Movie Marathon: My 48 Hours at the Ann Arbor Film Festival


Movie Marathon: My 48 Hours at the Ann Arbor Film Festival

The Michigan Theater, about 38 hours into Elizabeth's movie marathon.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival offers a true marathon of screenings and events, with over 200 individual films screening over the course of just six days. This is not including the satellite events, such as off-site gallery shows hosted by the Work Gallery and Ann Arbor Art Center, various store front installations, panel discussions, workshops, and crowded after-parties hosted by local bars. It is, put simply, A LOT to see. It is also by design, simply too much to see, with many events happening concurrently between the Michigan Theater’s main auditorium and screening room.

I wanted to see it all.

So I designed and accepted this challenge for myself whole-heartedly, with nothing to lose, except perhaps sleep and daily exposure to vitamin D; I committed myself to spending two entire days at the festival. I wanted to watch every scheduled film possible, to experience the festival lifestyle, and to test my own endurance. I was not alone in this challenge--many other audience members became familiar faces and some of them became friends. There were audience members, including local Ann Arborites and those who travel annually to Ann Arbor solely to see the festival, all whom camped out in the theater for the entire six days. I couldn’t possibly compete with that.

But over the course of 48 hours, beginning promptly at 7:15 pm Thursday evening and concluding at who-knows-when Saturday night, I viewed over 50 short and feature-length films. Fifty! More importantly, I experienced what truly makes the Ann Arbor Film Festival special: its spirit, its devoted community, and its sense of collective experience.

My personal challenge began with Thursday evening’s Films in Competition 3 program. It was a beautifully curated program, combining short films by different makers that explored different facets of landscape. Nicky Hamlyn’s Gasometers 3 offered a series of time-lapses, painstakingly made with a 16mm film camera. The stunning time-lapses highlighted the movement of the sky, as clouds and sunlight shifted around sturdy metal gasometer structures that stood still, revealing time passing. The film was silent. And in a theatre packed with people, restless legs, squeaking seats, and small coughs interrupted the silence, which was admittedly frustrating at first. Until I considered how amazing it is, and how rare it must be, for an audience to fill a theater and watch a silent 16mm film.

On Friday, I was excited for the screening of Chantal Akerman’s D’est (From the East).The festival screened three of Akerman’s feature films, celebrating and honoring her career, after she passed away in 2015. Considered a “cinematic elegy,” this 1993 film depicts the filmmaker’s travels beginning in East Germany towards Moscow as the warmer seasons transition to winter. The film was presented in its original 16mm format. The shots are long and revealing, often beginning without action. One shot opens on an empty sidewalk; an older woman wearing a brown dress walks into the frame. The camera follows as the woman shuffles onward, swinging a red plastic bag at her side. Seemingly minute, the small action gains meaning as it continues. The 16mm film print was a bit wobbly on screen. It bounced unsteadily until one staggering moment in which it stopped. A section of film caught in the gate of the projector and burned, visibly onscreen, to an audible and collective gasp. The image bubbled, turning murky brown, and then evaporated entirely. The projector was turned off; the room went dark.

The sense of loss was palpable. People whispered in the dark, pulled out their cell phones, and waited. It was later determined the film print was too damaged to continue (but only after a second, gut-wrenching burn). This event, this shared experience of both pleasure and loss, overshadowed the day’s later screenings. It was a singular experience, one that brought strangers together, perhaps more so than the film itself.

On Saturday morning I returned to the theater only slightly sleepy-eyed for the 11 am Films in Competition 5 (Ages 6+). The theater was starting to feel more like home than my real home. Having become so comfortable there, I could feel a change in the space - the theater was stirring. The audience included many children. They ate popcorn and kicked their small feet in anticipation for the films to start. The program included Standish Lawder’s Catfilm for Katy and Cynnie. In one section, the screen was just a wash of white. There was a vague image, but it didn’t look like anything at all. I worried that it wasn’t captivating enough for the young audience. I looked around to gauge their interest. I looked back at the screen, and slowly, the white started to move. Collectively, we realized we were watching cat tongues lapping at milk, and that our perspective was from underneath the bowl. Pink cat tongues and noses pushed milk around the glass surface and children squealed. It was delightful, funny, not unlike the joy of an Internet video, except that we were all experiencing it together, at the same time.

My 48 hours at the Ann Arbor Film Festival showed me that the movie theater is still a magical place. I saw films that made me laugh, moved me, and tested my patience. I saw films with many strangers. I ate popcorn for dinner two nights in a row. And I decided that next year, I would like to do it all again.


Elizabeth Wodzinski is a Desk Clerk at the Ann Arbor District Library and she wishes that Catfilm were available on YouTube so she could watch it over and over.

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Review: Penny Stamps Presents David OReilly


David OReilly delivering his Penny Stamps lecture as part of the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival.

David OReilly delivering his Penny Stamps lecture as part of the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival. / Photo by Doug Coombe

Artist David OReilly has worked in a variety of media from film to video games to concept art, but he added a new medium to that list Wednesday night at the Michigan Theater: public speaking. OReilly appeared as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, presented in conjunction with the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival. Taking the stage after an introduction he self-deprecatingly described as “hyperbolic,” OReilly immediately sought to manage his audience’s expectations. “I don’t know how to follow that up,” OReilly said. “This is going to be a total letdown.”

However, OReilly proved himself a more than capable speaker over the course of his nearly 90-minute presentation, entertaining, inspiring, and at times genuinely dazzling the crowd. OReilly began by examining how he developed his unique style of 3D animation, which he’s now best known for. After early attempts to emulate Austrian artist Egon Schiele’s expressive figure drawings, OReilly became involved in animation through a job as a concept artist. Around 2004 he became fascinated by the untapped potential he saw in 3D animation, a field dominated at the time by many Pixar imitators and very few individual auteurs. OReilly described working with 3D animation software as “a constant process of the thing falling apart,” and early on he started maintaining a computer folder of the various glitches that resulted from his experiments. “All of these felt like something the software wanted to do, the trajectory of what it wanted to do,” he said.

So OReilly developed an artistic style that welcomed the quirks of his medium and drew attention to its rougher edges, rather than hewing towards a perfectly polished finished product. He demonstrated the evolution of that style from his 2007 debut short film RGB XYZ to 2009’s Please Say Something. OReilly described the former, an extremely glitchy acid-trip tale of a creature moving to the big city, as “pretty awful.” But the latter showed just how quickly OReilly developed his talent. Please Say Something, a very funny and surprisingly affecting tale of a tumultuous marriage between a cat and a mouse, embraces those glitches and rough edges with intent and artistry.

OReilly has since done a variety of work, including an episode of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, animated segments of the movies Her and Son of Rambow, and music videos for U2 and M.I.A. In between commercial works he’s also found time for more personal projects–like his 2014 video game Mountain, which creates a personalized mountain on which players can watch slow and often surreal changes in real time. Typical of his unpretentious presentation, OReilly said he enjoys commercial work as much as his pet projects. “I don’t know if it’s ideal if I just stayed doing my own stuff,” he said. “Every time I do a job I end up getting out of my comfort zone, being forced to learn stuff that I’m not familiar with.”

OReilly saved his best for last, presenting an extended demo of his forthcoming video game entitled Everything. The game presents a universe in which one can play as literally anything. OReilly began by exploring a sunny field in the character of a bear, which moved around by comically rolling head over tail. From there he jumped into the characters of a clump of grass, bouncing along at ground level, and then a Douglas fir, which moved majestically over the landscape. Those demonstrations were entertaining, but OReilly had only scratched the surface of the world he’d developed for the game. He jumped down to a smaller scale to explore the microscopic world between blades of grass, playing as various molecules and germs. The audience broke into applause, but OReilly still wasn’t even close to finished. Taking a trip to the other end of the cosmic scale, he played as a continent swimming around the earth, then an asteroid orbiting the planet, then as a galaxy spinning in space. Surrounded by other glittering galaxies, OReilly’s galaxy joined up with them and moved in a rhythmic “dance” as numerous audience members uttered audible gasps of wonder.

Those gasps, and the laughter and applause that permeated the presentation, were proof positive that OReilly has repeatedly hit on something singular, accessible, and human in his highly unconventional works. Refreshingly, the man behind them was consistently, exceedingly humble. OReilly closed by noting with some bewilderment that he’d been asked to address in his presentation how his work “fits into the bigger picture of humanity.” He tackled that request by reading a scathing critical review of Mountain, followed by a letter he received from a mother who thanked him for the way the game had drawn her autistic son out of his shell. “That kind of response is worth more than all of the impact in the world,” he said. “I feel very privileged to get to have that effect, as small as that is.”


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.

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Ann Arbor Film Festival Opening Night


The opening night screening gave attendees a taste of everything they will see at the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival.

The opening night screening gave attendees a taste of everything they will see at the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival.

On Tuesday night, the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival began with an Opening Night Reception and a screening of ten short films from around the world. The reception was a packed and energetic event, completely filling the main lobby of the Michigan Theater with donors, filmmakers, and excited movie-goers. The music was loud, the bites of local food were delicious, and the vast space was packed to the rafters with anticipatory chatter. The total variety of people and apparel gave off the vibe of unadulterated welcome. Some were dressed to the nines in neckties or heels and floor-length dresses, and some were wearing their usual old jeans, sneakers, and plaid shirts, so no matter what, it seemed that this event was made for you.

This was my first experience at AAFF, or a film festival of any sort, and I was a bit apprehensive. Part of my newcomers’ fear was that I’d choose a movie I didn’t enjoy and be stuck with it for the two-hour duration, so it took the pressure off to discover that the Opening Night Screening consisted of a number of short films. The experience was more of a sampler: all the unique flavors of films that you might encounter at AAFF, helpfully squashed into one session.

The films themselves were a mixed bag of narrative, documentary, animated, and experimental, and they ran the emotional gauntlet—from sad and serious, like Hotel 22, a documentary about the homeless taking refuge at night on a 24-hour bus line in San Francisco, to hilarious, like Discontinuity, a film about a couple losing touch with each other and with reality, amongst a sea of disappearing and reappearing cats.

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

Attendees and lobbies alike were decked out for the Opening Night Reception. / Photo by Doug Coombe

Some films were so experimental that I didn’t even recognize them as films, like REGAL, a fuzzy 2-minute interlude that appeared to be clips of an old pre-movie disclaimer reel interspersed with Internet icons and occasional pauses for buffering. I didn’t realize it was a movie until it was over and my companion clued me in. My first film of the festival and, technically, I missed it.

While some of the films were as avant-garde as I had worried they would be, I found them each to be surprisingly stimulating in their own way. Back Track, a remix of 1950s black-and-white films, had a captivatingly dark, noir vibe. Curt McDowell’s homey A Visit to Indiana effortlessly harnessed the drama and comedy of everyday conversation. Drive In, a close-to-home look at one of the last drive-in theaters in the Detroit area, evoked feelings of sunny summer nostalgia while The Place, a documentary about an isolated weather station, plunged the audience into the cold stillness of a Polish winter. The charmingly untidy animation of Isola del Giglio gave sketch-like impressions of a cozy Sunday morning on an Italian island, while Life with Herman H. Rott told the wordless yet highly comic story of a chain-smoking, drunken rat whose life is tidied up by a neat and proper cat with a love for cleanliness and classical music.

Even when lost among the swirling colors and fuzzy images of an experimental film or staring deep into the impossibly still and dull Polish snowscape, each movie pulled me in and left a genuine impression. I entered the event unsure of what I would find, and when I left, while still unsure what more I would encounter, it was with much more eagerness than apprehension.


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and she hates popcorn, so this has been a harrowing experience on many fronts.

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Q&A with 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival Executive Director Leslie Raymond


Leslie Raymond is in her third year as Executive Director of AAFF.

Leslie Raymond is in her third year as Executive Director of AAFF.

I recently stopped by the busy Ann Arbor Film Festival office to chat with Leslie Raymond about the upcoming 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival running March 15-20, 2016. Leslie has been involved with the AAFF since the 30th Festival in 1992; this will be her third year as the Festival’s Executive Director.

Q: What’s new or different about this year’s Festival?
A: Well, we’re seeing a lot of animation. We’re also seeing a lot of feature length documentaries, nine or ten of which are in competition, as well as three films by Chantal Akerman who passed away tragically last October. We felt she was such an important figure in the history of avant-garde cinema as well as a great role model for women.

Q: Why do you think there are more documentaries this year?
A: Yeah, David [Dinnell, program director] and I were talking earlier about this being a more “moving image” culture where so much of the information we receive now comes through the moving image because of its ubiquity. Now we can shoot a movie on our cellphone, edit it, and publish it in minutes. Maybe that has something to do with it, although I don’t know why that would draw somebody more to making something more documentary than narrative.
 
Q: Which of the Festival events excite you the most this year?
A: Grahame Weinbren’s 78 Letters - which will show on Sunday, March 20 at 3:15 pm in the Main Auditorium - is an interactive series of one-minute pieces where the audience will help direct how the work goes together. I’m particularly excited about that. There will also be a 1975 installation by Lis Rhodes at the Ann Arbor Art Center on Friday, March 18 from 3 to 5 pm. It’s titled Light Music and it’s composed of two 16 mm projectors projecting abstract imagery from either end of the viewing space with an optical soundtrack read by light passing through. We’re also excited about the live shadow puppet performance by local artist Tom Carey that opens the “Films in Competition 5 (Ages 6+)” event. We call it “family friendly” and “ages 6 and up” but it’s not just a “kid’s show.” One of the things important for us is to engage audiences on other levels than just being a passive observer.
 
Q: Do you think audiences are more receptive today to an interactive experience?
A: I think so. And we want to provide opportunities for Festival viewers to be part of the fabric of the environment. Along these lines we have the “What We Saw” cards in the lobby -- we’ve done this for several years now -- where we invite participants to fill the cards out, let us know what they think about what they’ve just seen, and then take pictures of them for a slide show. There will even be an Oculus Rift piece in the grand foyer of the Michigan Theater -- a 9-foot inflatable bubble! -- where people will be able to put on the Oculus Rift and have an 8 or 9-minute Oculus Rift experience.  
 
Q: I know someone who’s coming to the festival for the first time. What do you want her to take away from the experience?
A: We’d want her to feel the empowerment of seeing a lot of different things about the world. I think there’s so much to be said for being able to access all of these different viewpoints and ways of expressing things that go far outside the mainstream culture. We’d want her to experience the richness and diversity we live in. So I’d hope that somebody coming for the first time would see things they’re not familiar with...and be okay with that.
 
Q: The legacy of the AAFF as the longest-running independent and experimental festival in North America is an honor for Ann Arbor. Do you feel a sense of responsibility that Festival goers leave with a sense of that history?
A: I do think about it a lot. I feel like it’s a huge responsibility. The Festival has been here since 1963 and it still embodies the ethos in which it was founded - that particular time and place in history where there was such a rich political, social, and even fashion culture in every direction you looked. I think this heritage ties directly into the diversity of independent cinematic voices and our embracing of that diversity of expressions. It’s still relevant. So I think it’s important to stay grounded in the Festival’s history while also moving toward the future using the technologies that will now allow for much more of this experimentation.
 
Q: Any final thoughts on this year’s Festival?
A: I’ve been thinking lately about the sense of the collective journey. For a lot of people who are invested in joining us for the whole week – or even if you’re only coming to a few programs – there really is a sense of embarking on something unknown with a spirit of adventure. There are all kinds of things to discover, conversations to be had, thoughts to be thought, and feelings to be felt. Part of it is looking at the work and having the opportunity to share it with those you came with or walk out of the screening and then run into someone in the lobby and talk about what you’ve just experienced.


Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at AADL.


The Ann Arbor Film Festival runs from March 15-20, 2016. Tickets are available at the door or online.

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Preview: Nufonia Must Fall

Even robots can be emo in Nufonia.

Even robots can be emo in Nufonia.

If the combination of puppets, moody robots, and quiet romance – all accompanied by a pop culture-inspired string quartet, moving fluidly from synth to pop to jazz – sounds intriguing and magical, then you need to go see Nufonia Must Fall.

Nufonia Must Fall is based on a nearly-wordless graphic novel published in 2003 by Kid Koala, a D.J., producer, composer, and studio contributor for the band Gorillaz, based in Montreal. As evidenced by his artistic output, Kid Koala, is comfortable in a wildly idiosyncratic, exciting, and whimsical world of raw beats and emotionally-charged stories. Sadly, the graphic novel is out of print, but this live performance uses mixed media to bring the story to life in ways the book alone never could.

The story takes place in Nufonia, a drab, monochromatic place, where T4, a robot, falls in love with a customer at the sandwich shop where he works – after having been fired and replaced by a newer model robot at his old job. The customer reciprocates T4's love and a romance unfolds. The adorable puppets are all white and stand about 10 inches tall. The simple intimacy of the story draws you in and holds you as the highs and lows of their romance play out.

All of the action is projected on a large screen, as the action takes place on a stage of shoebox-sized sets. It’s thrilling to watch the shadowy shapes of the puppeteers create the action in real time – offering up the skin-tingling sensation that only a live performance can evoke.

Kid Koala has said that "Nufonia" is derived from “no fun,” and for those who live there, “what’s going on in their mind gets in the way of having fun.”

Abandon any preconceived notions you may have about puppets, robot love, or marsupial DJs, and come out for a moving and magical evening of unusual storytelling.


Erin Helmrich is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library, a fan of the Gorillaz, graphic novels, and adorable stuff in all forms.


"Nufonia Must Fall" runs Friday, March 10 and Saturday, March 11 at 8 pm at The Power Center. The performance is presented by UMS as part of the International Theater Series UMS on Film.

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PREVIEW: The 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival


Each program is different at AAFF54, from Dead Slow Ahead to News from Home.

Each program is different at AAFF54, from Dead Slow Ahead to News from Home.

Let’s get this out of the way before we dive into some movie recommendations. The Ann Arbor Film Festival, started in 1963, is one of the longest-running film festivals in the world. In my opinion (and many others), it’s also America’s original independent film festival.

The AAFF is a forum for films made by independent artists, not commercial studios. The festival’s focus is on shorter pieces that strongly showcase what’s possible within the art form of film. The range of what you can experience over six days of cinema is extraordinary. And there’s truly something for everyone. So let’s get to it!

This year’s AAFF brings back a handful of audience favorite themed programs, including the Family-Friendly screening, Out Night with LGBTQ-oriented films, Animated Short Films, a Regional showcase, and Music Videos. There’s also an Interactive Cinema program added this year, 78 Letters, with pioneering artist Grahame Weinbren presenting a series of 1-minute shorts with the sequence determined by the audience.

The heart of the AAFF is the Films in Competition programs, which are usually an assortment of newly created shorts including animation, documentary, adventurous narratives and experimental (not plot-driven). These often contain the most memorable, confounding, polarizing pieces of the week, so if you’re feeling open-minded, I recommend choosing ones that work within your schedule.

If you’re new to the AAFF or only have time to attend one program, I recommend the Opening Night Screening of short films. Better yet, show up earlier (6 pm), pay a bit extra, and make a great evening of it by attending the Opening Night Reception. It's a stylish scene that includes food, drink, and music in the Michigan Theater’s grand foyer.

If you’re an AAFF regular, you’re likely debating how you’re going to choose from the new films in competition vs. the special programs. Highlights this year include Chantal Ackerman tribute programs (AADL has some of her works on DVD, btw), the Jem Cohen feature and shorts program (he’ll be making a rare festival appearance), a program of restored 16mm prints by underground film legend and provocateur Curt McDowell, and Northern Lights, a live cinema performance with five 16mm projectors.

Stills from Caspar Stracke's time/OUT OF JOINT, Chantal Ackerman's From the East, Jem Cohen's Counting, and Curt McDowell's Beaver Fever.

Stills from Caspar Stracke's time/OUT OF JOINT, Chantal Ackerman's From the East, Jem Cohen's Counting, and Curt McDowell's Beaver Fever.

For fans of feature documentary and story-based films, The Host will provide a powerful examination that cuts across a century of personal and political history. Also screening on Saturday, two other feature films, time/OUT OF JOINT and Dead Slow Ahead, take the viewer on unexpected journeys through the time and space of unexplored territories.

The week of the AAFF additionally includes a number of excellent free events, including animator David OReilly giving a Penny Stamps lecture, sound artist Ernst Karel’s collaborative Work Gallery installation, the Expanding Frames student-oriented programs, performances (including a dual 16mm projector showing of Light Music by Lis Rhodes!), and lively afterparties every night.

“Each program is different.” You will find this simple statement on this year’s schedule. It’s also appeared on many AAFF programs dating back to the 1960s (including the original from 1963, which can be viewed in the AADL’s digital AAFF archive). And it couldn’t be more apropos for this festival of independent, artist-driven, experimental film. For one week of the year, the AAFF gives us an opportunity to explore just how vastly different cinema can be. See you there!


Donald Harrison was AAFF Executive Director 2008 - 2012 and currently runs 7 Cylinders Studio, producing compelling, content-driven videos.


The 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival runs from March 15-20, 2016 and tickets are available now. The full schedule and calendar are available at aafilmfest.org.

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Review: The Triplets of Belleville LIVE: A Real Treat!


Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville.

Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville.

The University Musical Society presented an amazing live performance of The Triplets of Belleville to a sold out crowd at the Michigan Theater on Friday night. The theater screened the movie while a live band played the soundtrack onstage. UMS announced this program on social media in February 2015, so I had a full year to look forward to it. Even with that anticipation, all my expectations were exceeded.

I was accompanied by my wife, my best friend, and my 88-year-old Grandma, who particularly loves The Triplets of Belleville. When the movie first came out, I walked into her house only to have my hearing almost destroyed by the soundtrack blaring from the speakers. She came downstairs with a triumphant grin and asked “Guess what CD I bought at Borders?!” It was not a hard guessing game.

For the uninitiated, Triplets is a 2003 animated film written and directed by Sylvain Chomet about the Tour de France, an aging jazz trio, the wine mafia, and the feud between an overweight dog and a train. In addition to its wonderfully strange story and delightful animation style, the film set itself apart by almost entirely eschewing dialog in its storytelling. The soundtrack, heavily influenced by jazz of the 1920s (but also prominently featuring Bach's Prelude No. 2 in C Minor), featured the Academy Award nominated song "Belleville Rendez-vous".

The first surprise of the live performance (to me; not to folks to read the event description more clearly) was that the conductor was Benoît Charest, who actually composed the soundtrack. It was amazing to see the person who had written the music that I love so much, and watching him conduct was a joy. In addition to conducting, he sang, played the guitar (and vacuum!), and danced along to the music. Charest also provided the French commentary for the Tour de France scenes.

The eight piece band, Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville, was excellent and played in sync to the movie, occasionally looking up to the screen to make sure their timing was precise. At a few points during the show, the musicians got up and moved around to the center of the stage in order to play some of the more unusual instruments highlighted in the movie, including a newspaper, a cooking pot, and a vacuum cleaner. My favorite part was when the conductor, along with a few of the other band members, danced on a wooden board while clapping and snapping to create a rhythm section. After they pulled this off, they high-fived each other while the audience cheered.

The live performance of The Triplets of Belleville was an incredibly joyous event. The entire band seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the audience. Perhaps the only thing that could have made the evening better would have been a hound dog trained to act (bark?) out the role of Bruno, the movie’s lovable pooch. Of course, it’s highly likely that I’m the only person in the audience who would have liked this. Everyone I attended the performance with loved it, and the crowd was practically giddy as the theater emptied out. The music amplified the story and made each emotion shown on screen both stronger and sharper. My grandma called the night “a real treat.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.


Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at AADL and is interested in finding a local instructor for vacuum playing lessons.

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Review: The Witch


Anya Taylor-Joy in her breakthrough performance in The Witch.

Anya Taylor-Joy in her breakthrough performance in The Witch.

Like most great horror movies, The Witch is smart enough to largely dispense with the “rules” of its genre. We see the film’s titular boogeywoman early on and with some clarity; we’re then led to believe that she may even be somewhat incidental to the plot, and that the true evil may be inside one of our seeming protagonists. There’s little gore and very little in the way of traditional “jump scares”–at least until it’s too late for The Witch to present itself as the kind of movie which traffics in such gimmicks. Instead of trying to engineer a shock-delivery system, The Witch opts for a slow-burning sense of dread echoing other great, unconventional horror flicks like Repulsion or The Shining.

The film is set in 1630 New England, as a family of seven is exiled from their Puritan colony for vaguely defined reasons related to the father’s (Ralph Ineson) “prideful” approach to spreading the word of God. The father, William, leads his brood to a spot just at the edge of a dark and expansive woodland and they begin to establish a homestead. Again neglecting typical genre practice, The Witch doesn’t allow us that typical dull period of calm when you’re waiting for the first scare to happen; we’re barely five minutes into the film before the newborn of the family vanishes during a game of peekaboo with capable teenaged daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Cut to the unsettlingly premature appearance of the decaying witch (Bathsheba Garnett) in her hut, performing some unholy ritual over the infant.

But is she the witch? Our highly superstitious protagonists immediately begin to suspect and accuse each other of being responsible for the baby’s disappearance, as well as the string of other misfortunes that begin to befall their settlement. And it’s hard for us to blame them. There seems to be some kind of evil in just about every member of this family–from the young twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), who openly converse with a goat they call “Black Phillip,” to William himself, whose determination to make the new homestead succeed verges on the deranged.

The small cast is uniformly excellent, convincingly wrapping their tongues around the knotty period dialogue. Ineson exerts a terrific gravitational pull as the all-powerful father slowly losing his grip, and Taylor-Joy gives a fierce, sympathetic performance as she becomes the film’s ostensible lead. The performers expertly craft a growing sense of hysteria that piles up into a final half-hour of protractedly spine-tingling scenes.

Production designer Craig Lathrop and costume designer Linda Muir work hard to create an authentic period atmosphere that makes the family’s dogmatic mania all the more believable. Although the vast majority of the film takes place in isolation on the family’s homestead, brief glimpses of their old colony at the beginning of the film have the fascinating feel of real life. First-time feature director Robert Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke collaborate to create a striking visual sense for the proceedings. Cloudy skies are omnipresent in the film’s many exterior scenes, and the color palette emphasizes grays and browns that feel earthy even as they seem to forebode decay and death.

And that’s appropriate, because The Witch is a film about people deeply connected to the earth, dependent upon it, but also fighting against their true nature. At one point the mother, Kate (Kate Dickie), emphatically expresses her wish that the family had never left their native England. For all William’s professed desire to serve God, he’s consistently ignorant of the universe’s signs that he’s doing the wrong thing. The presence, and possible wrath, of Native Americans hovers around the story as well. Local natives are seen for a fleeting but significant moment in an early scene, and a trade William made with them becomes a point of some contention among the family later in the story.

It’s easy to try to read The Witch as a theological text on the relative merits of the Christian God and Satan; the New York-based Satanic Temple, which has wholeheartedly endorsed the film, certainly seems to think so. But no. The film is about invaders trying to impose their will upon a land that was never theirs, and the land taking its own back. The Witch suggests a fundamental sin at the root of American history. Even more so than the standard genre tropes of a cabin at the edge of a creepy woods, or the old standby of God versus the devil, there’s true horror in that idea for any American.


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.


The Witch opens in wide release this weekend.

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Interview: Disney Animator Matthias Lechner


Matthias Lechner meets a large group of mammals at the University of Michigan.

Matthias Lechner meets a large group of mammals at the University of Michigan. Photo by Patrick Dunn.

Budding animation enthusiasts at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University had the opportunity to learn from one of the best in their field this Thursday and Friday, as Disney animator Matthias Lechner gave free presentations to students at both schools. As art director of environments on Disney’s upcoming March release Zootopia, the German-born Lechner oversaw a staff of about 100 through a four-year process that equates to set design on a non-animated movie.

Zootopia not only features the largest digital environment yet created for Disney; it doubles the size of the virtual world created for previous record holder Big Hero 6. Creating that world entails an insanely detailed process, as every set and every tiny object is meticulously researched, sketched, and then realized as a 3-D model. In a slide presentation, Lechner walked students through the process of developing Zootopia’s “world built by animals, for animals,” sharing research, early designs, and finished scenes from the film. He interacted warmly with the student audience, projecting enthusiasm for working on his first Disney movie after a lifelong love of the studio’s work.

After his presentation at U-M, Lechner chatted with me about the experience of working with Disney for the first time, the very realistic research that goes into creating a fantasy world, and the big Disney project he’s got lined up next.

Q: You said that seeing The Jungle Book at age 6 was what interested you in animation in the first place. How did you feel when you finally got your first job at Disney?
A: You’d think that I’d be really happy. But I have to say that the first half-year I was extremely stressed. It was like, “What do they want from me that they can’t do themselves?” I guess it was just my style that worked really well, and [Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer] John Lasseter liked it, so they went with me. But everybody’s at the top of their game. I’m really used to working on movies that are middle-budget, so you try to make the best out of what you have. Suddenly you have all the time in the world, so you’ve got to come up with something that is worth all the time in the world.

Q: Disney’s such a big studio. How much do they try to impose a house style on what you’re doing?
A: That was surprising, that they don’t. I go in there and I was wondering, “What is it like? Is there a political agenda or anything like that?” But it’s not. The directors try to make it as good as we can, basically to please ourselves. If other people like it, that’s great. But nobody told me what to do or what not to do.

Q: What was John Lasseter like?
A: He’s a little bit of a celebrity at Disney because he’s the über-father, as we’d say in German. He’s a very emotional person, in a good way. He likes to hug. I was a little worried in the beginning because everybody really listens to what John wants, and that can be dangerous. But he wants the right things. Whenever he gave a note, it was the right note. So I don’t have a problem with that at all. That’s great. He’s been really good for Disney.

Q: In the animation that you enjoy, do you have a personal preference between cel animation and computer animation?
A: I used to. (Laughs) I come from cel animation, so for set design it had a lot of advantages. You would never have to wonder, “Can we afford this?” because everything’s just a drawing. You can draw whatever you want, and if it’s only for one scene it doesn’t matter. When you’re doing 3-D you have to plan: if we build a big set, can we use it in other scenes too? In the early days of 3-D there was a tendency of it not looking satisfying. Pixar did a very amazing job with their films, and yet they aged somewhat. I think now we’ve reached a point where Zootopia will not look old. It’ll just be a movie. In that respect, now I have a lot more possibilities, so I kind of like 3-D.

Q: It’s crazy looking back at Toy Story now, which looked so beautiful when it first came out, and seeing how much everything has changed since then.
A: Yeah. Toy Story is saved by the story, and that’s Pixar’s trick. If the story is entertaining then it doesn’t matter that much if it’s not perfect. In this movie we really went far out to fill it with detail and with love, basically to the top. We went as far as you can go right now.

Q: You mentioned bringing a NASA scientist in to consult about the “climate wall” [that separates Zootopia’s desert and tundra worlds, keeping the former hot and the latter cold]. Why put that level of scientific realism or scientific research into what is very much a fantasy creation?
A: Because they can. It’s one of John Lasseter’s little things, that he wants everything to be reasonable. Nothing is there just by coincidence. If you say, “This is the design I want,” you’d better find a good reason why you want this to be the design. Research is a big part of that. So if they offer to bring this guy in, of course we say, “Yeah. Let’s see if we can learn something from him.”

Q: You’ve mentioned how passionate you are about this movie. What do you like so much about it, besides the fact that you worked on it?
A: There’s that. And actually that doesn’t necessarily mean I like it, because I would see all the flaws. But I’m very happy with the sets. I’m happy with my part of the movie. Imagine that you think of something, or you dream something, and the best people in the world realize that for you. That’s an amazing experience. But what I really get a kick out of is the animation of the animals. We have dailies, and every day you see five or six scenes that come fresh from animation. It’s like Christmas for me. They’re so funny. There’s a scene where somebody crosses the road, which was not interesting in storyboard, and then the way they walk just makes it.

Q: How does it feel, after four years, to have this almost off your shoulders?
A: It is off my shoulders now. This [speaking engagement] is just reminiscing. It feels a little bit scary. I really got into it. I have to say, if it would have been only three and a half years, I would have said, “Ah, I can’t believe it’s over.” After four years I was like, “Okay. Done that.” It’s going to be hard for me to get as invested in the next project.

Q: Do you have your next project lined up?
A: Yes. Off the record–well, you can check if you can say it or not, but it’s Wreck-It Ralph 2.


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.

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Review: Direct from Sundance - The Lobster


John C. Reilly, Colin Farrell, and Ben Wishaw in The Lobster

John C. Reilly, Colin Farrell, and Ben Wishaw in The Lobster.

Before a special, packed, “Direct from Sundance” screening of The Lobster got underway on Thursday, February 3, at the Michigan Theater, Executive Director/CEO Russ Collins appeared on stage with Sundance Film Festival programmer Hussain Currimbhoy.

By way of introducing The Lobster, which won the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Currimbhoy said, “This one has a certain sense of humor and sense of irony, and it addresses structures that control us and stop us from being ourselves. … (The film’s) absurd, but we figured this was the town that brought us Madonna and Iggy Pop, so you can handle absurd, right?”

Filmed in Ireland, and directed by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster tells the story of a newly dumped husband (Colin Farrell, sporting glasses, a moustache, and extra weight) who must now go to a hotel to try and find another partner. He has 45 days to do so, or he will be turned into an animal of his choosing. (His brother, now a dog, accompanies him.) At this hotel, masturbation is forbidden; hotel staffers, as part of their duties, bring guests to arousal without orgasm; and potential partners must share a trait. Consequently, one widower hotel guest with a limp (Ben Whishaw) regularly bangs his face against things to make his nose bleed, in order to match with a nosebleed-prone woman; and Farrell’s character pretends to be callous to match with the hotel’s longest-surviving guest, who has earned her extended stay by successfully shooting down the escaped, off-the-grid “Loners” that live as a tribe in the wilderness.

When Farrell’s ruse is revealed, he flees and joins the Loners, who allow masturbation but forbid romantic coupling of any kind, punishable by mutilation. Yet it’s in this setting, of course, that Farrell finds love with another short-sighted person, played by Rachel Weisz. The two develop a secret language of gestures, but when the loners’ sadistic leader (played by Lea Seydoux) figures out what’s happening, she metes out a cruel bit of justice, leaving Farrell with an excruciatingly painful choice.

In addition to Farrell and Weisz, John C. Reilly plays a hotel guest who’s struggling mightily with the system’s strictures; but he, like everyone else in this black comedy, is stoic above all else, moving grimly, with resignation, through each day. Plus, as Currimbhoy noted after the film, Lanthimos was drawn to shoot the film in Ireland not only because of the country’s aggressive film incentives, but also because of the natural landscape’s “gray light” quality, which gives the exterior shots in The Lobster a washed-out look.

“He needed a certain kind of setting or atmosphere that only Ireland has,” said Currimbhoy.

The film’s first half, set at the hotel, achieves fresh, affecting balance between horror and humor – to name one example, after couples form, if they fight often, they’re assigned a child to parent (which I found hysterical) – and makes you question the deep-seated, constant social pressures upon us to pair off, as well as the myriad ways society tends to condescend to those who live outside that model.

And while Farrell’s character’s defection to the Loners provides a kind of satisfying symmetry – the opposite model has significant flaws, too, and of course he finds love not in the place that’s rigidly designed for it, but in the space where it’s forbidden – the latter part of the film drags and lacks the weird spark present in the hotel scenes. The ambiguous final scene, though, is likely to spur heated discussions, as well as some frustrated anger.

The Lobster was part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Spotlight Series, which consists of “films from other festivals that the programmers love,” said Currimbhoy. “Movies that won’t get picked up for distribution, probably, but that have a certain quality, something fresh.”

Some of the biggest news coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, of course, involved the controversial drama, Birth of a Nation, which focuses on African American preacher Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion aimed at freeing slaves in Virginia, and the violent retaliation by whites that followed.

During The Lobster’s post-screening discussion, Collins confirmed that Cinetopia – the annual international southeast Michigan film festival that was born at the Michigan Theater – was in talks to bring Birth of a Nation to the Mitten State (hopefully) when the festival happens June 3-12, 2016.

The Michigan Theater’s relationship with Sundance began in 2010, when Sundance rolled out a program wherein 8 films that had just had their world premieres at Sundance in Park City, Utah, were shipped out to a handful of art house theaters across the country for a one-night screening, and one or two people involved with the film – a director, a star, a producer – would be on-hand to answer questions. (The first Sundance movie shown at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater through this program was the comedy Cyrus, and one of the stars, Jonah Hill, plus filmmaker brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, appeared.)

More recently, Sundance’s close ties to the Michigan Theater (and Collins, who helms the annual, Sundance-affiliated Art House Convergence conference in Park City) have resulted in Ann Arbor becoming the sole site for this kind of special screening.

And Currimbhoy’s inaugural visit seems only to have cemented the good relations between Ann Arbor and Park City.

“I am loving this place, by the way,” Currimbhoy said. “It has really surprised me. … You are lucky to live in a place with a theater like this.”


Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, but also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

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