The Wild Boys ((Les Garçons Sauvages)

By Patrick Feutz

Stepping out of Bertrand Mandico’s The Wild Boys is like lifting your eyes from the dusty old View-Master you found buried in a damp box deep in the basement to find that nearly two hours have passed, your dad’s fried Kenwood has been playing The Doors backwards, and dang, those nature slides are a lot weirder than you remember. That’s the sort of disorientation brought on by this turn of the century odyssey, which is pounded by waves of light and flighty vulgarity, like it’d been made in a vacuum far away from concerns about everyday decorum. But don’t go in expecting a gleeful, confrontational destruction of etiquette. Its tone is defined instead by a remarkably breathtaking blitheness.

Following a brief flash forward, we go back to the day when five teenage boys sexually assault their literature professor, an act that leads to her death and gets the boys dismissed from school. We might mistake the depiction of the attack for a stylized version of the truth. After all, the inaccuracy of each boy’s testimony is used to sum up the substance of their characters, ranging from the dark, prowling Jean-Louis (Vimala Pons) to the evasive, bleach blond Tanguy (Anael Snoek), while they’re assembled before stunning rear projection footage of roiling smoke. But we just don’t know the movie’s rules yet. Once we do, we take for granted the boys really wear paper-mache masks during the attack, the teacher really does lounge in a field of waving wheatgrass, the boys really do tie her to a horse that bolts in terror, and, last but not least, the boys really are enthralled to their own private Dionysus, personified by a bejeweled skull they call TREVOR. How’s that for a burlesque take on Skull and Bones? On top of that — and if it wasn’t already apparent — the boys are played by grown women, all of whom embody the laconic swagger of their characters’ disaffection so thoroughly its impossible to see unless you know to look for it.

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Soon after the attack the boys are entrusted to the care of The Captain (Sam Louwyck), a Dutch seafarer who press-gangs wayward youths on his ship in the name of reform. The Captain’s unconventional approach leads them to an island that’s essentially one giant erogenous zone, a Freudian fantasy world filled with “groping grass” and a musky odor best left to the script to describe. The boys take advantage of the irony and splurge on the erotic offerings, blissfully ignorant of the consequences. Here’s where the casting starts making sense, and where it’s best to wrap up the plot details.

If a movie’s aspirations can be mapped on a dartboard, the bullseye here is a mid-twenties silent feature, heavy on the decadence, excited by the newness of the medium. Mandico and company throw a perfect shot. Visually, every frame bursts from the seams, thanks to its inkblot black and white cinematography (interrupted by dream sequences lit in gorgeous pinks and blues), lush mise-en-scene, liberally interspersed silent era tricks, and fleet-footed pacing. Sonically, it mixes retro and modern, utilizing Pierre Desprats’s understated, tumbling surf electronic score, plus a winking selection from The Nutcracker, to enforce the rules of its dreamscape environment.

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In the end, the richly artificial sensuality of its sets and props are to be taken, and appreciated, at face value. Hunt for deeper meaning and you’ll find its a short dig to the gooey candy center. Its intense execution speaks to the simplicity behind Mandico’s vision. Humankind, stripped to its anatomical basics, is omnipresent, detectable in its inventions as much as it is in nature. Look for faces superimposed on dark hills and bodies hidden in dense foliage. Statuary are played by live models. The boys are collared to and figuratively become part of The Captain’s ship, while human hair is literally sown into its sails. Form and meaning are one and the same, and the short distance required to make that jump is sure to induce some degree of laughing disbelief. The dry presentation of characters gorging on suspiciously scrotal fruit goads a very specific reaction, most likely a chortle or guffaw if you’re onboard with it, a gasp if not.

Process if you can the idea of a ship’s captain whose lifetime of tattoos and scars are condensed to the space of flesh exposed when he relieves himself. It’s the most egregious example of sensuality in The Wild Boys, wherein everything animate and inanimate (Who are we kidding? Everything is animated here) marches crotch out to explore its surroundings.

The Wild Boys is screening in the UICA Movie Theater Oct 5 - Oct 18 2018.

Open Projector Night Spotlight- Eve Hinz (OPN People's Choice Award)

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Eve Hinz's short film My Own Worst Enemy is the most recent Open Projector Night Peoples' Choice Award Winner. We sat down with the filmmaker to learn more about her work, inspiration, and future projects

Who is Eve Hinz? Give us a short bio.

I grew up in East Lansing and attended Michigan State University. I now live in Los Angeles, where I edit scripted and unscripted comedy content.

What is your favorite film(s) and why?

The stylized editing and visuals in Edgar Wright's films have had a big influence on me, with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World being my favorite of his. Smashed (James Ponsoldt) is another one of my favorite films, because of its masterful acting performances. 

Who at what inspires Eve Hinz?

I'm inspired by my friends and family who have found and are committed to their passions, whatever they may be.

Tell us about My Own Worst Enemy. What's the overall narrative?

My Own Worst Enemy explores the seemingly life or death anxieties that can come from the littlest things and how frustrating it can be to overcome self-imposed rules and rituals. 

It seems like your a jack of all trades considering you wrote, directed and acted in this film. Can you talk about that a little? What inspired you to act in your own film and what made you want to tell this specific story?

Writing and directing go hand in hand for me, both equally important in taking this narrative out of my head and turning it into a film. I decided to act in it as well because, selfishly, I just think acting is really fun and it is something I like to explore in low-stake settings. It's also one less person to feed on set.  

What's your next project?

Not sure! I've been wanting to experiment with more improv-based storytelling approaches. The idea of working with a skeleton script and shooting something very loose and unstructured really excites me.

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

I first realized my interest in video production and visual storytelling when making videos in middle school for class projects with friends. I would use my family's camcorder and, not having the knowledge of film software, would edit them together using a VCR machine. It wasn't until I got to college and met someone studying film production that I realized filmmaking was a real craft I could pursue.

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Can you provide advice to aspiring filmmakers?

My biggest advice, which is also the hardest for me to follow, is to not let fears of needing it to be perfect or not being ready keep you from creating. It doesn't have to be perfect. And you don't have to feel ready.

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

I’m not sure exactly what it would be about, but it’s definitely a dream of mine to shoot a feature film in Michigan one day. 

Any words about Open Projector Night?

I'm so thankful my film played at Open Projector Night! It was the first audience viewing of My Own Worst Enemy, and a huge honor to have it screened at the UICA.  

Top 10 Protest Films - Selected by Nick Hartman, UICA's Film Coordinator

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Film has the ability to challenge viewers, to present new perspectives, and to powerfully comment on contemporary issues. Independent film often rebels against mainstream ideologies and encourages dialogue after audiences have left the cinema.

UICA’s Film Coordinator, Nick Hartman, reveals his top ten list of protest films, movies that rebel against the status quo.


1) The Network (1976)
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Genre: Drama
Rating: PG

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The Network is one of those movies I watched in film school that I just can’t forget. I don’t want to give too much away (and there’s a lot that can be taken away from this film) but it’s one of those works that comments on our collective desire to consume entertainment that is sensational and the impact that has on all of us.

Synopsis
In this lauded satire, veteran news anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) discovers that he's being put out to pasture, and he's none too happy about it. After threatening to shoot himself on live television, instead he launches into an angry televised rant, which turns out to be a huge ratings boost for the UBS network. This stunt allows ambitious producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) to develop even more outrageous programming, a concept that she takes to unsettling extremes.
 


2) Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Directed by: Sergei Eisenstein
Genre: Drama | History | Silent
Rating: Not Rated

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Notably known as one of the most important protest films ever made (and by the way, it’s a silent film). Battleship Potemkin presents the dramatization of a mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers. Battleship Potemkin is the definition of a protest film as the characters rise up against their commanding officers to resist a militant police state.

Synopsis
When they are fed rancid meat, the sailors on the Potemkin revolt against their harsh conditions. Led by Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov), the sailors kill the officers of the ship to gain their freedom. Vakulinchuk is also killed, and the people of Odessa honor him as a symbol of revolution. Tsarist Soldiers arrive and massacre the civilians to quell the uprising. A squadron of ships is sent to overthrow the Potemkin, but the ships side with the revolt and refuse to attack.


3) They Live (1988)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Genre: Sci-fi | Thriller
Rating: R

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They Live was released during the Reagan era and the film is clearly a remark on capitalism, Reaganomics, and consumerism. They Live criticizes the wealth imbalance and our collective need to be more thoughtful consumers.

Synopsis
Nada (Roddy Piper), a wanderer without meaning in his life, discovers a pair of sunglasses capable of showing the world the way it truly is. As he walks the streets of Los Angeles, Nada notices that both the media and the government are comprised of subliminal messages meant to keep the population subdued, and that most of the social elite are skull-faced aliens bent on world domination. With this shocking discovery, Nada fights to free humanity from the mind-controlling aliens.


4) The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)
Directed by: Stanley Nelson Jr.
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Not Rated

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We played this incredible film in the UICA Movie Theater a few years back. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is incredibly timely as it examines the lack of social progress since the civil rights era and highlights current issues related to the American police force and violence against persons of color.

Synopsis
In 1966 two African American men by the name of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale created a group known as The Black Panthers. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution examines the rise of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and its impact on civil rights and American culture.


5) Harlan County, USA (1976)
Directed by: Barbara Kopple
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG

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This documentary follows Harlan County coal miners and their wives while they strike for safer working conditions, decent wages, and fair labor practices. The film is impactful because rather than using narration to tell the story (which is typical in most documentary formats),  the director lets the words and actions of the miners carry the film. Instead of being told what’s happening, you become involved in the world of the miners and their struggle to fight against capitalist greed.

Synopsis
In this documentary about labor tension in the coal-mining industry, director Barbara Kopple films a strike in rural Kentucky. After the coal miners at the Brookside Mine join a union, the owners refuse the labor contract. Once the miners start to strike, the owners of the mine respond by hiring scabs to fill the jobs of the regular employees. The strike, which lasts more than a year, frequently becomes violent, with guns produced on both sides, and one miner is even killed in a conflict.


6)  Easy Rider (1969)
Directed by: Dennis Hopper
Genre: Drama | Adventure
Rating: R

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When Easy Rider was released in 1969, it started an entirely new movement in the filmmaking industry known as American New Wave. Before the film’s release, movies were almost entirely studio-produced which meant the studio (i.e Universal Pictures or 20th Century Fox to name a few contemporary examples) had complete control of a picture. American New Wave broke the mold and encouraged directors/filmmakers to make their own films on their own budget without a studio backing them (ie. independent film). This allowed filmmakers complete creative freedom (on a generally lower budget).

Easy Rider isn’t only a protest against the American studio system, but the film’s content is a comment on the ways in which humans often ostracise and otherise one another.

Synopsis
Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), two Harley-riding hippies, complete a drug deal in Southern California and decide to travel cross-country in search of spiritual truth. On their journey, they experience bigotry and hatred from the inhabitants of small-town America and also meet with other travelers seeking alternative lifestyles. After a terrifying drug experience in New Orleans, the two travelers wonder if they will ever find a way to live peacefully in America.


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7) Thelma and Louise (1991)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Genre: Drama | Adventure
Rating: R

Thelma and Louise is one of the first films that cast females (in starring roles) as runaway outlaws. The film has been praised by critics as one of the most impactful feminist films to date. Thelma and Louise is a commentary on chauvinism and toxic masculinity.

Synopsis
Meek housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) joins her friend Louise (Susan Sarandon), an independent waitress, on a short fishing trip. However, their trip becomes a flight from the law when Louise shoots and kills a man who tries to rape Thelma at a bar. Louise decides to flee to Mexico, and Thelma joins her. On the way, Thelma falls for sexy young thief J.D. (Brad Pitt) and the sympathetic Detective Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) tries to convince the two women to surrender before their fates are sealed.


8) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Genre: Comedy
Rating: Not Rated

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In arts and literature, the male gaze is the act of depicting women from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes turns the male gaze on its head by using the camera to show us what women (albeit only straight, able-bodied, “traditionally beautiful”, white women) want to see instead of what men want to see. Although this film is somewhat outdated, at the time, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a huge step cinematically because it spoke to female viewers first and attributed the main female characters a complexity that wasn’t present in other films.

Synopsis
Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) is a beautiful showgirl engaged to be married to the wealthy Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan), much to the disapproval of Gus' rich father, Esmond Sr., who thinks that Lorelei is just after his money. When Lorelei goes on a cruise accompanied only by her best friend, Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), Esmond Sr. hires Ernie Malone (Elliott Reid), a private detective, to follow her and report any questionable behavior that would disqualify her from the marriage.


9) The Crazies (1973)
Directed by: George E. Romero
Genre: Horror
Rating: R

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Anyone who is marginally into cinema hears the name George Romero and immediately thinks of his zombie films. Romero, however, has a portfolio of other works and has always hid political messages within his films. In The Crazies, Romero uses metaphor to highlight the ways in which the United States has been evolving into a militarized police state. This film came out during the Vietnam War and Romero, a pacifist, wanted to protest against violence and humanize “the enemy”.

Synopsis
A military plane crashes near a small town, infecting the water supply with a deadly virus that causes insanity then death. The army moves in to control the situation, only for the civilians to treat them as invaders and then infect them as well.


10)  Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
Directed by: Dalton Trumbo
Genre: Drama
Rating: R

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Johnny Got His Gun is clearly a protest film. The 1971 classic resists the the idea of war and highlights the horrors and suffering that follows these violent affairs. The film is an adaptation of the book (also by Trumbo) which was originally published in 1939 which was banned during World War II. Trumbo was blacklisted in the 1950s for the novel.

Synopsis
War has plunged Army soldier Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) into an unending nightmare. Hit by an artillery shell in World War I, Joe has suffered injuries that have all but erased his humanity: he's lost his sight, speech, hearing and sense of smell. But he still has the ability to think and remember, which, in the end, may be more a curse than a blessing. Trapped in his body, Joe realizes there's only one way out of his misery: death. Can he get a sympathetic nurse to help him?

Open Projector Night Spotlight- Carese Bartlett (OPN People's Choice Award)

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Carese Bartlett's short film Refill is the most recent Open Projector Night Peoples' Choice Award Winner. We sat down with the filmmaker to learn more about her work, inspiration, and future projects

Who is Carese Bartlett? Give us a short bio.

I am a producer, writer and director based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I moved around a lot when I was younger, but I have lived in Grand Rapids for a little over 10 years now. I always loved film, but did not think of it as a career until late in the game, so I did not get into filmmaking until I was almost 20 years old. I graduated from GVSU in 2015 with my degree in Film/ Video with an emphasis in Cinema Studies.

I really love stylistic filmmaking and focusing on stories that you don’t typically get to see. Most of the time, I produce and I’ve done everything from corporate to narrative and back again. I recently produced Mino Bimaadiziwin (2017), a Sundance Fellowship funded short film, and assistant directed Mud (2018), an official Sundance Short selection. I now work at S2S Studios, a production company completely focused on inclusion and diversity work for corporate and narrative projects.

What is your favorite film(s) and why?

A lot of my favorite films are on my favorites because I learned something new about filmmaking from each example. Overall, I wouldn’t say that I have a “favorite”, but I love these films because of what they taught me about filmmaking. Broadcast News for screenwriting and direction. The Apartment for character development and cinematography. Raise the Red Lantern for pacing, mood and how to use a wide shot for more than establishing a space. All About Eve for direction. Anything by Wong Kar-Wai, but especially In the Mood for Love. There are too many, but here are a few more favorites for good measure (Princess Mononoke, A Separation, Black Swan, Ladybird, Two Days One Night)

Who at what inspires Carese Bartlett?

I get most of my inspiration from the people that I’ve been fortunate to work with over the past few years. Grand Rapids is bubbling with a lot of untapped talent - a lot of extremely creative people. I love sharing ideas, script proposals, edits, etc. with people who just make films for fun, for the art and because they love it.  

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Tell us about Refill. What's the overall narrative?

Refill is about Nancy Miller, a 70 year-old retiree, who wakes up one day to find her anxiety medication empty. It doesn’t take long for Annie, Nancy’s anxiety in human form, to disrupt Nancy’s tranquil home. Annie’s restlessness forces Nancy to pull out all her coping tools in order to conquer the next twelve hours.

How did the project form and how did you get involved?

So, one of the nicest parts of my job is that every few months, we get to make a short film. This was the first official short film written by someone at my studio, S2S. We’ve done some collaborative projects with local filmmakers before Refill, but this was the first official S2S Studios short. As to how it formed, our owner essentially wanted to make a something narrative, and all of S2S’s projects focus on an underrepresented group or area of society. I really love seeing older women on screen, so it was a nice chance to write something from scratch for our studio, and have an older female character with a mental illness.  

What's your next project?

I’m currently in production for our next short film from S2S Studios. This time I’m Assistant Directing and Producing for Alyson Caillaud-Jones, a local director and S2S employee. It’s the story of a very talented French chef who moves to America and has to adjust to some unforeseen circumstances when she arrives. It’s set in the late-80s. Very fun, and it tackles a lot of great themes like outsiderness, perseverance and grit. It’s always fun to film in multiple languages.

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

For me, I always loved film. Almost obsessively, but I never thought of it as a career. I ended up attending a small private college as a Psychology major after high school. One day, I was in a Child Development class in the first week of the semester, and the professor was droning on about research, and statistics and clinical hours, and it just hit me that I hated Psychology. So I walked out of that class and down to the registrar and asked for anything open at the same time of day.

Apparently, someone had just walked in 5 minutes before and wanted out of Intro to Filmmaking. It was the only  open of class that worked with my schedule, so I signed up. I was about 2 class periods behind, and my first film professor was one of those guys that had to show you that he was the boss, even though your 19 and he has nothing to prove. So he was weird, and unhelpful about catching me up after missing the first class. I was sitting in class, and I had no idea what my professor was saying. I had missed the “intro to film jargon” lecture, but I did not care. 

As soon as we started talking about framing, color, lighting, low and high angles - I was done. I was completely hooked, and I did not care that he was not going to help me. I was going to teach myself. So to me, it was being able to see the mechanics of filmmaking in a class setting that shifted my perspective on film as a career.

From there, I keep to the same approach as that first class. There is a lot to learn from the people around you in the film industry, but they don’t know everything. So I continue to study and teach myself as much as possible. It’s worked out well so far.

Can you provide advice to aspiring filmmakers?

I would say watch a ton of films, from all over the world, and from filmmakers that have a different background from you. The more variety you can inject into your personal database, the better your work will be. Also, read scripts. There are hundreds of incredible feature film scripts available online. Read them, and train your brain to turn words to images and vice versa. And last one, learn to take criticism. Really take it, and sit in it. It’s very uncomfortable, but if you can hear people tear your work apart, and still hold to your choices and like them, you’ll learn to trust yourself.

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

I would love to do a gigantic, genre-bending musical, like a punk- sci-fi - musical. I’d love to make something that heavily incorporates theater and music. No idea about the story, but it would have a largely female cast, and it would be wild. 

Any words about Open Projector Night?

If you’re a filmmaker, submit your film. If you’re a film lover, attend OPN. If you just want a cool community event with art made in your area, you should probably stop by. Open Projector Night is such a special event. It always a great time, and every single time, I’m impressed with the talent that OPN showcases right here in Grand Rapids.  

American Animals

By Beau Bowers

American Animals (2018) utilizes the magic of editing and the power of suspense to craft a classic heist flick. It hooks you in and doesn’t let go. From start to finish, writer-director Bart Layton takes us on a daring ride through the craving of wealth and the damage of regret.

Four college students. Twelve million dollars worth of books. One plan.That’s all it took to hatch one of the most audacious heists in history. There are many ways to tell this story, and Layton seems to have found the perfect one. Carefully blending a documentary film with the flare of action and drama, he chose to encapture this affair in a unique style. The film’s highlight is the editing - there were some moments that light up with sheer wit and brilliance. It’s isn’t afraid to set itself aside from a majority of cinema. The fourth wall is broken numerous times, but it feels as though the film was never even aware of a fourth wall, and even if it was, it wouldn’t bother acknowledging it. There’s nothing holding it back from doing what it wants to do. The characters are rebellious - and so is the film itself. That’s what makes American Animals so special.

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Not only does the film dive into what builds up to the heist, it also shows life after. It explores how not only are the character’s lives affected, but how their soul has been completely pulled apart and reassembled into someone they’re not. The strong performances make it even easier to show regret begin to manifest and slowly gnaw their original selves out of existence.

By blending the elements of numerous genres, American Animals flawlessly tells a story in a way that many films wouldn't even bother to attempt. Gimmicks and all, American Animals is a fascinating piece of film and perfectly captures the history behind it.

American Animals is screening in the UICA Movie Theater June 22 - July 5 2018.

Open Projector Night Spotlight- Mark Baas (OPN People's Choice Award)

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Mark Baas's short film Some Angels Fight is the most recent Open Projector Night Peoples' Choice Award Winner. We sat down with the filmmaker to learn more about his work, inspiration, and future projects

Who is Mark Baas? Give us a short bio.

I like helping people see things from a different perspective.
I like good communication.
I like solving problems.
I like minimalist design.
I am intensely curious and slightly particular. 
History is fascinating to me.  
I make a mean poached egg.
Lake Michigan is my happy place. 
I drive fast. 
I love my kids.
And after 17 years still think my wife is the best woman around.
I  like finding the perfect picture.
Three of my favorite things are June, July and August.

What is your favorite film(s) and why?

Adaptation.  I could relate to the main character who wrestled with contentment.  I enjoyed a fresh twist on a traditional format.

Who at what inspires Mark Baas?

Work that is beautiful and compelling.   

Tell us about Some Angels Fight. What's the overall narrative?

Leslie's story is about death and resurrection. She escapes the darkness only to return to it in order to set others free and in doing so finds freedom for herself.

How did the project form and how did you get involved?

A friend connected us with Leslie and her story was so powerful we knew we needed to make a film about it.   

What's your next project?

We are currently fundraising for a feature length documentary about mental health.

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

I found my life being changed by films and I wanted to do the same thing for other people.

Can you provide advice to aspiring filmmakers?

As the world grows more disconnected, our job as filmmakers is to create new and meaningful connections. Find stories that matter. Tell them to the best of your ability. And create films that make this world a little more empathetic. 

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

We're pretty excited to make this documentary about mental health. I think this is a conversation we need to have in an effort to re-humanize and change the stigma about people who wrestle with mental health. Some of the most beautiful human beings I know wrestle with this the most. 

Any words about Open Projector Night?

We spend so much time in this world isolated with our devices. It's refreshing to come together in a physical space to enjoy and discuss something we all care about. 

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.

Affliction (1997)

by Victoria Mullen and Deb Havens

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

When we first meet Wade, he is in his patrol car driving his young daughter to a Halloween function at the town hall, despite her pleas to go trick-or-treating. It is clear that the relationship between father and daughter is distracted, distant, and disappointing. Narration by Wade’s brother, Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), gives a sense of foreboding. This story is not going to end well.

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The sheriff’s uniform is deceiving: it bestows upon Wade neither power nor authority. His imposing physical presence does not shield him from an enormous burden; the man is weary and profoundly sad. Adding to his misery is a nagging toothache that just won’t quit. He self-medicates with alcohol. Despite the affection of his female friend, Margie Fogg (Sissy Spacek), Wade is unable to connect with her—or anyone else—on an intimate level. The reason soon becomes apparent. Wade’s childhood, shown in flashbacks, was full of abuse and a struggle to protect his younger brother. As the one person in the film who offers some promise of warmth, Fogg’s last name is apt; she seemingly can’t see—or, more likely, chooses to ignore—Wade’s character flaws, which are many and major.

For a brief time, Wade sparks to life. A parallel plot involving a fatal hunting accident fires Wade into action, and as sheriff, he makes inquiries, rattles the town’s big shots, but the spark soon fades as frustration and family duty intrude. This storyline underscores Wade’s misdirected instincts for justice and a doomed sense of what will fix his past mistakes with his family and job.

At one point, Wade and Margie travel to check on Wade’s elderly parents in the country and discover that Wade’s mother has died; it is unclear how long she has been dead. The house is frigid; it hasn’t been heated in days, and Wade’s father, Glen (James Coburn), is bundled up in sweaters and scarves. As with the house, there is no warmth in this man. 

The narrating brother, Rolfe, arrives in town for the funeral—as does a shadow of a sister—and the pieces fall into place: Rolfe has distanced himself from the family, but his idle speculations about Wade’s murder investigation carry way too much weight with his protective big brother; sis has turned into a religious fanatic whose daddy issues have been transferred to the Lord; Earth daddy Glen is a monster whose sole mission in life, it seems, is to stay drunk and abuse his family. When Glen pours and then licks a bit of salt off his hand—a casual mannerism we see Wade perform early in the film—it is a blow to the gut; Margie realizes in an instant what a future with Wade would be like, and she leaves abruptly with Wade’s young daughter.

The actors are perfectly cast. The big surprise is Coburn—this is not your mama’s fun-loving In Like Flint Coburn. As Glen Whitehouse, Coburn turns in an intense—and Oscar-winning—performance as a huge, hard-ass, drunken father who has bullied and terrorized his family all their lives. Only at the end do things finally heat up—literally. But the warmth is conflagration, not restorative, and certainly not redemptive.  

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When Paul Schrader said he wanted to screen this film during his visit here for the Visiting Film Artist Series (event data), he said it hearkens a Midwest sensibility. We should all be prepared to shiver at the thought.

Affliction screens at UICA on September 3, 2015 as part of the Visiting Film Artist Series with writer/director Paul Schrader.

The Look of Silence (2014)

by Ryan J. Gimarc

It’s not an overstatement to say that where the U.S. had slavery and northern Europe had the Holocaust, Indonesia had the anti-communist purge of the mid-1960s. These events have a significant and obvious impact on current Indonesian society, and in Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest film about the mass killings, The Look of Silence, one word is omnipresent in conversations about the country’s dark history: wound. The aggressors of the mid-last century speak of “closing the wound”, an attempt to disconnect the public from the dark past of the now-ruling party and accept the powers sitting in every sphere of government. Victims of these actions more wearily approach the wounds they still carry around, whether it was an escape from torture or the loss of multiple family members; some would agree to “close the wound”, accepting the past in an attempt to quell current anger, while others see their wound as an itch, and one that cannot be adequately scratched without revisiting the past.

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Oppenheimer’s 2013 documentary The Act of Killing was filmed over a six year period, and overlapped greatly with the production of The Look of Silence, the follow-up which shares much by way of background and issue but tells a separate and parallel story of pain and lasting anger. Like the previous film, many involved in the production of The Look of Silence still fear a backlash from the ruling party which oversaw and carried out the events of the 1960s, and Oppenheimer again shares a director’s credit with an anonymous individual (if you watch the credits of either film, “Anonymous” appears somewhere under almost every job title). 

The Look of Silence is in some ways not terribly far removed from a “normal” documentary, with on-camera interviews and, unlike his previous feature, a newsreel from the 1960s to help the audience understand the scale of the murders. However, to say these techniques are safe or conservative couldn’t be further from the nature of the film, where the interviewer (an optometrist named Adi, the brother of a man murdered by the death squads during the communist genocide) plays as important of a role in the film as those he interviews. Adi is not just a stand-in for the filmmaker, and is established as an actual victim with a wife fearful for his safety and children still being indoctrinated by the ruling party in their classrooms. And while this characterization is important, it’s relatively restrained, and the movie is better for it. The power of the film comes from Adi opening doors to the past, which isn’t hard where they are; Oppenheimer makes a point of highlighting (verbally and on screen) that these killers live amongst the families of their victims.

The film isn’t so much a sequel to The Act of Killing, but the order of release for the films is perhaps important to fully digesting the two stories. While The Act of Killing spends nearly the entire runtime focusing on the killers and their attempts to recreate the executions in different movie styles, The Look of Silence is more contemplative and carefully paced. Gone is any feeling of meandering and jumpiness inspired by the first film, and instead Adi’s treks from one interview to the next seem to bring him closer to some ultimate truth, whether it’s a sort of generational revenge or a sense of closure he obviously doesn’t share with his mother and father. This emotional journey parallels a tangible geographic one, as the interviewees and Adi both circle Snake River, the site of hundreds (if not thousands) of murders. As both journeys reach the final resting place of countless human beings, The Look of Silence reaches a climax as tense and emotionally gripping as any you’ll see in a movie, documentary or otherwise.

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Importantly, The Look of Silence succeeds because it is not a documentary about the massacres which took place half a century ago; rather, Oppenheimer’s astounding work paints a portrait of the surviving victims themselves, and how they internalize their current surroundings. Like the footprint of racism which still impacts society today in the U.S., the historic atrocities in Indonesia are still the source of nervousness and agitation in the present day, leaving sects of society constantly in fear despite the decades since the violence. Oppenheimer expertly crafts a visual poem of frustration, fear, anguish, and hostility which won’t likely be matched at the theaters this year. The Act of Killing is not essential to comprehend the raw grief and devastation in this film, but The Look of Silence is essential cinema not to be missed.

The Look of Silence screens at UICA from Sept 4—24, 2015, get a complete list of showtimes at uica.org/the-look-of-silence.

Queen of Earth (2015)

by Josh Spanninga

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

The film begins in the midst of emotional turmoil - Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) is  being dumped by her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), and to add insult to injury, all of this is happening in the wake of her father’s recent suicide. From the very first frames it’s clear that a disquieting tension is here, and it’s here to stay. In many ways Queen of Earth brings to mind the slow-burning psychological horror films of Roman Polanski, such as Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Scenes of drama and suspense are portrayed not through violence, but through sharp dialogue and nuanced performances. The viewer’s interest is hooked by this initial tension, a tension that only builds throughout the movie and leads to startling revelations and mental breakdowns. 

The unsettling mood of the film is further accomplished by the use of a brooding, droning soundtrack. Synthesizers pulse in ambient and dreary waves, oftentimes to ratchet up senses of suspense and dread. 

Of course all of this unease is contrasted by the setting: a beautifully furnished summer home nestled on a serene lake in the forest. The cinematography throughout is shot in 16 mm and is stone-cold gorgeous. Furthermore a swirling, elegant pink font used to mark the days in which the scenes take place bring an air of sophistication to the hostile undertones of the film. 

The two main characters who inhabit this lush, beautiful scenery are the aforementioned Catherine and her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). Both women have a nasty superiority complex (Virginia even goes on a rant explaining that people who she deems “uninteresting” are not worth her time). Due to their inherent nature both characters have no problem speaking their minds and seem to almost enjoy spewing their thinly-veiled verbal venom at each other. This tension is perhaps best displayed in the scenes where Virginia poses as Catherine draws her portrait. As Catherine delicately sketches Virginia’s likeness on her easel they take turns taking indirect jabs at each other, pushing each other closer to the breaking point. While Catherine is capturing Virginia’s physical likeness on paper it’s as though she is also drawing out her narcissistic inner attributes as well. 

Katherine Waterston does an excellent job of portraying her character Virginia in a subdued, detached manner. Of course the real show-stealer here is Elizabeth Moss, whose portrayal of Catherine’s descent into madness is cold, full of nuance and thoroughly convincing. Whether she’s compulsively crunching on potato chips or tucking herself into bed only to spend hours staring at the ceiling, there is always something “off” about Catherine. In one scene in particular Moss’s eyes scan the room after a confrontation, and as she breaks the fourth wall for a few precious seconds the unease the viewer feels at her sudden stare is enough to send chills down your spine.

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While there are male characters in the film (such as Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s love interest who helps to further drive a wedge between Catherine and Virginia’s already deteriorating friendship) the film remains largely female-centric throughout. The men mostly tag along with the women, and are used largely as victims for insults to be hurled at and catalysts for disputes. It’s refreshing to see a film that so thoroughly seeks to focus on such thoroughly-developed female characters. 

Of course one would be remiss to leave out the obvious comparisons that can be drawn between Queen of Earth and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Both films focus on two female leads resting at a summer home on the water, and both deal with themes of power struggles, grief and psychological illness. Furthermore both films rely on meticulously scripted dialogue and intense performances from the lead actors to hold the viewer’s interest. With Queen of Earth Alex Ross Perry carries on Polanski and Bergman’s tradition of exploring the human psyche by marrying stories of dark psychological turmoil with gorgeous cinematography. While the similarities are undeniable, Perry adds his own unique flourishes of social wit to create a world all his own. Perry is able to tip his hat at to influences while staying true to his own vision, an admirable and necessary trait for many quality directors. If this film is any indication of what Perry has cooking for future projects then this is one writer/director you’ll want to keep an eye on. 

Queen of Earth screens at UICA from Sept 18—Oct 8, 2015, get a complete list of showtimes at uica.org/queen-of-earth.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (2015)

by Joshua Brunsting

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

One outlet that harnessed the energy of some of the most vital, and some would say warped, minds in all of 70s counterculture was none other than Harvard’s National Lampoon. Launched out of that Ivy League world, the team of Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard joined forces to push every politically correct button the establishment had, delving into the world of cartoonishly perverse satire to bring to their attention the wrongs that so many members of the general public saw every day.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of The National Lampoon, a history that has been exhaustively discussed in the superb new documentary from Douglas Tirola, entitled Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.

A shockingly extensive look at the brand, Tirola’s film is something of a wonder. Sticking very much to the standard retrospective style documentary, Tirola is saved by the same sense of anarchy that would become a calling card for this collective. A raucous mix of archival footage and new interviews, the craft here is relatively standard. That said, Tirola has a superb hand with mood and pace, and the film never seems to have any interest in catching its breath. Energetic, almost to a fault, Tirola has an equally assured hand with the narrative, never mincing words or settling for the glossier version of a story. It was a singular, in many ways angry moment in history, and the rise of this magazine out of that moment in time resulted in some truly legendary moments and careers, as well as some dark aspects as well.

But it’s the pedigree that caches a lot of Tirola’s attention, and rightly so. Launching the careers of comedians ranging from Gilda Radner to Bill Murray, The National Lampoon would be a brand worthy of the glossiest and most reverential of treatments. However, the filmmaker never shies away from the darker side of this period in time, particularly the rampant drug use. It’s in these moments of darkness that clarity is given to the proceedings, proving even these gods of comedy were purely mortal men and women. Whereas most documentaries of this ilk (take the recent onslaught of Saturday Night Live documentaries for example) hold the brilliance of those behind it in too high esteem to ever allow their humanity to truly show, Tirola’s film doesn’t avoid the greatness that would come from this collective, but also lets their flaws shine through. Rarely glorifying these acts, the film instead offers them up as blunt (pun not entirely intended) matters of fact, further extending the anarchic feel that fits the subject and time period.

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Overall, while the craft may not be as experimental as many of 2015’s truly great documentaries (this couldn’t be further from a film like The Act of Killing if it tried to be), this is the rare historical documentary that elevates the medium. It may never attempt to experiment with the form, but it does offer up to the viewer an energetic and unforgettable tale of one of the most important comedic collectives in modern history. The National Lampoon brand may be diluted in their never ending cycle of insipid “comedy” films, but few have influenced modern comedy as much as they.

BAD*SS Women in Film

by Nick Hartman

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

If it isn’t already obvious, strong female leads (especially in Hollywood) are rare and, unfortunately, many of the roles open to women are that of the girlfriend, the mother, or the wife, and the value of each character is often determined by the male lead. 

In a recent article, actress Emily Blunt was quoted saying, "I am always surrounded by men, which is fine, but it's also very telling that there just aren't enough stories written for females. But also just not enough characters.”

Needless to say, this is a major problem and one we need to address. To spread awareness and to celebrate leading ladies, I've tracked down three films that are fronted by strong, fearless, and powerful women to combat stereotypes often portrayed in film. Here’s a little more about the films we’re screening this November as part of our month-long celebration of BAD*SS Women in Film.

The Keeping Room is a female fronted western that's set towards the end of the Civil War. Three women find themselves trapped in their home and must defend themselves against two male Union Soldiers who are on a mission of pillage and violence. The women in this film take matters into their own hands and seek revenge on the males in the village who attempt to oppress them.

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The Assassin tells the story of a ten-year-old general's daughter who is abducted by a nun who trains her in martial arts and swordsmanship. As the young woman grows older, she is transformed into an exceptional assassin who is assigned to execute cruel and corrupt local governors. Not only does this film deliver a strong female lead, but also the cinematography and set design are absolutely stunning.

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Valesquez Story is a heart-wrenching documentary about a woman who overcomes her congenital disease and inspires others with her bravery and perseverance. The first two films may have blazing guns, swords, and battles, but in my opinion, Lizzie Valesquez is the ultimate BAD*SS. The film recounts her difficult journey being bullied and labeled as “The World’s Ugliest Woman” because of her rare condition and follows her as she masters her new role as a motivational speaker on a quest to spread awareness about the dangers of bullying.

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Kill Bill Vol. 1. We’re showing the Tarantino classic for one night only in the UICA Movie Theater. This film is one of my absolute favorites. Kill Bill tells the story of The Bride (Uma Thurman), a former assassin who wakes up from a coma four years after her jealous ex-lover attempts to murder her on her wedding day. Fueled by revenge, she vows to get even with every person who contributed to the loss of her unborn child and entire wedding party.

The women in these films (fictional or not) can be appreciated for their character, for their actions, and for their strength. The value of these women is not determined by male counterparts or by stereotypes prescribed by society. We want to honor these important roles and characters and the BAD*SS women who represent them.

I hope you’ll all join us for the month of November as we celebrate a month of movies dedicated to BAD*SS Women in Film. Please visit uica.org/movies for a list of dates and show times.

The Assassin (2015)

by Ryan J. Gimarc

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

Set in 9th century China, the film sees Yinniang, the eponymous killer, fail to carry out one of the tasks given to her by Jiaxin, a nun who has been both her guardian and master for years now. After this showing of mercy, Yinniang is punished by being ordered to use her skills on a target of a more personal sway: her cousin, whom she was at one point destined to wed. Much of The Assassin operates within this chasm, between the physical and the mind, ability and empathy. These traits, and their inability to coexist, are most openly offered as bookends to the film, in conversations between Yinniang and Jiaxin. Yet all of this fits into a much grander political context, one of shifting power and local control (these stakes are introduced with the film’s opening text). Occasionally these two stories interact and overlay, and the tone and craft of Hou’s epic shift into high gear when they do, almost exclusively through sharp fits of violence.

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Hou is a director that, over a career that’s spanned into four decades now, has honed in on a practical and unique style of shooting which involves slow, deliberate movements with fewer cuts than many of his modern counterparts. In The Assassin, the Taiwanese director puts on full display the power of the slow pan, turning the camera from side to side from an almost exclusively stationary angle, utilizing the technique both indoor and out. When used in the expansive outdoors, the camera pivots to follow the action, such as a group of riders on horseback exiting a canyon, embarking on a long journey. Indoors, pans are generally much slower, sometimes refusing to show Yinniang’s reaction to a story as the camera every so gently tilts in her direction. Oftentimes, this feels like an onlooker surveying a room, as does the assassin in many situations, hiding up in the rafters of the gorgeous wooden structures. 

Within each shot is a careful assortment of beauty, in objects and people, in buildings and scenery. Whether with elaborate costumes, willow trees, or drapes lush with elaborate designs and beautiful color, every frame is stuffed with an overwhelming sense of place. Both inside and out, everything about The Assassin reflects the times it depicts, where notices of political happenings come by messenger, and are delivered in great halls amongst much deliberation. Gentlemen with groomed facial hair and furrowed brows gather around tiny wooden desks, discussing their next great move, unaware that the province may not be in their hands at all, but rather in the abilities of one truly badass woman, who herself is deliberating on her next assignment. 

The Assassin is screening at UICA from Nov 13—Dec 3, get a complete list of showtimes at uica.org/the-assassin.

Entertainment

by Josh Spanninga

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

Gregg Turkington stars as a struggling, nameless comedian wandering through a barren landscape of deserts, obscure tourist traps, and third-rate gigs. Offstage the comedian character is a slinking husk of a man staring into the abyss, drink in hand. Throughout the entire film he ambles aimlessly through the desert, drifting across bleak terrain while trying to revive his career, connect with his estranged daughter, and hold onto his sanity. Simply put he’s a pitiful mess in the midst of an existential crisis. 

Of course onstage this nameless comedian takes on the persona of his alter ego, a hoarse, brash entertainer with a special affinity for tastelessness (not to mention the greasiest comb-over of all time). This onstage persona is an interpretation of Turkington’s own standup routine he performs under the guise of Neil Hamburger. Dressed in gauche velvet suits and cradling multiple drinks in his arms, Neil grumbles insults at the audience, tells off pace, raunchy jokes, and goes on tirades defending the honorable profession of the entertainer (at one point he proclaims “That’s what it’s all about folks, having fun and forgetting your problems. And you people have a lot of problems.”). In the film the character of Neil has more personality than the performer who portrays him, though it does tend to earn him the scorn of many audience members. His coarse brand of anti-humor fits the mood of the film perfectly, and his act is as surreal and discomfiting as the world he lives in. 

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John C. Reilly also makes an appearance in the film as Neil’s cousin John, a well-intentioned but utterly unhelpful comrade who, when drunk, evokes elements of Reilly’s Dr. Steve Brule character. Michael Cera even shows up in an appropriately awkward public restroom scene.  

For a film filled with so many memorable characters, Alverson manages to relentlessly evoke feelings of isolation and loneliness. Time after time Neil manages to alienate those around him, and even when surrounded by people he simply stares off into the distance. On his group outings to airplane graveyards and abandoned oil fields he always strays from the group. In such scenes the camera zooms out, displaying Neil’s silhouette against desolate landscapes. In what are consistently the most heartbreaking scenes Neil leaves depressing voicemails on his unresponsive daughter’s cell phone (“Hello sweetheart… do you believe in God?”)

At times Entertainment warrants comparisons to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. Both films feature quiet male leads who are past their prime wandering through sprawling arid landscapes, searching for estranged children. Both films feature scenes drenched in magentas, yellows, and other unnatural colors. Of course its far from this generation’s Paris, Texas; it’s more like the disgruntled, creepy uncle of Wim Wenders’ masterpiece. 

Still, despite its cynicism and gloom Alverson manages to inject fleeting moments of wonder throughout the film. The arid deserts may symbolize isolation and loneliness, but they are also breathtakingly beautiful. One scene in particular almost borders on magical realism as we watch Neil observe a large flock of men on dirt bikes bounding across hills in the distance. And the fact that Neil refuses to give up his dream despite being consistently upstaged by his young opening act (portrayed brilliantly by Tye Sheridan) proves how persistent (or insane) he is.

In Entertainment it seems Alverson has found his footing as a filmmaker and has finally created a film that can resonate with audiences rather than alienate them. His harsh humor that frustrated viewers in the past is toned down here, and more attention is given to the actual story. We are introduced to a main character we feel pity for, and it’s much easier to follow him along on his ambling, melancholy journeys. It may be not be the happiest of films, but it’s a pure, unique vision from a new filmmaker that we will undoubtedly hear more about in the future. 

Life (2015)

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

Personally, I back the positive reviews. 

The problem with all of the negative critiques is that they’re simply expecting too much. When you throw the name James Dean around, everyone is going to expect the best just because he was arguably one of the best. Now, I’m not saying this film doesn’t live up to Dean’s legacy, but it’s not exactly the biopic that I believe critics were hoping for and here’s why I think they’re struggling.
 

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It’s a simple plot; Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) is a photographer who is fed up with his job. It’s become dull and he’s tired of snapping mundane photos of spoiled Hollywood actors. Stock stumbles across Dean (Dane Dehan) at a party and Dean seems to immediately take a liking to Stock. After some small talk, Dean invites Stock to the preview of the new Elia Kazan film in which he stars in, the classic ‘East of Eden’. 

From this moment on, Stock believes he’s discovered something new. No more boring photos of actors on the red carpet or on set. Stock sees something intriguing and exciting in Dean: He has charm, he’s rebellious, and he’s shy. Most importantly, Dean is modest and isn’t in it for the fame, he’s in the business because he believes it’s an art form. Stock believes that James Dean is the voice of a generation, and he’ll do whatever he can to show the world the brilliance of Dean. 

From there, the story expands and leads us to the birth of one of the most iconic photographs in history. You know, the one that’s plastered over every college dorm room? Yeah, the one of Dean wrapped in a black pea coat, cigarette dangling out of his mouth as he struts down a cold and rainy New York Times Square.  

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Not only did I find the plot unique and alluring, I was also captivated by Dehan’s performance as Dean. This is an American icon, and there is certainly going to be a lot of pressure to pull off that role, but Dehan’s portrayal is the kind of performance that makes you feel close to the teen idol. Overall, his performance makes you truly sad to know that Dean is no longer with us. It’s a performance that is genuine, kind, and most importantly, it’s believable. 

Let me end with saying that I couldn’t be happier that the film didn’t dive into the death of Dean. We all know the story: it’s been told far too many times. We haven’t been told the story behind the birth of one of the most iconic photographs and that’s maybe why critics are struggling because they were expecting the same mundane story of another fallen icon.

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.

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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