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.

Gabriel struggles with mental illness and in his mind, in order to cope, he believes tracking down his childhood crush and marrying her will give him a chance to live a “normal life.” Throughout the film, Gabriel repeats, “I'm just gonna’ live like a normal person."

Throughout Gabriel’s search for Alice we’re also introduced to his mother and brother who are trying to keep him safe by making sure he’s taking his medication and by reminding him that any problem will only lead him back to the asylum for good. Gabriel continually stresses that he’ll behave and doesn’t want to go back but his desire to find Alice leads us to believe otherwise and we always find him on the run.

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Gabriel is one of my favorite films of the year and I really encourage people to see it. Gabriel is not only a well-constructed film that entertains the viewer from beginning to end, but Rory Culkin’s performance is undeniable. From the get go, Culkin completely dominates the screen with his uncomfortable charm and leaves you feeling a sense of sympathy and dread. One moment you feel for him and the next, you fear for everyone else around him. He does a fantastic job being dangerously innocent. Not only does Culkin deliver a fantastic performance, but the de-saturated colors and sound design of the film really bring Gabriel’s suffering to life. This is a must-see.

Catch Gabriel in the UICA Movie Theater from Jul 24 — Aug 6, 2015.  

Visit uica.org/gabriel for a list of show times.

Interested in participating in UICA's movie reviews? Contact Nick Hartman at nick@uica.org.

Taxi Driver (1976)

by Shirley Griffin, PR Director for the Thriller! Chiller! Film Festival

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.  

It’s the story of a Vietnam vet in 1970s New York City, who’s night shifting as a taxi driver in order to stave off insomnia.   Through Travis’s eyes we get a brutal tour of the underbelly of NYC in one of the seediest times in the city’s history and meet two women who fascinate him – the upper-crust angel Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) and the teen prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster).

Travis’s attempts to reach out to these women only lead to further alienation and his progressively disturbing acts inform us of his deeply troubled mentality. Put in the context of PTSD, we see a veteran trying and failing to return to a normal civilian life. Yet we can relate to him – not in actions, but in feelings – alone and stuck in a monotonous routine; rejected every time he reaches out; and disillusioned by the inability to find even one person who agrees with the things that matter to him most.

And this is what makes great art. Travis is an extreme example of fringe behavior and yet we can see him fully; feel what he feels; have empathy for his plight; and look to make better choices for ourselves when we experience loneliness in our own lives. The Cannes film festival jury agreed when they awarded this film its highest honor, the Palme d’Or, in 1976.

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Travis Bickle is a character that stands squarely amongst the great characters of American literature like Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield who are disaffected souls – smart, yet lonely and struggling with how to be a genuine person in a phony world. And in film history, “Taxi Driver” is the spiritual remake of John Ford’s western “The Searchers.”

Is “Taxi Driver” an exercise in existentialism – a disoriented man facing a confused world that he cannot accept?  Is Travis trying to cope in a world devoid of meaning, or rather is he the self-described man “who would not take it anymore” acting out the vengeance of an angry God, ala Old Testament fire and brimstone? Maybe both. You decide. 

Interestingly enough, by the time you get to the end, you may have more questions than answers and some terrific conversation starters. Again, this is a sign of great art. So buckle your seatbelt for the bumpy ride. If DeNiro’s performance doesn’t get to you, the notoriously bloody finale of this film, or Bernard Herrmann’s (“Psycho”) relentless score surely will.

See Taxi Driver with Shirley Griffin on August 2 as part of Brunch, Brews, and a Movie. Grab brunch at Grand Rapids Brewing Co. at 11:00am then head over to UICA for a screening at 1:00pm.

Additionally, catch Paul Schrader at UICA on September 3rd and 4th as part of the Visiting Film Artist Series.

Interested in participating in UICA's movie reviews? Contact Nick Hartman at nick@uica.org.

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. 

Made up of a series of loosely connected vignettes, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch eschews conventional narrative storytelling. Instead it opts to explore the human condition through brief glimpses into its characters’ banal and ill-fated lives, often with uncomfortably hilarious results. In one scene we are introduced to a cashier who ponders what to do with a perfectly good shrimp sandwich and beer after the owner of the meal inexplicably keels over at the checkout; another more surreal scene shows a displaced King Charles XII of Sweden on horseback as he stops by a modern diner to quench his thirst with mineral water. 

Throughout the film these distinct, disparate episodes are set up in similar fashion. First, an unmoving camera focuses on a meticulously crafted set, brimming with dull, muted colors. Then our attention is drawn to pasty-white faces as they share small talk, quarrel and philosophize. The beautifully nuanced dialogue holds the viewer’s attention throughout, and no matter how trivial or dire the circumstances may seem, equal attention is paid to all characters and stories. Each scene unfolds almost like a live stage production, and builds up to a punch line that could just as easily consist of a fart joke as it could a severe misfortune. Andersson presents all of this with a surreal, dreamlike quality that expertly blends the extraordinary with the mundane.

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While many characters in the film breezily come and go, there are two recurring characters that connect these vignettes together: Jonathan and Sam, a pair of traveling novelty item salesmen. They weave in and out of scenes throughout the film trying to sell fake vampire teeth and other bizarre accessories (including a creepy mask that’s referred to only as “Uncle One-Tooth”). Once Jonathan and Sam show up it’s easy for the viewer to tag along with them as they wander through this absurd world, trying to make sense of the human condition. 

In short, it’s a safe to say that A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence isn’t your average film, but that’s exactly what makes it so great. With his eye for quirky details and impeccable comedic timing Andersson has managed to create a world that turns its characters’ woes into poignant comedy, a world that invites viewers to laugh along at life’s cruelty and irony, because in the end maybe that’s all we can do. 

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is screening at UICA from July 31 — August 13, 2015. Get a full list of showtimes at uica.org/a-pigeon-sat-on-a-branch.

Interested in participating in UICA's movie reviews? Contact Nick Hartman at nick@uica.org.

Tom at the Farm (2013)

by Ryan Gimarc (@RGimarc)

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, Agathe (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 Agathe holds no suspicions about Guillaume’s sexual orientation, and that Agathe 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. 

In many ways, Tom at the Farm fits neatly next to all of director (and writer, and actor) Xavier Dolan’s previous feature films. Thematically, the central conflict is the complex link between a mother and her son; this is more obliquely the case here, whereas Mommy or I Killed My Mother lend themselves most directly to this material. Content aside, the film also looks so assuredly Dolan-esque, with the picture a barely-noticeable amount darker than natural light would assume, as though the film were stitched together from a decade’s worth of memories, and the contents of the film are unfolding in hazy, half-remembered retrospect.

But just as the young, prolific director was aiming for, Tom at the Farm is indeed different. While his previous five films can perhaps be genre-cized as “dramas”, this film is more squarely described as a “thriller”, tapping into noir-psychological plot threads and even some erotic undertones. Like fellow Canadian Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 Enemy, Dolan’s film delights in darkness and patience, not afraid to scare you with a leaping body, but also enough of a tease to make you wait for it. Some of the most gratifying and heightened moments of the film feature Tom surveying the farm, half-expecting to see a figure on the horizon (with the audience fully expecting a visitor to surprise us from just out of the frame). Gabriel Yared’s soundtrack, which was almost excluded in the final cut, contributes to a classical, almost throwback atmosphere, reminding us (as well as Tom) that the farm is far away from the urban sprawl of Montreal, his more familiar surroundings.

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Conflict comes to The Farm on many levels: Tom attempts to play along with Francis’ game while still keeping his leveled sanity, while Francis is attempting to orchestrate the future of his now-smaller family with exact precision. As a small number of other characters enter the mix, further conflict is introduced faster than context (Francis and his buddies kick someone out of Guillaume’s funeral, and later Tom tries to pick up on some accidental remarks from a doctor regarding Francis and the family). These are carefully written (and adapted from a play) by Dolan and author of the stage version Michel Marc Bouchard, and complement the soundtrack and the misty atmosphere of the outside shots (nature plays a pivotal role during the film’s climax) to keep the tension notched consistently. 

Tom at the Farm first screened nearly two years ago at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, and shortly thereafter in the director’s home country at the Toronto International Film Festival. This UICA release is simultaneous with the New York and Los Angeles premiere of the film. Although several of his previous films have crossed Canada’s southern border via VOD (see: arguably Dolan’s best film, Laurence Anyways, on Netflix streaming), it took Tom at the Farm almost two years to garner a stateside distribution despite it being perhaps his most accessible film to date. Two years later, it is worth the wait. 

Catch Tom at the Farm at UICA from Aug 14 – 27, 2015, get a complete list of showtimes at uica.org/tom-at-the-farm.

Interested in participating in UICA's movie reviews? Contact Nick Hartman at nick@uica.org.