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

The Lobster (2016)

By: Ryan J Gimarc

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

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

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

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

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

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Men & Chicken (2016)

Men & Chicken
by Ryan Gimarc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Innocents (2016)

The Innocents
by Mitch F. Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

The Alchemist Cookbook (2016)

The Alchemist Cookbook  
by Josh Spanninga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Phantasm (1979): Remastered

Phantasm
Nick Hartman, UICA Film Coordinator

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

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

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

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

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

A Man Called Ove (2016)

A Man Called Ove
Holly Garrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimme Danger (2016)

Gimme Danger
Nick Hartman, UICA Film Coordinator

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

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

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

Film Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Virginia Anzengruber? Give us a short bio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who and what inspires Virginia Anzengruber?

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

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

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

What's your next project?

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

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

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

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

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

Can you provide advice to aspiring filmmakers?

 

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

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

Donald Cried

By Mitch F. Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Void (2017)

By Patrick Feutz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buster's Mal Heart

By Patrick Feutz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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