Review: Sci-Fi Film 'Midnight Special' Is as Subtle as It Is Breathtaking


Midnight Special is now playing in select theaters.

Midnight Special is now playing in select theaters including Rave Cinemas Ann Arbor and Quality 16.

The highly unconventional sci-fi film Midnight Special opened in most theaters nationwide this past weekend, coinciding with the opening of another highly unconventional sci-fi film, the ultraviolent “first-person shooter” Hardcore Henry. The two films could hardly have been marketed more differently. Hardcore Henry has been widely promoted, preceded by opening-night “Ultimate Fan Events” (can a movie no one has seen yet even have ultimate fans?), while Midnight Special has hardly been marketed at all. The Henry marketing team seems out to convince the world that the next cult classic is upon us. This may well be true; I haven’t seen it yet. And although I expect to have a blast when I do, I doubt extremely that it will even begin to hold a candle to the singularly awe-inspiring experience writer-director Jeff Nichols has crafted in Midnight Special.

The film follows a father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who possesses bizarre powers. The boy can communicate with electronics in eerie ways and occasionally undergoes episodes during which his eyes glow and he communicates mysterious information to those who gaze back at him. However, due to his condition he can’t be outside during the daylight, leading Roy and his companion Lucas (Joel Edgerton) to transport Alton only by night. The already harrowing situation is compounded by the fact that our protagonists are on the run–from the FBI, the NSA, and a Mennonite-esque religious sect who consider Alton the imminent instrument of their salvation.

The less said about the film’s plot, beyond the above summary, the better – and to some degree, even that brief description almost gives too much away. That’s because one of the key drivers behind Nichols’ story is uncertainty. We’re thrown into the narrative and allowed to figure things out on our own. There is exposition, but it’s doled out slowly and naturally as the characters converse. We’re often forced to draw our own conclusions in the moment until a better answer comes along, both about smaller plot concerns as well as the overarching question of whether Alton is an alien, a religious savior, or just a freak.

However, thanks to Nichols’ excellent direction of a strong cast, the nature of the relationships between the characters is never in question. Shannon, best known for colorful performances in films like Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, and Nichols’ own Take Shelter, here underplays to extraordinary effect. Roy’s all-consuming love for Alton is right there in Shannon’s eyes from frame one, to the extent that Shannon probably could have made this movie work just fine without a word of dialogue. Lieberher gives an excellent performance, precocious by the nature of his character but never showy or unnatural. Edgerton and particularly Kirsten Dunst are also terrific in their supporting roles. Everyone in the film is cast in a resolutely unglamorous role, forced to prioritize emotion over ego, and they rise to the challenge to tell a powerful story.

“Unglamorous” is a good word to describe Nichols’ vision overall. He summons the steamy Texas and Louisiana backwaters the characters speed through with such accuracy one can almost feel the humidity in the air. His pacing and tone are perfectly pitched, masterfully juggling the tension of the chase with graceful scenes of familial tenderness among the protagonists. And – oh yes – this is a sci-fi movie, and there are some spine-tingling supernatural moments rendered with judicious use of CGI. But unlike Christopher Nolan, whose genre films effectively crank both family drama and visual spectacle to the max, Nichols dials back and lets the audience lean in a bit to embrace a sense of wonder instead of bombarding us with emotional and sensual stimulus.

The cumulative effect is extraordinary, building to a protracted, breathtakingly beautiful climax that brought tears to the eyes of even this usually stoic moviegoer. One wonders what Nichols might do with a budget bigger than Midnight Special’s modest $18 million, but hopefully the director’s marvelous restraint isn’t just a product of financial necessity. However, the film's relatively low profile compared to Hardcore Henry, its main genre competitor this weekend, is likely a more direct result of budgeting. And that’s a shame, because it seems likely that Midnight Special will remain a lot more compelling a decade or two from now than Henry’s admittedly audacious technological gimmick. Midnight Special’s greatest strength is its humility, its unassuming and unpretentious genius. Here’s hoping that doesn’t hold it back from well-deserved recognition as one of 2016’s very best films.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.


"Midnight Special" is now playing in select theaters including Rave Cinemas Ann Arbor and Quality 16. Check theater's websites for showtimes.

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Preview: Festival of Found Films from the Vault


The Festival of Found Films from the Vault will be a celebration of 16mm films purchased at the U-M sale

The Festival of Found Films is sure to be a reel treat for movie enthusiasts.

In the summer of 2015, the University of Michigan sold more than 7,000 instructional films owned by the Askwith Media Library to the public. The films had been used in campus classrooms from the 1940s to the 1970s and represented a variety of forgotten media formats – including 16mm and VHS. The collection was unique in its subject matter and scale, but having digitized the titles, U-M sold the films to gain shelf space.

Local film lovers, collectors, and treasure-hunters flocked to the sale, seizing the opportunity to own these rare films. Some shoppers lamented the loss of such a sizable collection; the films would now be spread among many owners and would not be preserved as a group. But no one could deny the price tag, as film prices started at just $1. So, film cans and VHS tapes were carried home by the armful and the collection was dismantled.

And that was it – until now.

A local Ann Arborite, Frank Uhle, has coordinated an amazing opportunity to see the films from this collection reunited on screen. The Festival of Found Films from the Vault will be a celebration of 16mm films purchased at the U-M sale. Uhle is calling out to all those who shopped the sale, and asking them to bring their best purchases to be screened together at Bona Sera Café in downtown Ypsilanti. Anyone interested in screening one of their treasures from the film sale at the event should contact Frank at franku@umich.edu.

Expect to see funny, strange, and surprising films, all projected on Uhle’s own 16mm projector – a special experience for all! You can bring films, or just your own curiosity, for an afternoon of small-screen entertainment.


Elizabeth Wodzinski is a Desk Clerk at AADL and 16mm is her favorite measurement.


The Festival of Found Films from the Vault will run from 2-5 pm on Sunday, April 17 at Bona Sera Café in downtown Ypsilanti at 200 W. Michigan Ave. The event is free and open to the public.

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Kickstarter Campaign for 'Commie High: The Film' Needs Some Extra Credit


Commie High: The Film is hoping for a little extra credit for their Kickstarter campaign.

Commie High: The Film is hoping for a little extra credit for their Kickstarter campaign.

Donald Harrison's latest project is, of his own design, a passion project which won’t happen without your support. Harrison is the Lead Producer, Director and Founder of 7 Cylinders Studio, which makes videos for a variety of businesses and organizations in the Ann Arbor area and beyond, from RoosRoast Coffee to the Huron Valley Watershed Council. Video production is a natural career path for the 43-year-old Southfield native, having previously served as Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival from 2008 – 2012.

His newest endeavor, Commie High: The Film, is a documentary that Harrison and his crew hope to make about Ann Arbor’s Community High School. The school started in 1972 as an experiment in public education and was one of the first public magnet schools in the country.

“It was part of a movement in the late 60s and early 70s,” said Harrison during a recent interview with me on 107.1 WKQL-FM. “The movement was to do education in a different way. Students were getting credit for going out in the community and doing things, actually interacting with different businesses and different people. If you were interested in blacksmithing, [you would] find a blacksmith and learn how to do that, how to work with metal. You were also able to design your own curriculum and you also called teachers by their first name - that continues to this day.”

Setting Community High apart from other alternative schools is the fact that it doesn’t skew toward a specific student population (‘gifted’ or ‘underachieving’), and it doesn’t favor a certain area of study above others. Community High, located on North Division near Kerrytown, has an impressive and diverse list of alumni which includes NPR reporter Neda Ulaby, author and Found Magazine publisher Davy Rothbart, party-rocker Andrew W.K., Evite co-founder Josh Silverman, and blues-rock guitarist Laith Al-Saadi, who’s currently tearing it up on NBC’s The Voice.

So what made Harrison want to make this film in the first place? “My initial interest in the film was when I met an alumnus who camped out for two weeks in 1996 to try to get into Community High,” he said. “That got me really interested in learning more. To me it’s such rich, local Ann Arbor history, but it’s (also) important nationally in terms of education and what can we learn from an alternative school that’s part of an already really great school system.”

Harrison is in the final stages of a Kickstarter campaign that hopes to raise $45,000 toward the making of Commie High, but time is running short as he hopes to find funding for the project. “It’s this roller coaster ride,” he said. “Over 200 people have already backed it, but we have some room to go before we make our goal. Either we make it and we go into production or we unfortunately have to go back to the drawing board.” As of noon on April 7, over $32,500 has been pledged, with the remaining $12,500 to be raised by next Wednesday, April 13 at 10 am.

“We’re optimistic and we think there are a lot of people with love for Community High or 'Commie High,' as so many people affectionately refer to it,” said Harrison. “Although at points it was used as a derogatory term, we’re really embracing it. We’re not teaching Communism, it’s just teaching people how to be better individuals.”


Martin Bandyke is the morning drive host on Ann Arbor’s 107one, WQKL-FM.



For more information about Commie High: The Film and to make a pledge go to the film's Kickstarter page.

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Preview: Everything's Coming Up Smithee!


The ludicrous mutant fish from Frankenfish.

"Outta my way guys, I'm going to the Smithee Awards!" -This ludicrous mutant catfish. Frankenfish (2004).

The movie with the ghost grandpa in the mirror, the bright green food, and the absence of trolls despite being named Troll 2. The movie that repeated a five-minute scene four times. The movie where the dad tells his son that fool-proof plans are hard to come by. This year’s 25th annual Smithee Awards on Saturday, April 16th will honor all these and more of their B-movie brethren.

Named for the fake director credited when the actual director does not want their own name on such a horrible piece of cinema, the Smithee Awards celebrates all that is wonderful about really, really terrible movies.

Every year for the past 25 years, the volunteers behind the Smithee Awards have gathered fans of bad movies together on the campus of the University of Michigan to watch clips from movies such as Zombie Honeymoon, Frankenfish, and Superargo vs. Diabolicus.

This year viewers will enjoy categories like “Worst Special Effect,” “Most Ludicrous Premise,” “Stupidest Looking Monster,” and the self-explanatory “Whaaaat?!?!” Each of the 19 categories has five movie clips, and audience members vote on the best of the worst, or the worst of the best, depending on how one views life.

To up the awesome factor, the organizers provide free “food and drink” (they insist on the quotation marks). While watching a clip of, say, Die-ner, you may enjoy those weird, spongy, orange circus peanuts, giant Pixie Sticks, or bacon fudge. Wash that sugar down with a variety of soft drinks that often include the latest offering from Jones Soda.

Smithee Supreme Committee member Kevin Hogan says, "We are older than Pokemon. We have been around longer than Magic: the Gathering, and made several million fewer dollars. It's been 25 years of Smithee Awards shows -- this is the silver anniversary -- and every year is just as exciting as the first."

Previous worst picture winners include: Enter…Zombie King (about a zombie king’s existential crisis, of course), Metallica (robots in a junkyard make a suicide pact), and Back from Hell (featuring a scene wherein a hand reaches out from the Bible, grabs a preacher’s crotch and then tries to strangle him).

Whether you are a B-movie horror aficionado or not, come out to 1800 Chem Building on April 16 at 7 pm to enjoy movies that can be described as “like the darker side of Hee-Haw.” Because everyone needs a little dark-side of Hee-Haw in their life.


Community contributor Patti Smith is a teacher, writer, and lover of all things Ann Arbor.


The Smithee Awards take place in Room 1800 of the Chemistry Building at 930 University Ave. on Saturday, April 16 at 7 pm until around midnight.

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Preview: CineManga Film Series - Akira


Akira plays Wednesday, April 6 at 7:00 PM at the State. Part of the CineManga Film Series.

Akira plays Wednesday, April 6 at 7:00 PM at the State. Part of the CineManga Film Series.

Akira (1988), directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, and based on his 6 volume manga series of the same name, was my first non-Studio Ghibli feature length anime. As a dedicated fan, I grew up watching Speed Racer and Rurouni Kenshin, and after seeing Princess Mononoke, became obsessed with watching every Studio Ghibli film I could. I had never branched out to other anime films, but after reading a few books on early anime and its cultural impact, I decided that Akira sounded like a good intro to everything non-Studio Ghibli. So I borrowed a copy from AADL (the 2 disc collector’s set), and sat down to watch it, not knowing quite what to expect. And then I watched it twice. And then I watched the excellent documentary about the creation of the film on the second disc. After that I caved in and bought my own copy, plus the soundtrack. Visually, technically, and artistically Akira just blew me away.

The film takes place in 2019. Old Tokyo was destroyed in a cataclysmic explosion during WWIII, and Neo-Tokyo was built in its place, and the world we are shown is harsh. The divide between the rich and the poor is very obvious. Political factions fight each other for control of the government, anti-government revolutionary groups protest and set off bombs, and biker gangs openly feud in the streets. The scope of the story is huge, which is not surprising when you consider that over 1,000 pages of manga had to be condensed to a film that runs about 2 hours. What grounds the plot are Kaneda and Tetsuo, two friends living in Neo-Tokyo, and their individual struggles with power. All of the plots of Akira ultimately boil down to whether or not power, either in the hands of the government, revolutionaries, or children with psychic abilities, is used responsibly, and the repercussions of that use.

Although the story and characters are nuanced and compelling, the art and technicality of the animation is the real star. Akira is simply visually stunning, but in a way that is jarring and disturbing. This film is unashamed to show a gritty, dirty, and unattractive world, right down to images of garbage in the streets and a plethora of garish neon advertisements. There are no beautiful sweeping vistas of nature or effort to show Neo-Tokyo as a tastefully designed metropolis. Instead we have scenes of extreme violence that go hand-in-hand with fantastic visuals. A fight between two rival biker gangs at the beginning of the film is as shocking for the blood and broken bones as it is for the color trails of the motorcycle’s tail lights as they speed through the city. A building is completely destroyed in a psychic attack while broken glass from the windows glitters and dances as it falls to the ground. Even the characters facial and mouth movements, which were animated to closely match the movements of the voice actors using a technique called pre-scored dialogue, lends a realism that is not seen in other animated films of this time.

I would also be remiss not to mention the excellent score composed by Shoji Yamashiro. With an innovative blending of traditional Japanese instruments, electronic sounds, and the human voice, the soundtrack creates an immediacy and vibrancy to the action. Akira did not skimp on production values, and it shows. This is not a film to be missed on the big screen, from the shocking explosion at the beginning to the grotesque and extremely bizarre ending. If you are a serious, or even casual, fan of animation, you need to go and see this film!

CineManga logo


Marisa Szpytman spends her days working at the Detroit Institute of Arts and she has been in the same room as a spoon once owned by Vincent Price.


The CineManga Film Series continues through April 27 on Wednesdays at 7 pm with the following screenings at the State Theater: Akira on April 6, Space Battleship Yamato on April 13, Paprika (Papurika) on April 20, and Tokyo Tribe on April 27. You can find more information on the Michigan Theater's CineManga page.

Don't forget to check out the Japanese style concessions (the elusive green tea Kit Kat!) and Vault of Midnight's pop-up store in the State Theater's lobby. Each show features a special pre-show primer by a certified manga expert to further convince you that these films are awesome!

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AAFF Wrap-Up: Dispatches From A First-Timer


If you look closely, you can see first-time attendee Nicole Williams in the back with her head inside a box of Milk Duds.

If you look closely, you can see first-time attendee Nicole Williams in the back with her head inside a box of Milk Duds.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival has been a staple of the Ann Arbor arts scene for over half a century. Every year films from around the world are submitted, judged, and shown to hundreds of movie-lovers, and every year I think to myself, “Eh. Maybe I’ll go some other year.”

This year my curiosity finally outweighed my love of staying home and I found myself preparing to attend the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival.

It’s important to note that I’m an avid movie-goer. I can sit through the goofiest horror movies, the most pointless action movies, and the sappiest romantic comedies, because I just love being at the movies. I like pulling up to the theater on a sunny day and people-watching as I’m waiting in line to buy my ticket. I like sitting in the dark, reading the screen trivia, and waiting for my movie to start. I like theater pretzels and, more importantly, the strange, delicious, scientific mystery that is theater cheese.

My unbelievably low movie standards don’t hurt either. I mean, I liked ALL of those Transformers movies.

But despite my wide-ranging love of cinema, I worried about attending something as serious and prestigious as the AAFF. I worried that it would be dull. I worried that it would full of be odd, deep, confusing films that would be far too avant-garde for my Michael Bay-loving palette. I think I secretly assumed that every movie would basically be like that short film Kirk made on Gilmore Girls. But weirder. And longer. And with fewer fun dance numbers.

But despite my apprehension I desperately wanted to know what this highly-acclaimed festival was all about and, Kirk or no Kirk, the familiar embrace of a movie theater—any movie theater—beckoned.

So I put on my fanciest pants and started at the beginning—the first AAFF event of the year: the Opening Night Reception and Screening.

My first impression of the festival as I walked into the Michigan Theater that night was that it had been silly to think this event wasn’t for me. There were people in their flashiest gowns, the kind you tuck the tag into so you can return it the next day, and there were people who looked like they’d just come from class or work or wandered in off the street, following the delicious scent of buttered popcorn.

This event, it was clear, was for absolutely everyone. This was my first thought as I entered the festival on Tuesday and my last as I left my final screening on Friday night. That feeling of welcome, of variety, of come-as-you-are-and-we-swear-you’ll-find-something-you-like stayed with me throughout the entire festival.

The opening night reception was filled with this open energy and with music that reflected the formal yet fun vibe by mixing classic tunes with, at one point, the jaunty, triumphant notes of the Indiana Jones theme song.

DJ Jeremy Wheeler.

DJ Jeremy Wheeler played the Indiana Jones theme song during the reception and could not have been less sorry about it. Photo by Doug Coombe.

That same energy flowed along with the crowd into the main auditorium as we all took our seats for the first screening of the season, a mix of short films designed to start the festival off with a little bit of everything. Maybe it was the celebratory feel that comes with any opening night or maybe it was the fact that the reception had had an open bar, but the staid, serious atmosphere I'd expected was completely absent. People talked and laughed right up until the show started.

When the first short film ended, the applause was thunderous. When the second film called for the audience to put on those classic, foldable 3D glasses with blue and red lenses, one man shouted “The red goes over the right eye!” and everyone laughed because this was completely wrong and it took half the room a few seconds to realize they’d put their glasses on upside-down. At one point, someone dropped a glass bottle and the entire room listened with barely-contained giggles as the bottle rolled slowly and loudly from the back of the theater’s sloped floor to the front.

The friendly ambiance of opening night left me pleasantly surprised and eager for more, and that eagerness kept me going all the way through Wednesday, which was, if I’m honest, my darkest day at the festival. The first screening I attended that day was News From Home by filmmaker Chantal Akerman and my first feature-length film of the festival. This was a calm, tranquil movie that consisted of lengthy shots of 1970s New York City, as it was when Akerman first moved there from Belgium, with letters from her mother read aloud over (and sometimes under) the bustling street noise.

I went through a few stages of emotion as I watched this film. First I was intrigued, drawn in by the newness of experimental film and fascinated by the idea that these steady, action-less shots could make up an entire movie. Then, I’ll admit, I was bored. I’m a product of the modern age, used to movies laden with special effects and preferably at least one car-chase scene—and I’m used to watching them while I play video games on my phone. So sitting still and watching stillness felt foreign and uncomfortable, sort of like a brand new pair of shoes that I hadn’t quite broken in yet. Then, after a little while, the film seemed to just wash right over me and the steady scenes, the fuzzy crackle of 16mm film, and the quiet tones of Akerman’s soft Belgian accent as she read her mother’s letters became comfortable, almost meditative. Suddenly I was noticing the people in the scenes more, watching their actions and admiring their quintessentially 70s outfits. The moment I stopped resenting the film for not being what I was used to, I could enjoy it for what it was.

Then came the rough patch. My next film screening, which immediately followed News From Home, was another medley of short films, just like the opening night—though this is where all similarities ended. The ten films were all experimental and the entire event was probably my worst-case scenario. I couldn’t grasp the concepts or meanings of any of the films. Some of them contained vaguely familiar imagery cut together in seemingly random order while some seemed like they were intended to be viewed by some alien audience. Some of the films seemed like they were furiously protesting being watched at all. One film was just icons and symbols that flashed bright then dark on the screen to an incredibly loud semi-rhythmic pulsing/pounding noise and by the end it had gotten so aggressive I’d had to plug my ears and close my eyes just to get through it. If ever I have wished for a pair of ruby slippers to click together or a really huge, comedy-sized mallet to clobber myself with, it was then. I left the screening almost afraid to continue on.

But I'd set out to get the full, unadulterated experience of AAFF, and after a night of rest and consideration, I decided that in a festival where there was something for everyone, I was bound to run into some things that weren’t for me.

The Michigan Theater.

Photo by Doug Coombe.

So, like a glutton for punishment, I returned on Thursday for more—and was incredibly glad that I did. The Carl Bogner Juror Presentation was another screening of short films, this time selected by Bogner himself, a lecturer on experimental film at the University of Wisconsin, and my reaction to this event was a complete turnaround from the day before. I left this screening with a satisfied feeling and a number of favorites, including Je Suis Une Bombe (I Am a Bomb), a video of a woman in a panda suit doing a provocative pole dance and then delivering a passionate speech on feminism and womanhood, and My Parents Read Dreams That I’ve Had About Them, which was literally just that—a deadpan elderly couple, presumably the filmmaker's parents, reading dreams about themselves from pieces of paper being handed to them from off screen. The subtle humor of this last film had the entire audience chuckling.

On Friday I returned for my final and longest day of the festival and was immediately faced with something I hadn’t yet experienced—a genuine film festival disaster. As I sat in my first event of the evening, Chantal Akerman’s D’Est, I noticed a few jumps and blips in the steady, slow-moving footage. This film, like her other work, was filled with scenery, people, and little else, this time taking place in East Germany, Poland, and Russia, and as I sat immersed in the quiet images and endless stream of Cossack hats the screen suddenly went dark. I’ll be honest, there had been a few times during the festival where I’d been unable to distinguish experimental films from technical difficulties, so when the screen blinked to life again I was half-convinced this was actually just some zany film technique. What did I know? Then, minutes later, the image on the screen abruptly burst and melted until all that was left was a blank white screen and then darkness. The unified gasp of the audience as the 16mm film burned under the projector was immense, as if the screening room itself had sucked in a breath.

In the past few days, I’d been part of a lot of communal experiences, and now I'd gotten to be a part of a communal tragedy. The sense of loss was a tangible thing in the room and when the screening was ended early (the film, we were told, had experienced some shrinkage and despite his best efforts, there was nothing the projectionist could do to make it usable) all I could do was turn to the person next to me and go, “Oh no, do you think the film’s okay?” like I was asking about a gravely injured friend. Who knew I could feel such deep concern for something that, days before, I’d been glaring at, wishing it had more quippy one-liners and explosions?

My final event, late that night, was also the absolute pinnacle of the festival for me. I'd spent the entire week looking forward to the Animated Films in Competition, or “animation night” as some of the super-hip festival-goers called it. It didn’t disappoint. Even the strangest films were elevated by beautiful animation and almost all featured equally charming stories. Bottom Feeders, by Matt Reynolds, was a terrifying parody of life, death, and reproduction. Love, by Réka Bucsi, was offbeat and whimsical, featuring hugging humanoid fruits and cute but headless horses. And I felt a special love for Nina Gantz's Edmond, about a sweet little man who feels so strongly that he finds himself devouring the things he loves most—especially the people. It was hands-down the most adorable film about cannibalism I’ve ever seen.

Edmond, eater of people.

Edmond, eater of people.

I began AAFF full of worries. Would I like the movies? Would I understand them? Was there anything at all for me at this festival besides, obviously, the many pounds of candy I would inevitably eat?

As it turned out, AAFF took the movie experience I enjoy so much and amplified it to the nth degree. Besides the films themselves, the festival experience was an entirely new beast for me and a remarkably friendly one. Visiting the festival was like being in a popcorn-filled incubator.

After a few days the Michigan Theater, the heart of the festival, began to exert its own gravitational pull and every time I stepped back into the warm lights of the lobby it felt, oddly, like coming home. Each room of the theater became familiar. The backs of peoples’ heads became familiar. “Oh! That’s the hair I saw during yesterday’s film screening,” I would find myself thinking, and then wonder if I was going crazy, and then decide I didn’t care. I became so acquainted with the festival staff and presenters that it was jarring to see them out in the regular world a week later and realize that they didn't know who I was. To them I was just one in a sea of faces, but to me, they were the people who made the announcements and the bad jokes and gave me directions and helped me understand what I was seeing for four days in a row. I grew accustomed to the familiar path from the parking garage to the theater, and from the theater to the neighboring coffee shop, and from the coffee shop to the theater’s screening room. I even sprinted these well-known paths a few (dozen) times when I was nearly (very) late to a screening (or ten).

By the end, AAFF almost had that temporary-home feeling of summer camp, where every face was one I knew and I got to eat as much junk food as I wanted while I wandered around, unfailingly welcome no matter where I was.

Even those films that made me want to pull my hair out and scream seemed to amplify my feelings of success when I found those little theatrical gems that made it all worth it. And besides, when had I ever felt such intense emotion about any movie? Even if it was the all-consuming desire to punch a film right in the face.

It’s tough to say in so few words how I felt about the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival. It was a strange, funny, boring, exhilarating, fascinating experience. It was a candy-filled, stomach-ache-producing, movie-lover’s-dream experience. It was a fun experience. It was a unique experience.

It was an experience.


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and she never thought she'd used the words "adorable" and "cannibalism" in the same sentence. It's been a weird week.

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Goodbye Dollar Theaters, Hello Value Screenings!


Great movies can still be seen on the big screen for little money in Ann Arbor.

Great movies can still be seen on the big screen for little money in Ann Arbor.

The dollar theaters are gone, but their value lives on in two of the last places frugal moviegoers might expect.

That’s right, over a decade after the Fox Village Theater was replaced by Plum Market, and nearly six years after MC Sports punted Briarwood Dollar Movies from the hallowed halls of our local mall, deal-seeking cinephiles can still save thanks to special programs at the Quality 16 on the west side of town, and Cinemark's Rave Motion Pictures to the east.

And while it’s true these programs may not adhere strictly to the “second-run” model that once provided moviegoers on a budget with affordable entertainment alternatives, programs focusing on beloved classics and recent children’s fare ensure that audiences of all ages and tastes will find something to butter their proverbial popcorn.

As any frequent moviegoer can attest, the film release landscape has seen some seismic shifts in recent years. Even as recently as 2010 – the year that Briarwood screens went dark – affordable home theater systems and changing distribution models were making it difficult for discount theater chains to survive, much less thrive. Flash forward just a few years, and convenient alternatives such as Netflix (whose high-profile sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny recently debuted on the popular streaming service) and On Demand options have started to make leaving the house for a night at the movies more of a pricey chore than an escape from reality.

Fortunately, some savvy theater chains have started to pick up the slack for those shuttered screens. Opened in 1998, the Goodrich Theater Quality 16 primarily focuses on first-run films. A closer look at the chain’s history, however, reveals they are currently celebrating the 25th anniversary of their family-friendly movie series. Dubbed “Morning Movies,” the current program promises nine weeks of PG-rated fare for just $1 a ticket. The shows, which began on March 4 with Home (2015), run every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 10 am.

Even better, patrons who sign up for the theater’s free Frequent Moviegoers Club will not only get into each screening absolutely free, but also be allowed up to 6 free admissions to each show by presenting their FMG card at the box office.

Speaking to Quality 16 Assistant Manager Mark Culp, it quickly becomes apparent just how popular these series are. According to Culp, “Ticket sales can be a little slow toward the beginning of the season, but once the word starts to spread, we usually have to open a second auditorium to accommodate the larger crowds.”

Of course it doesn’t hurt to have some symbiotic advertising as well. “A lot of the time we’ll have special guests come in for appearances at the screenings, too. We’ve had karate group demonstrations, and even a petting zoo with a real kangaroo.” These special guests frequently appear in the theater’s spacious lobby, and tie in to the theme of that week’s movie. The series ends on the weekend of April 29th with the beloved adventure comedy The Princess Bride.

Meanwhile, across town, the Cinemark is in the midst of their popular Classic Series, a six-week program catering not just to parents, but also to those nostalgic souls who long to experience their old favorites somewhere other than the living room. Each week a new film debuts on Sunday, with an encore screening the following Wednesday.

The series launched in 2013 after a group of Arizona senior citizens asked their local theater about the possibility of resurrecting some of their favorite classics. From there, the series quickly expanded nationwide with screenings of The Godfather I and II, and now plays at approximately 140 theaters.

The timing couldn't have been more perfect. The introduction of digital projection brought with it a new distribution system that made these films easily available to theaters across the country. Gone are the days of the beat-up 35mm print sputtering its way through wobbling projector spindles; these copies have been cleaned up so well that they likely look even better than you remember them.

Cinemark Marketing Manager Frank Gonzales takes particular pride in that, too. "I would venture to guess that for a lot of these folks, the presentation is much cleaner than they remember it, because there are no cuts, no scratches like you would find on the prints. The sound is probably better than they remember because we've got digital sound systems in all of our auditoriums with speakers and specs that are built for that auditorium," says Gonzales.

As for the wide-reaching appeal of the series, Gonzales continues, "The Classic Series have really become a generational thing, with parents going back to see the movies they saw as kids and bringing their own kids with them. Or folks who remember seeing a movie when they were younger and want to see it again. Maybe it was the first movie they ever saw in a theater, and now the only place they see it is on a television set, or possibly a phone, or on a tablet. So this is the opportunity for them to get the real experience."

According to Gonzales, the films for the series are selected in a number of ways. "We have a Film Department here. We've got a couple of people in the department that have their wish lists of things they'd like to see. We also get feedback from customers. They're always offering their suggestions for films to place in the Classics Series. Then sometimes the studios will come to us. They'll say they're going to put out an anniversary edition of a movie. For instance, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. We just recently had that last week."

Naturally, as more theaters embrace the digital projection model, every year brings new titles that weren't previously available for screening. So if your favorite film isn't in this series, let your voice be heard, and there's a fair chance it will be in the future. Speaking of days to come, on Sunday, April 3 and Wednesday, April 6, movie lovers can take an epic voyage into a frightening prospective future and beyond, with back-to-back screenings of the Stanley Kubrick films A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Other screenings yet to come include an Easter Sunday matinee of Raiders of the Lost Ark (with a pair of encores the following Wednesday), and the series capper, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on Sunday, April 10 and Wednesday, April 13.


Jason Buchanan is a writer living in Ann Arbor.


For complete information on both series, including showtimes and more, visit Goodrich Quality Theaters and Cinemark.

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Preview: Threads All Arts Festival - April 1-2

The first Threads Festival looms.

The first Threads Festival looms.

The Threads All Arts Festival is a new cross-disciplinary arts festival that’ll take place in the Yellow Barn in Ann Arbor on April 1-2, 2016. It’s two days packed with music, dance, poetry, film, theater, and visual art, and the two-day pass to the festival costs $5.

The festival came together after six students at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance thought up the idea, and then U-M’s EXCEL program funded the project.

Launched in September 2015, EXCEL stands for Excellence in Entrepreneurship, Career Empowerment. Jonathan Kuuskoski, Assistant Director of Entrepreneurship and Career Services at U-M SMTD, says that the goal of the program is to catalyze success for all of U-M SMTD students and alumni through curricular and co-curricular programming and ongoing mentorship. The Threads festival is one of twelve projects funded by the Performing Arts EXCELerator program.

Kuuskoski says he’s proud of the work that the Threads team has done so far. He says the project was selected and funded at the highest level because it is “a very audacious idea, but one that seemed to be rooted in a very present community need.”

I met Meri Bobber, one of the students on the Threads team, through my work as the manager of digital media at the University Musical Society - you'll catch several UMS Artists in Residence participating in the festival.

Through Bobber, I connected with the full Threads team (Nicole Patrick, Meri Bobber, Sam Schaefer, Peter Littlejohn, Lang DeLancey, and Karen Toomasian) to chat about what’s exciting about the project and what we can expect in the future.

Q: How did the festival first come together?
A: Sam and Nicole were sitting together dreaming of attending the Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin. They realized that if they were dreaming this hard about attending, they should also probably put together their own festival. At first it was a joke, but then they won a grant. The festival had to happen.

Sam and Nicole quickly realized the festival was in no way possible with just the two of them, and they reached out to four people that seemed to fill every role possible. This team has been digging deep to put together the Threads Festival. We have all helped each other develop ideas, compromise on our way-too-ridiculous ambitions, and organize an event that represents the amazing, unique town that is Ann Arbor.

Q: You talk about how it’s important to you that both students and Ann Arbor community participate. Why is this important to you?
A: The purpose of all of our work is to make something great for Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor, in its awesome uniqueness, is not JUST a college town and not JUST a little city. Its special blend of communities, artistic and otherwise, is what makes it different from any other place in the world. To celebrate the city’s whole artistic community through this festival, we strive to bring students and non-students together.

Q: What are you most looking forward to at the festival?
A: WE CAN HARDLY WAIT FOR ALL OF IT. We are looking forward to seeing all of the tiny pieces that we have thought about as independent or abstract come together into one coherent thing. We can't wait to feel the sense of unity and action that we hope this festival will create. We’ll consider this year a success if people walk out smiling, or rather, thinking. We're such dorks about everything...we were stoked to order porta-potties. It's just amazing. All of it.

Q: You’re aiming to make this an annual festival. That’s an ambitious goal. What do you hope for the festival in the coming years?
A: We want Threads to help expose budding artists in this area. They are working their butts off, but in a town where there are (thankfully) a ton of live performances, many don’t have a large turnout. Simply put, we want people to look forward to this festival as a way to discover artists, so that they can look for these artists around town and see/hear/interact with them beyond just this one day.

We would also love to find a way for the festival to feature a larger outdoor presence in the future. We want guests to be able to leave behind the distractions of daily life, and experience a multi-stage festival event for a few days in an open and peaceful outdoor environment where the music and the river, or wind, or even the sound of crickets can exist in a way that allows a unique experience to emerge.

We want this festival to find longevity far beyond this season so that there is just one more GREAT thing about Ann Arbor.


Anna Prushinskaya is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


The Threads All Arts Festival is takes place in the Yellow Barn in Ann Arbor on April 1-2, 2016.

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AAFF Wrap-Up: Dispatches from a Longtime Attendee


Shoshannah was one of many who spent almost a full week in the Michigan Theater's screening room, drinking in all that AAFF had to offer.

Shoshannah was one of many who spent almost a full week in the Michigan Theater's screening room, drinking in all that AAFF had to offer. Photo by Doug Coombe.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is the longest running independent and experimental film festival in the United States and an event I have been delighted to attend annually since 1998. I wait all year for AAFF, which to me functions as a local holiday. I take the week off from work and fully immerse myself in the films, in my friends, and in getting to know new people. I was lucky enough to attend much of this year’s festival with a friend who was experiencing it for the first time, while I have been going since middle school. I attended every day of the festival and maximized my time in order to see as much as possible.

AAFF always begins with the Opening Night Reception, which took place on Tuesday night, and ushers in the start of the event with an appropriately celebratory atmosphere. Many are decked out in all their best and there is always food and drinks from local businesses, and great music being spun by a local DJ, and an atmosphere of anticipation. The overall feeling is that finally, the local holiday you have been waiting for all year has arrived!

The festival is made up of many screenings over the course of the week and, because of the overlapping screenings, it’s always impossible to see everything. However the Opening Night screening is made up of shorter films and gives the attendees a taste of the majority of what will be featured in the days to come. Some of my favorites of the evening included Life with Herman H. Rott by Chintis Lundgren, a cute animated story of a tidy cat and rowdy rat in a dysfunctional relationship, as well as a sobering documentary called Hotel 22, about a 24-hour bus line in California that ends up serving as a mobile sleeping spot for the area’s homeless population. The short film A Visit to Indiana by Curt McDowell gave us all a preview of the McDowell retrospective scheduled for Thursday.

Attendees put on some classic 3D glasses for one of the opening night short films.

Attendees put on some classic 3D glasses for one of the opening night short films. Photo by Doug Coombe.

On Wednesday, I saw News From Home, the first of three Chantal Akerman films being shown as part of a retrospective of her work. This retrospective, along with the retrospective of Curt McDowell, wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive. News From Home was about an hour and a half of slow-moving, meditative, immersive footage of street scenes of New York City in 1976, with letters from Ackerman’s mother being read by the filmmaker over the footage. I especially enjoyed the sweetness of the letters and the great people watching as pedestrians, dressed in classic 70’s attire, strolled through the streets.

On Thursday, I caught the Curt McDowell retrospective. McDowell passed away in 1987, but his sister, the star of one of Curt’s longer films, Beaver Fever, was in attendance. Many of McDowell’s works were featured in earlier Ann Arbor Film Festivals. Most of the films were quite explicit, dealing with issues and representations of sex, the human body, and orientation. Some were simple, short, and funny, filled with dark humor and musical numbers. A few had never even been shown anywhere before, making their screenings at this year's AAFF their world premieres. Afterwards, the audience was able to ask questions of Curt’s sister, Melinda, who was gracious enough to introduce the event as well.

Attendees and lobbies alike were decked out for the Opening Night Reception.

Melinda McDowell, sister of late filmmaker Curt McDowell, talks about her role in Beaver Fever. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Late Thursday night is designated AAFF's Out Night, and there was a good selection of queer-oriented films. My favorites included Reluctantly Queer by Akosua Adoma Owusu, about his experiences as a Ghanaian immigrant to the United States, and his feelings of being out of place both here and in Ghana, and I Remember Nothing by Zia Anger, which told a haunting short story about a young queer softball player dealing with everyday life with the added complications of epilepsy.

To cap off an evening of great film, every night of AAFF is followed by an afterparty at a local bar, venue, or space. The Out Night afterparty, was held at the Aut Bar in Braun Court, where an endlessly entertaining conversation was fueled by the excellent nachos!

Though AAFF has a reputation for its plethora of shorter, more experimental films, I find myself drawn to the longer documentary works, which are often experimental as well. On Friday, I saw Chantal Akerman’s still and quiet D’Est, featuring captured footage of the Eastern Bloc nations around the time of the fall of Communism. This was Akerman’s effort to get footage of that way of life and aesthetic, before everything changed. However, the film, shipped all the way from France, had shrunken significantly and sections of the reel ended up burning in a few places, leading to the screening’s unfortunate cancellation halfway through the program. The first hour we were able to screen was absolutely worth it, and since it was non-narrative, I didn’t feel like I was missing too much.

Next I saw Deborah Stratman’s The Illinois Parables, which was an experimental historical documentary of Illinois in chapters. Each chapter was like a mini experimental film about a different chapter in Illinois history, ranging from collages of newspaper clippings about local natural disasters to a reenactment of the murder of Black Panther Party Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton. I love this kind of film, which is experimental in nature, but also applies elements of education and history! This piece was proceeded by a short film from 1969 about the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, called Police Power and Freedom of Assembly: The Gregory March.

Later that night, I caught the screening of Animated Films in Competition, a total of fourteen films, all of which were very short. Among my favorites were Pearl Pistols by Kelly Gallagher, featuring speeches about civil rights, social justice, and revolution by legendary activist Queen Mother Moore with experimental revolutionary animation accompanying it, TVPSA by Brendt Rioux and Zena Grey, about the creeping commercialist effects of watching too much TV, and Dawït, by David Jansen, about a man raised by wolves who struggles with generational violence.

Some of Shoshannah's favorite films: Dawït (top left), D'Est (top right), I Remember Nothing (bottom left), and The Illinois Parables (bottom right).

Some of Shoshannah's favorite films: Dawït (top left), D'Est (top right), I Remember Nothing (bottom left), and The Illinois Parables (bottom right).

On Saturday, I caught two longer films again. The first was Fragment 53, by Carlo Gabriele Tribbioli. This was a meditation on the atrocities of war, focused on interviews of former generals from the Liberian Civil Wars. These men, now middle-aged (many were very young during the conflicts), reflected on their involvement in the war, the result of which was quite harrowing. The Host, by Miranda Pennell, was both a personal family narrative and a study of the activities of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum) in Iran, with which Pennell’s family was involved.

On Sunday, the final day of AAFF, I woke with anticipation for the films of the day, but with some growing sadness, knowing that the end was near. Bright and early in the morning, I caught the Regional Films in Competition, which focused on films by local filmmakers featuring southeastern Michigan and northwestern Ohio. Among my favorites were How to Rust by Julia Yezbick, a medium-length film about Olayami Dabls and the African Bead Museum in Detroit and Toledo, My Father by Carson Parish, a sweet film that followed Parish’s father as he reminisced about long-gone movie palaces and theatres in Toledo. How interesting to watch that in the historic, beautifully restored Michigan Theater!

Later that day, I saw the third and final Chantal Akerman film of the festival, No Home Movie, which captured the last months of her Holocaust survivor mother’s life, and, sadly, the filmmaker’s life as well. The last film of my AAFF experience was another feature-length documentary called The Event by Sergei Loznitsa. This documentary covered an event I knew little about, in 1991, after Mikail Gorbachev's introduction of glastnost and perestroika, there was an attempted coup by Communist Party hardliners. This prompted a large popular reaction in the form of public protests and uprisings. Loznitsa's documentary was put together from archival footage of the days of these events, which really put the viewer in the moment. With all the revolutionary fervor all over the world these days, it was interesting to see this peaceful uprising, which captured the energy of the time, and ultimately helped bring down the Soviet Union.

Overall, this year’s AAFF brought another full week of incredible films. The festival experience, different but familiar every year, is so incredibly joyful and essential for me. I always walk away with the same impression and the same thought: I can’t wait until next year!


Shoshannah Ruth Wechter is a librarian living in Ypsilanti and was not afraid to take off both shoes and sprint in order to be on time for the D'Est film screening.

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No Más Bebés Screening and Q&A with Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña


Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña spoke about her film No Mas Bebes

Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña spoke about her film No Mas Bebes.

On Tuesday, March 15, University of Michigan students, faculty, and community members gathered in the Rackham Amphitheatre for the screening of the documentary No Más Bebés, followed by a lively Q&A session with the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña.

The documentary, first released in June 2015 as a part of PBS’s Independent Lens series, tells the story of a little-known, but landmark event in reproductive justice, when a small group of Mexican immigrant women sued county doctors, the state, and the U.S. government after they were unknowingly sterilized while giving birth at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The film itself takes an unflinching look at the ugly realities of racism within medical and legal institutions, while also capturing the resilency of both a marginalized culture and the individual women who, against great odds and with few allies, filed this monumental, yet almost forgotten class action lawsuit in 1975. The film’s gaze is recognizably feminist, emphasizing the role of the early Chicana feminist movement that significantly impacted contemporary reproductive rights.

Central to the storyline are two whistleblowers, a young, unlikely, radical Jewish medical resident, who first brought evidence against his colleagues and supervisors. The other, Antonia Hernández, the now nationally recognized civil and immigration rights attorney, who first took up the case right after graduating from UCLA School of Law while serving as staff attorney at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice.

By documenting those impacted through interviews and historical archives, the filmmakers give voice to the unsayable. Though many women testified, often their families were unaware due to familial and cultural shaming around infertility. In interviews, the women lament the children they never had, their grief permeating the veil between filmed subject and viewer. While the lawsuit, and its subsequent appeal were dismissed, the case ushered forth vital conversation about women’s bodies and racialized medicine. Improved policy and hospital proceedings soon followed including: the presence of bilingual literature, Spanish-speaking liaisons, and revisions to informed-consent policies.

Following the film was an informative Q&A session with filmmaker and professor, Renee Tajima-Peña. The audience seemed most curious about the tensions between Chicana feminist organizers, white feminists, as well as Chicano labor organizers, who both sidelined the needs of Chicana women during that time. Also of interest was Professor Tajima-Peña’s journey into filmmaking. Though she never attended film school, she felt passionately about human rights and aspired to be a civil rights attorney. It is clear in this film and others, that her work is largely informed by her interest in legal questions and issues regarding social injustice.

Most surprising was the early development of No Más Bebés. With her colleague Virginia Espino, Professor Tajima-Peña began the process of tracking down the surviving plaintiffs. This proved challenging having only old medical records and former addresses. Frequently, their investigative work led them to the children of the testifying women, who often knew nothing of their mothers' past political engagement. Though this case had national impact, Professor Tajima-Peña noted, the trauma and cultural stigma experienced by the women often resulted in secrecy.

Given the political climate of reproductive and immigration rights today, the story is relevant, potent and an eerie reminder of the continued fight for women’s bodily autonomy and security.

The event was hosted by the Department of Women’s Studies and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender with support from campus and community partners.


Community contributor CristiEllen Heos Zarvas is the Meetings and Special Events Assistant for the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan.

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