtle notes(puns again!) of Phillip Glass, Michael Nyman, and others, as well as fitting blends of modern music. RAW is well-orchestrated masterpiece, and absolute a must-see film for all movie lovers.

Raw is screening in the UICA Movie Theater May 19th - June 8th 2017.

Buster's Mal Heart

By Patrick Feutz

You know things are bad when they can only be explained through the prism of a Y2K conspiracy theory. That’s how Rami Malek’s Jonah feels in the tripartite yin-yang of a mystery film Buster’s Mal Heart, seeing more reason to believe in loony late night public access TV programming, a pre-Internet dial-a-psychic, and, perhaps most damningly of all, the anti-establishment ravings of a mysterious IT specialist played by DJ Qualls than he does real life.

Across the nonlinear plot of Sarah Adina Smith’s film, we’re treated to three versions of Jonah, primarily as a devoted husband and father who works nights at a remote Montana hotel, as a scraggly mountain man who squats in empty Montana vacation homes, and lastly a bedraggled castaway floating in a rowboat on the open ocean. The mountain man version, an infamous crank caller nicknamed “Buster” by appreciative radio hosts, commands the most inspection from us because he’s clearly an older, broken version of the depressed hotel concierge. All three express the same psychological dilemma, the feeling of being adrift and downtrodden, craving control. So we settle into the familiar position of questioning how Jonah got from A to B, and let his castaway version play out conventionally as a metaphor for some eventual tragedy along the way. It’s a comfortable enough position to be in, but when you think you’ve nailed the drift of Smith’s screenplay, she doubles back again, leaving you struggling to regain your balance on an ever shakier foundation.

Smith is a low key director, and she finds success in ever so slightly lulling us into false assumptions before pulling the rug out from under us. The weirdness begins before the narrative starts in earnest, with the very first image of two flickering silhouettes sharing Jonah’s rowboat on the ocean. It instantly opens up the discussion to parallel universes, or alternate realities, or, y’know… something like that. More importantly, it doesn’t show its hand by hinting at which of the subsequent versions of Jonah we meet is the real, or primary, version of him.

If there’s anything resembling a traditional narrative, it resides with hotel concierge Jonah. He and his wife Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil) eke out a meager living, having both overcome difficult pasts, and Jonah harbors an unrealistic dream of buying land and becoming self-sufficient. He’s suffering from insomnia, and one night a nerdy conspiracy theorist (Qualls) arrives without ID to request a room, the whole time spouting anti-system rhetoric and predicting an event known as The Inversion at the dawn of the 21st century. Things go south shortly after that, with Jonah becoming more depressed and conflicted over the pragmatism of his dream. The rest is left to our interpretation of the three Jonahs and how they tie together.

Smith’s misdirection is also made more bearable by Malek’s pained performance and occasional jolts of off-the-wall humor. It’s hard not to fall into clichés when describing Malek’s skills as an actor at this point. With his wiry frame, sharp jaw, and eyes simultaneously haunting and menacing, he’s tailor-made for bugging out, but his intensity stays tamped down, the few fireworks we do see coming from obviously slow burning fuses. Any time he’s confronted with a new twist, it’s hard not to crumble a little alongside him, so fully does he inhabit his three roles.

With Buster’s Mal Heart, Smith follows in the footsteps of fellow idiosyncratic filmmakers like Lynch, Aronofsky, Inarritu, and Nolan, crafting a mind-bending puzzler that steadily ups the dread but is content to let you have the final say, providing plenty of tantalizing fodder for a solid post-viewing lobby argument. Her blending of the tale of Jonah with pre-Internet ‘90s paranoia has an undeniably uncanny effect. In practically writing her own genuine tall tale, Smith imbues the American legendarium with the Biblical proportions its component parts always aspired to. In perhaps its greatest twist of all, Buster’s Mal Heart will have you waxing nostalgic for a time when chain emails were still in their infancy and the oral tradition was carried exclusively through fuzzy local news reports.

Buster's Mal Heart is screening in the UICA Movie Theater June 2nd - June 15th 2017.
 

The Void (2017)

By Patrick Feutz

Drenched in grief and parental anxiety, miniature siege horror movie The Void comes with a healthy pedigree thanks to the writing and directing team of Jeremie Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, who join the '80s pop culture gold rush and stumble out of the mine clutching every Lovecraftian antecedent from John Carpenter to Stuart Gordon to piece together their movie. Thankfully they have a framework back at the shop, so what could have come across as a crass pastiche is instead a satisfyingly arranged original story that hopscotches its influences, recalling the spirit of its predecessors without trafficking in clunky aural and tangible nostalgia. Despite its residence in some indefinite cell phone-free period of the past, this is still a very modern movie. To put it bluntly, its under-reliance on a Steadicam might have some purists fuming. If you're looking for its closest cinematic double, you might go with the Fulci gore fest From Beyond, with its faceless revenants, desolate netherworld, and a narrative that slowly caves into the surreal as its beleaguered protagonist's subconscious starts bleeding in.

A cold open introduces us to a couple men clearing out an isolated farmhouse of its inhabitants, gunning down and torching their last catch as one man escapes into the woods. Moments later, bored police officer Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) comes across the lone survivor, fallen unconscious in the road, and takes him to the nearest hospital, where a night shift skeleton crew is shutting things down for good in the aftermath of a fire that's condemned the building. Things soon get weirder and weirder from the inside out (or is that outside in?), as the staff inside begin to lose their minds concurrently with the ominous blow of a mysterious foghorn and a group of white-robed cultists surrounding the building to prevent anyone from getting out.

Gillespie and Kostanski keep things interesting by piling on the mysteries, making you guess where the next threat is going to come from. Will the cultists make a move, is the hysterical survivor hiding something, or is someone else in the group going to reveal some unknown hidden depth? Carter stays at center ring for the whole film, and his haunted past, tied to that of his estranged wife, Allison (Kathleen Munroe), who just so happens to be head nurse that night, gives focus to the darker things to come, which serves to deliver a big emotional punch once the titular void is breached. Gillespie and Kostanski go for more than cheap shots, knowing the importance of burrowing into the audience's everyday fears, then blowing them up in garish, borderline insane fashion. It may not be the freshest fear for movies to mine in recent times, but they still tackle it with gusto.

It helps that their cast of maybe-seen-um's, including The Brood's Art Hindle, whose presence further demonstrates the film's relatively coy approach to honoring its predecessors, commit so confidently to roles that could easily tip over into stereotype. The script may call for one too many standoffs of characters holding out their arms and babbling peace treaties before moving on to vague threats or intonations of coming disaster, but these structural redundancies are made up for by bouncing the characters off one another in unexpected ways and keeping the story moving fast. Then there's the gore. Those who know Gillespie and Kostanski by reputation may not be prepared for the adult tone they take this time around, but the quality - if not so much the quantity - of their grotesque creations are on par with their previous output in bonkers '80s parodies like fake trailer Lazer Ghosts 2: Return to Laser Cove or the feature-length Manborg. Then to find that the body horror is only the tip of the iceberg is just another thrill this co-writing and directing pair of pop culture trash compactors build into their film, suggesting that The Void is an entirely different animal, and which could serve as a breakout for the pair.

Predictable entertainment is the least of your worries with The Void. Spinning gold out of a meager stack of hay, Gillespie and Kostanski put a twist on their own material and refresh the palates of those who’ve grown bored of the latest crop of glowering, cheap-o straight-to-Netflix horror movies that lack the creativity and genuine love for the material that these two bring. Like a distant foghorn in the middle of the night, this film will give you a sudden chill and the promise of something bigger, and hopefully scarier, to come from these two.

The Void is screening in the UICA Movie Theater Apr 7 – Apr 20, 2017.

Donald Cried (2016)

By Mitch F. Anderson

The homecoming is hardly a new topic for independent cinema. From Garden State to Young Adult, films exploring the awkwardness, anxiety, and discomfort of a protagonist in the midst of an emotional event or internal crisis returning to their small hometown from the big city have become a staple of indie film to the point of cliché. Though Donald Cried may sound like another entry in this tradition on paper, first time writer/director Kris Avedisian deserves credit for finding new territory in this story type. It also helps that he’s crafted a great comedy/drama in the process.

The film follows Peter (played by Jesse Wakeman), a Wall Street banker, returning to his hometown of Warwick, Rhode Island to settle the affairs of his deceased Grandmother. The film begins in media res with Peter finding that he’s lost his wallet just as he arrives at his Grandmother’s house in a taxi. Finding himself with no options for money or transportation, Peter realizes that his only source of help is across the street in the form of Donald (Avedisian), Peter’s socially awkward and unfiltered former best friend from days of youth he clearly wishes to leave in the past. As Donald takes Peter on various errands around town, the impossible divide between the two men becomes clear: as Peter wishes to settle the matters of his Grandmother’s passing, potentially have a fling with local realtor Kristen (Louisa Krause), and leave Warwick as quickly as possible, Donald wishes to reignite his bond with Peter, show him how the town and their old friends have changed, and even return to their days of anarchy. It should be no surprise that these two sets of plans do not mesh together. What does surprise is the skill with which Avedisian balances the “cringe” humor and awkwardness inherently present in the two men’s relationship and the weight and reality of the film’s dramatic reveals.

It’s a testament to Avedisian’s immediate filmmaking talent that each character and scene has an instant sense of history to them; there are no clumsy monologues about Peter’s efforts to reinvent himself in the big city after leaving small town life behind, or about Donald’s loneliness and inability to connect with others. There is no emotionally manipulative score, with score in fact being abandoned entirely in favor of diegetic sound and music. This naturalism is reflected in the film’s handheld camerawork and cinematography, observing the mute, chilly color palate of mid-winter Rhode Island. Avedisian clearly knows every nook and cranny of Warwick, crafting in the process a working class town representative of much of America, filled with burnouts and people doing their best to get by, a town with its glory days behind it and cynicism for the days to come, and with more than a few pitch-black tunnels to compliment its over-lit gas stations. Though Avedisian chronicles the almost surreal removal from the “present” in towns like this, and avoids any political or personal demonization through his dedication to naturalism, it isn’t hard to guess which way Warwick swayed in last year’s Presidential Election.

It would be a grave mistake to read Avedisian’s multi-hyphenate efforts on the film behind and in front of the camera as selfishness. Though the writer/director/actor knows exactly how to embody Donald’s detestable and sympathetic sides with equal measure, the film’s beating, discomforting heart lies in his onscreen chemistry with Jesse Wakeman. As Peter and Donald, Wakeman and Avedisian respectively embody a true lived-in friendship doomed to be strained upon trying to relive the past. Over the course of the film’s almost real-time chronicling of Peter’s visit, their relationship runs nearly the entire emotional spectrum, from warm nostalgia to bitter anger to resigned sadness, growing more complex in step with the film’s dramatic reveals. The underlying toxic masculinity of their friendship is strongly reminiscent of the male pairing at the center of Joel Potrykus’ breakout indie Buzzard (a more than suitable hypothetical double bill with Donald Cried). Supporting roles are perfectly cast as well, with particularly great work by Louisa Krause, again proving herself as one of independent film’s best supporting actresses by bringing life to a brief role, and Ted Arcidi, once the real-life Strongest Man in the World, playing Donald’s boss in one of the film’s most discomforting scenes. Avedisian’s world-building wouldn’t amount to much without characters to populate it, and even in his first feature, he clearly knows how to breathe life into a world that is too lived-in and expansive for a simple “cringe comedy”.

Donald Cried is not only a shot in the arm for the seemingly bone-dry “homecoming” subgenre of independent film, it is a gripping, hilarious, meditative arrival of a new filmmaking talent. As he paints a pitch-perfect portrait of a surrealist small-town working class America, writer/director/ actor Kris Avedisian manages to observe both the posturing and discomfort in the relationship between two old friends, and the painful truths both must face over the course of the film’s plot. The end results play like Beavis & Butthead by way of the Dardenne Brothers. Here’s hoping that Avedisian has a long career ahead of him.

Donald Cried is screening at the UICA movie theater April 21st – May 4th.

 

 

Director's Spotlight: Virginia Anzengruber (OPN People's Choice Award Winner)

Virginia Anzengruber's short film 'Sick' was the Open Projector Night 17 People's Choice Winner. We sat down with Anzengruber to learn more about her film-focused work, and her future projects. 

Who is Virginia Anzengruber? Give us a short bio.

I am a filmmaker, podcaster, writer, and producer from Titusville, Florida. In 2012, I moved from Los Angeles to Grand Rapids to work as a producer for Gorilla Pictures. In December 2013 my husband (then boyfriend), filmmaker Stephen Pell, and I moved back to Los Angeles to pursue opportunities we had there. I’ve worked on crews for television shows for Fox, MTV, VH1, BBC America, TruTV, OWN, and TVOne. I’ve worked as a Dailies and DI Production Coordinator on feature films like Captain America: Civil War; The Hateful Eight; Suicide Squad; and A Beautiful Planet. I’ve done background acting on shows like Mad Men; Masters of Sex; Speechless; The Middle; and Parks and Recreation. Oh, and I was also Bo Burnham’s assistant for the better part of a year in 2012.

My podcast, Super Hungry: Conversations with Not-So Starving Artists has featured interviews with R&B legend Brian McKnight; Parks and Recreation star Jim O’Heir; Tom Wilson of Back to the Future trilogy fame; and multi-platinum recording artist Aaron Carter. Last December my husband and I moved back to the Grand Rapids area to open up Snowball Studios, our full service marketing company that focuses on film and video, animation, virtual and augmented reality and motion capture.

What is/are your favorite film(s) and why?

I, like all filmmakers, have a few favorite films.

Hook is one of the most perfect stories ever committed to screen, and I would defend this (and have) anywhere, to anyone. From the sets and costumes, to the brilliance of the cast (including the effervescent Maggie Smith), to the fact the Phil Collins, Carrie Fisher, and Glenn Close all make incredible cameos -- this film has got it all. I promise you, it’s worth an adult rewatch.

I’m a bit obsessed with certain technical feats of filmmaking. The film Russian Ark is a stunning pre-Birdman attempt at a one shot film -- only it’s not smoke and mirrors and editing tricks -- they actually shot a full 90 minute feature film in one take. Top it off with the costumes, sets, and acting for a superbly fantastic film.

In the vein of movies I can watch over and over again, I have to mention The Village by M. Night Shyamalan. However you feel about the twist, I think we can all agree that it’s a particularly beautiful story that utilizes the very best talents of the director and its Broadway-bred cast. Also, the score by James Newton Howard with Hilary Hahn on violin moved me so much that I walked down the aisle at my wedding to the song “What Are You Asking Me?” Film nerd to the core.

Favorite films of 2016: Moonlight and The Lobster. Favorite film of 2017 so far: Get Out

Who and what inspires Virginia Anzengruber?

I am continually inspired by people who work hard. I think there is something so pure about people who have a dream and work ridiculously hard to realize it. My friends inspire me because they are all like this. Listen to the music of Matt Rose. Check out Satta Technologies for the most brilliant meld of music and tech I’ve come across in my short 28 years. Read articles and pieces by Kayley Vandenberg. Watch films by people like Stephen Pell, Caleb Slain, and basically anyone that is making stuff in Grand Rapids right now. I’m so inspired by the creative undercurrent of this city. Moving back has unleashed a tidal wave of ideas and I can’t wait to collaborate with the brilliant minds in this area.

Tell us about your music video 'Sick'. What's the overall narrative?

The song “Sick” tells the story of Matt’s relationship with his older brothers, both of whom have Sickle Cell Anemia. The lyrics touch on sibling dynamics, hospital stays, and was written from the point of view of someone who had an adult perspective on a time in his life when he felt helpless as a child. The video shows Matt interacting with a younger version of himself (thus the matching outfits) in various iconic Los Angeles backdrops. As Matt wrote the song as an adult about a time in his younger life when he was temporarily without that older sibling influence due to illness, I wanted to visually personify an older Matt taking a younger version of himself under the wing of future perspective to show him that everything will eventually be alright.

What's your next project?

My next project as director is a narrative horror short that I’d love to shoot sometime this year. I’m co-directing a few new music videos coming out this Spring for Grand Rapids musicians KOHNS and Rusty Vining. And I’m thrilled to announce that we are taking the Super Hungry brand on the road and will be filming a food and travel show this year called Super Hungry: Conversations from the Kitchen. I’ve always wanted to be an Anthony Bourdain, but have realized that I’m more closely a Phil Rosenthal and I can’t wait to host a show that feels like your quirky aunt is introducing you to incredible places, dishes, and experiences that neither of us has had yet. Season one will focus completely on Michigan restaurants, so I’m currently in the funding phase for that.

Can you talk about your creative process? Overall, explain to me from the point an idea is born to the finish product. What falls in between?

Ooh boy, this question is a doozy. Because I tend to fall into a spectrum of mediums, I find each process a bit different. The directing and editing process was something that felt like an intense study of human nature more than anything else. It’s very meditative, because you have to think about the story again and again and again -- until the pieces start to feel like they are organically falling into place. When I’m creating a podcast episode, the process includes a lot more nerves. I research a lot before each interview, spend time editing the conversations to their most potent state, and normally record the monologue separately after in final interview edit is complete. Doing live podcast shows is a complete other beast, much like I anticipate hosting my own web series will be. Hosting is almost an amplified version of yourself, and if it all goes right, you’re able to not only connect with your guest, but to also act as the conduit for the audience as they are listening. I hope my experiences translate to something real and tangible for my listeners. And that takes a lot of listening skill in and of itself, believe it or not.

Tell me about your first film related experience, what hit you and made you want to pursue the world of film?

My very first memories of film are watching Star Wars and the Indiana Jones trilogies with my grandma Norma Jean. She had them taped on VHS from tv, so we’d have to fast forward through the commercials when they’d come up. I remember seeing Princess Leia and Marion Ravenwood and thinking “I’ve got to be like them.” At the time that mostly just equated to me being a smart ass in school, but I knew I wanted to be strong like them. I knew I didn’t want to have to wait on a man to give me permission to try something. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore at Florida State University that I really chose filmmaking as the outlet. I applied to the film school and… did not get in. I was crushed. I was convinced that my only path to filmmaking would be the same path that greats like Barry Jenkins would eventually take, and when I got my rejection letter, I spent a whole day crying about it. The next day, I picked myself up; dusted myself off; took my acceptance letter to the College of Communications, and decided that a major in Media Communication Studies was the first step to my journey to filmmaking. I haven’t looked back since.

Can you provide advice to aspiring filmmakers?

Do not let “film school” stop you
— Virginia Anzengruber

Do not let “film school” stop you. A secret that a lot of people won’t tell you is that when you get wherever you are going to work in the professional film industry (Austin, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Vancouver), you’re going to likely start at the bottom. You’ll be someone’s assistant. Learn as much as you can. Work as hard as you can. Work on free shoots because they have interesting scripts. Try things. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t come out like you imagined they would. There’s always the next project to try to get right.

Want more of Virginia Anzengruber? You can find more of her work at http://www.virginiaanzengruber.com/

 

 

Gimme Danger (2016)

Gimme Danger
Nick Hartman, UICA Film Coordinator

From the first time I heard The Stooges’ self-titled album, to the first viewing of Jim Jarmusch’s dry film, Coffee and Cigarette’s, I knew that Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch would have an indelible impact on my life.

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Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch are both staples in the entertainment industry and are known for pushing boundaries. Iggy’s on-stage antics like carving an “X” into his chest before performances, encouraging the audience to tear down fences at concerts, and using vacuum cleaners as instruments has made him a legend. Jarmusch, has taken a quieter approach to “boundary pushing” by rejecting commercial storytelling by focusing on social misfits while highlighting moments that other filmmakers might take for granted

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Gimme Danger is crafted carefully and is well thought out. We get to experience life with Iggy Pop and The Stooges as if we’re part of the band. The film does not rely on archival footage and the audience is encouraged to use their imagination to better understand the context of The Stooges’ world. 

 

Film Synopsis:

Emerging from Ann Arbor Michigan amidst a counter cultural revolution, The Stooges’ powerful and aggressive style of rock-n-roll blew a crater in the musical landscape of the late 1960s. Assaulting audiences with a blend of rock, blues, R&B, and free jazz, the band planted the seeds for what would be called punk and alternative rock in the decades that followed. Jim Jarmusch’s new film Gimme Danger chronicles the story of The Stooges, one of the greatest rock-n-roll bands of all time. Gimme Danger presents the context of the Stooges emergence musically, culturally, politically, historically, and relates their adventures and misadventures while charting their inspirations and the reasons behind their initial commercial challenges, as well as their long-lasting legacy.

Directed By: Jim Jarmusch  
Genre: Documentary | Art-House
Run Time: 108 Minutes
MPAA Rating: NR
Origin:  USA

Gimme Danger is screening in the UICA Movie Theater Nov 4, 2016 – Nov 17, 2016

A Man Called Ove (2016)

A Man Called Ove
Holly Garrison

annes Holm’s adaption of the internationally best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman has beckoned new life into the grumpy elder archetype in A Man Called Ove. This comedic drama follows the solitary life of Ove, a short-tempered, surly man who is stuck in the past and doesn’t look positively on the future.

We are introduced to Ove (Rolf Lassgård) bickering with a store cashier over the validity of a coupon for flowers. He immediately becomes outraged by not receiving the discount he expected and his sour nature is clear; Ove is not a man that will put up with nonsense. Ove is not just a bitter old man, but someone that has lost all lust for life after the passing of his wife. Ove’s days are limited and the film explores his torment: to make the most of what is left in life or to commit suicide and join Sonja, his wife, in death. 

The newly-widowed and unemployed Ove fills his day with tedious and comical rituals that surround his self-granted position of neighborhood monitor. His daily routine involves checking the stability of fences, chasing away feral cats, and ensuring that the car-free status of the community is upheld (usually accomplished by yelling at unwelcome drivers). Though it satisfies Ove to maintain order, he rarely does so with a smile. Ove returns to a tidy but quiet home haunted by past memories of Sonja. Her clothes still hang in the closet and her portrait sits on a shelf watching over him.

When not performing his neighborhood rounds, Ove visits the grave of his wife, venting aloud about the idiots he was forced to endure that day as he tidies her headstone. It is here that we see why the flower coupon was so important to him as he switches out the previous day’s shriveled bouquet for a fresh one. With each visit, Ove promises Sonja that he will be reunited with her soon.

Ove’s usual routine is upheaved when he is burdened with new neighbors, a chipper young couple with two young girls and another on the way. Ove resents their gregarious nature and initially shuns their kind gestures. The wife, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), is a bold individual with whom Ove develops an unusual opposites-attract friendship. Parvaneh coaxes him out of the fortress he has built around himself and into a world where he can learn to find happiness in the company of others again.

Rolf Lassgård’s depiction of Ove is complex and convincing; the depth he brings to the character shows how intricate the emotions of the familiar angry old man can be once his past is understood. The additional characters that complement Ove are an impressive bunch. Each individual is uniquely and skillfully portrayed to create an immersive world with authentic inhabitants. Visually, the film has a compelling use of color that provides commentary on Ove’s mental state; his world seems a little brighter in his flashbacks when Sonja was still at his side. The cinematography is simple and pleasing, working as an appropriate counterpart for the narrative to be expressed as effectively as possible.

A Man Called Ove masterfully juxtaposes the bleak moments of Ove’s isolation with the tender memories he clings to of his marriage; the film beautifully encapsulates the tragedy of loss and the empowerment of companionship. Despite the emotional nature of the narrative, its successfully delivers as an immensely funny comedy. In short, A Man Called Ove is the perfect balance of hilarious, heartwarming, and cathartically melancholy. I suggest you bring a tissue or two.

A Man Called Ove is screening in the UICA Movie Theater November 11 - 22, 2016. 

Phantasm (1979): Remastered

Phantasm
Nick Hartman, UICA Film Coordinator

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Everyone knows of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees but not many about the "Tall Man" who happens to have come before both. Phantasm isn’t just a blockbuster-blood-bath featuring terrorized teens, it’s a horrific, surrealist fantasy that takes you on a journey of reality vs. imagination with it’s use of non-linear editing, a spine tingling soundtrack, and mind-bending imagery. 

Released in 1979, Phantasm was ultimately a flop at the box office, but as soon as it hit home video, it became an immediate cult classic and has a large number of dedicated fans. Hollywood director JJ Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) happens to be one of those fanatics and now, 37 years later, he’s collaborated with Phantasm’s director Don Coscarelli to give fans (and a new generation of horror enthusiasts) the chance to see it on the big screen with a new 4K restoration and 5.1 soundtrack.

If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead…

Phantasm Synopsis:
When Mike witnesses some sinister creatures stealing corpses from the local cemetery, he and his older brother Jody explore the mausoleum, where they find that the mortician (Angus Scrimm), a towering, emaciated figure with superhuman strength, has somehow bridged the gap between Earth and the afterworld and needs fresh corpses. Mike and Jody's allies die off one by one, until only they are left to defend humankind against the nefarious "Tall Man" and his army of cloaked creatures.

Phantasm is playing in the UICA Movie Theater for ONE NIGHT ONLY on October 26, 2016.

The Alchemist Cookbook (2016)

The Alchemist Cookbook  
by Josh Spanninga

Joel Potrykus’s third feature length film The Alchemist Cookbook finds the Grand Rapids-based director solidifying his reputation as micro-budget auteur, while delving into some of the darkest subject matter of his career. The movie follows Sean (Ty Hickson) as he stays holed up in his trailer in the backwoods of Allegan, Michigan. Isolated, he obsessively pursues his studies of alchemy to turn lead to gold and amass his own fortune. As his medication runs out desperation and paranoia kick in, causing Sean to turn to black magic to reach his goals. But instead of discovering the wealth he desires Sean stumbles across an ancient evil far more sinister than he bargained for.

If this sounds anything like a standard, conventional horror film, I can assure you it most certainly is not. The Alchemist Cookbook is a strange sort of hybrid. The first half of the film can more accurately be described as a paranoid drama with a generous dose of dark humor; the second half remains firmly planted in the horror genre, albeit Potrykus’s own offbeat version of it.

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The film opens with Sean standing in front of his ramshackle trailer in the woods, working on his generator. As he pulls the cord and the generator roars to life a hip hop track from Detroit rapper Esham kicks in and sets the movie into motion. We’re quickly introduced to Sean’s life’s work as he slices at batteries and cooks vials of colorful liquids in his makeshift stovetop-lab. It’s obvious from the get-go he is deeply embroiled in his alchemic endeavors, but how he got here, well, that’s hard to tell.

The audience does get small insights into Sean’s history. Early on we see a picture of what can be presumed is his family; later we see a stack of letters requesting court appearances, and pill bottles filled with unspecified medication. While these clues are laid out in plain sight it’s up to the audience to piece these bits of information together and come up with their own version of Sean’s murky backstory. It’s a brilliant method of storytelling that invites the audience to interact with the film and inspect each and every detail in an effort to make sense of what’s going on. It also ensures that the viewer will find new things to mull over with each subsequent viewing.

Potrykus further eschews conventional storytelling for a good portion of the movie by having the camera follow Sean around in menial, and seemingly random day-to-day activities. While the movie certainly plays out in linear fashion, these scenes feel like less a way to progress the plot, and more of a way to give intimate glimpses into Sean’s character and broken psyche. Left alone in the woods Sean dances on fallen trees, splashes carelessly through puddles, and stops to gaze at the sunset over a small lake. In contrast, when his cousin Cortez (portrayed hilariously by Amari Cheatom) shows up with supplies, Sean is markedly withdrawn, reserved, and jumps at the chance to chastise Cortez for any discrepancies between his grocery list and the supplies Cortez brought to the woods. It is through his actions we can surmise Sean has become accustomed to isolation, and prefers to interact with the outside world as little as possible. He prefers to live in a pleasantly anarchic world untainted by societal pressures and rules.

Cortez, on the other hand, is a loud-mouthed, wanna-be gangsta whose interests include monogrammed jackets, bling, and the Schwarzenegger/Belushibuddy-cop classic Red Heat. In many ways Cortez attempts to be Sean’s lifeline to civilized society; not only does he bring Sean food and supplies, he also brings mixtapes, movies, and plenty of conversation. He also brings comedic relief to the film in his off-the-cuff remarks and antics (including an unforgettable scene that involves cat food, dares, and macho pride). Of course, as the film progresses into darker territory, so do the characters of both Sean and Cortez. 

When the time does come to scare the audience Potrykus isn’t lazy about it. He doesn’t resort to jump scares, CGI creatures, or other such crutches horror movies rely upon so much as of late. Instead, Potrykus prefers to employ psychological scare tactics of films such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Blair Witch Project, or House of the Devil, all films that arguably leave the scariest moments up to the audience’s imagination. Off-screen sound is utilized in ways that will send shivers down your spine. A shadowy figure may sway behind a tree, but it’s just enough out of sight so we can’t make out many features. Potrykus effectively hints at the terror that’s present, and again allows the audience to fill in the rest of the spooky details themselves.

While I have enjoyed many aspects of Potrykus’s past projects, I found The Alchemist Cookbook to be his most cohesive, enjoyable film yet. It is undeniably a Potrykus production brimming with familiar themes of paranoia, delusions, and isolation, all served with a generous dose of junk food and biting dark humor. From the eclectic soundtrack (blasted almost exclusively from Sean’s boombox) to the tight script and brilliant cinematography, every aspect of the film converges to bring to fruition a wholly unique vision and mood. In short, The Alchemist Cookbook is a film that takes conventional horror ideas and turns them on their head. It may not appeal to everyone, but those of us who are willing to let Potrykus guide us through his twisted dark fantasies are on a surefire path to find cinematic gold.  

The Alchemist Cookbook is screening in the UICA Movie Theater Oct 14, 2016 – Oct 27, 2016.

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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