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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Preview: The Bard at the Michigan Theater


The Michigan Theater presents a film series dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare.

The Michigan Theater presents a film series dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare.

Starting tonight, Monday, February 1, the Michigan Theater presents a film series dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare. The Bard will celebrate Shakespeare’s works through a range of film adaptations of his plays. Alongside the more traditional performances interpreted by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, you’ll find remixes of Shakespeare’s works that cross the barriers of culture and time, such as West Side Story.

The lineup of films selected for The Bard reveals the flexibility of Shakespeare’s writing, and celebrates the universal themes explored through his timeless plays. If you’re new to Shakespeare, a lifelong fan, or if you haven’t thought about him since high school, any one of these films would be an excellent way to experience classic Shakespearean storytelling.


Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at AADL.


Most of the films will be screened on Monday nights at 7 pm, with the exception of Romeo + Juliet which will be showing on Saturday, February 13th. Take a look at the Michigan Theater's website for the full series schedule.

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Review: National Theatre Live's Hamlet

Gertrude questions Hamlet with a wicked tongue.

Gertrude questions Hamlet with a wicked tongue. / Photo by Johan Persson

On Sunday, January 17th, the Michigan Theater showed an encore screening of the National Theatre Live’s production of Hamlet to a sold-out theater. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, this production entirely reimagines the classic play and brings it into focus with a captivating clarity. It’s evident from the moment Hamlet enters the wedding celebration between his mother and his uncle that this is a dark play. The set is characterized by indigo hues and shadows, so that Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, appears both splendid and on the verge of decay.

Cumberbatch gives an excellent performance, delivering his lines with a convincing ease. This production presented Hamlet as more than a vengeful, petty step-son. Cumberbatch infuses Hamlet with purpose and emotional depth. His performance is anchored in the grief Hamlet feels over the death of his father, making Hamlet’s erratic behavior throughout the play more understandable.

War is constantly on the edges of the action; several scenes take place in a command room, antique swords and military paintings decorate the castle, and the second act includes scenes on a battlefield. Yet that constant threat is entirely overshadowed by domestic drama. Polonius and Claudius are only too willing to meddle in the lives of their children, taking time off from political matters to contrive meetings between Hamlet and Ophelia which are then watched from behind closed doors. In a way, it seems like the entire royal family is consumed, one way or another, by madness.

There are so many elements of this production that deserve praise. An inspired set design, created by Es Devlin, resulted in a broadcast that was almost like watching a typical movie. The only difference was that occasionally people would run onstage to shuffle things around in anticipation of upcoming scenes. The enclosed nature of the set, which was built at an angle to the front of the stage, almost seemed like it was designed with the camera in mind. Because the camera never captured any offstage action, it was easy to forget that you were watching a play. The downside of this cinematic quality is that the main room of Elsinore became a little claustrophobic over time, but the feeling dovetailed nicely with the themes explored by the production.

The second half of the play was characterized by low lighting, with spotlights targeting specific areas of the stage. During the final acts of the play, the entirety of the set is covered in piles of black debris and broken furniture, adding an unsettling element of discord to the Elsinore scenes. It seems as though a darkness or illness has burst out of the characters and been projected onto the rooms through which they move. The whole stage never seems to be visible, and that darkness overshadows the actions of the final scenes. We’ve reached the end of the play, and the end of almost every character onstage as the play culminates in a destructive whirlwind of a finale.

While I suspect that Cumberbatch’s popularity attracted many people to this broadcast, I got the impression that many of the people who saw the play with me enjoyed their overall experience. I know that I appreciated the chance to see a first-rate production at an affordable price. The filmed version of the play probably wasn’t quite as good as being there—I think you lose a bit of the interplay in energy between the audience and the actors—but I’d say this definitely satisfies as the next best thing. I would definitely recommend future versions of the live broadcasts for those of us who can’t jet off to London in time for the next big production.


Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library and knows a hawk from a handsaw.

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Preview: Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North


Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North.

Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North.

My guess is Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s unnerving, primal singing style isn’t exactly what filmmaker Robert Flaherty had in mind to accompany his silent masterpiece, Nanook of the North (1922). But when she was commissioned in 2012 to provide a soundscape to Flaherty’s legendary cinematic landscape, Tagaq, an outspoken advocate of aboriginal rights, was put off by the film’s racial stereotypes and so conceived a soundtrack meant to reclaim the film with a 21st-century filter.

Flaherty’s documentary methods, including some staged sequences, have come under criticism over the decades. But the landmark film, still stunning nearly 100 years on, has an authenticity that overrides these complaints. (And to be fair, there was no documentary or ethnographic film-making to speak of before Flaherty; he can arguably be said to have invented the genres. And as such, there was certainly nothing remotely resembling later-day Cinéma vérité.)

Above all, the miracle of Flaherty's achievement in Nanook of the North - aside from the fact that he pulled it off with one camera and no lights in the freezing cold - is in documenting a remote way of life never seen before during a decade of the 20th century noted for ratcheting up nationalistic fervor and suspicion of outsiders across the globe. In her upcoming performance, Tanya Tagaq’s evocative style, full of throaty breathing and influenced by electronica, industrial, and metal, should lend as much to the stunning beauty of Nanook’s arctic landscape as it does in calling out the film’s racially charged clichés.


Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.



"Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North" takes place on February 2, 2016 at 7:30 pm at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University, Ann Arbor.

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Review: Carol - Classic Film Buffs, Prepare to Fall in Love


Cate Blanchett portrays the title character in director Todd Haynes' latest film.

Cate Blanchett portrays the title character in director Todd Haynes' latest film.

The newly released film Carol by director Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce, Far From Heaven) is quickly gaining praise for its remarkable cinematography and powerful acting performances.

The film is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt (later re-published under the title Carol) about a romance between two women in 1950s New York. The book details a love affair between the young and lonely Therese, and Carol, a married woman facing divorce. Therese and Carol meet in a department store, quickly become attached to each other, and then travel cross-country to escape Carol’s familial stresses. Their situation grows increasingly complicated (no spoilers here, I promise, but there are moments of true surprise and devastation). In the end, love prevails.

I found the film to be stirring, evocative, and full of emotions that are all-at-once restrained and dynamic. Leading actresses Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Rooney Mara (Therese) demonstrate real ability, as they both perform their roles with careful and controlled intensity. The dialogue is sparse, so each spoken word carries weight. Therese and Carol often meet in public places, such as city cafés and sleepy small-town diners, where strangers don’t suspect the real intimacy of their relationship. As they speak guardedly, their true feelings towards each other are only revealed through their facial expressions. The film provides subjective shots of both women, close-up shots that frame their faces and highlight the blazing intensity in their eyes. This is how the audience too learns how these women feel about each other.

Some of the subjective close-ups reveal easily legible emotions. And as a viewer, it is satisfying to witness them so closely. Many of the shots, however, are composed in ways that disrupt the intelligibility of the women’s faces. Carol and Therese are often framed through windows. The effect is beautiful. Reflections become the foreground of the image, and their facial expressions recede. These images are richly layered, revealing colors and textures that provide substantive depth.

In an interview with Variety, the film’s cinematographer Edward Lachman said, “In a film there’s kind of a silence and moments of suspension. And this layering of images becomes kind of a subtext for their emotional states. They’re encapsulated in these cars where we see them from the outside and the reflection on the cars are what’s – let’ s say what the forces are outside of them.”

The layering complicates the images, making them more difficult to decipher. I appreciated these moments most! My eyes searched the images, looking to read facial expressions, but often paused to admire the grainy textures and washes of color.

The lush cinematography carries the film’s narrative, which moves slowly. Shot on Super-16mm film, with a muted color palette of greens, reds, and brown, the film evokes a period of time with visual accuracy, but also with the feeling of a dream. I recommend this film for those who appreciate classic love stories and period dramas. Carol offers stirring emotional experience – expect to see it nominated for several awards in the upcoming award season!


Elizabeth Wodzinski is a Desk Clerk at the Ann Arbor District Library and she would love to try on Cate Blanchett’s hats.



Carol is currently screening locally at the Michigan Theater.

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Local Woman Sees Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Local Woman Sees Star Wars

The Hairy Space-Bear and The Guy Who Wears The Leather Jacket were both in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Two weeks ago, the long-awaited Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, hit theaters like a ton of space-bricks. Hordes of people of all different ages, all kinds of backgrounds, and varying levels of nerdiness flooded theaters on December 17th to see what this latest installment had to offer. They showed up to theaters two hours before the movie. They stood in lines that stretched out the door, around the corner, and possibly into the street. They ate popcorn by the bucketful and shouted over each other to answer the theater staff’s trivia questions and win free movie tickets (most likely for return trips to see this exact same movie). And, lucky me, I was one of the many, standing in line at 9 pm with my ticket in hand, waiting for the theater doors to open. There was really only one thing separating me from the eager crowd of fans humming with excitement around me:

I had never in my life seen a Star Wars movie.

I know. Suddenly my “space-bricks” comment makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it? I know exactly zero things about Star Wars, so for all I know space-bricks are totally relevant to this fandom.

I am fully aware that every person in the world has seen Star Wars. I’m pretty sure they screen it for newborn babies in the maternity wards at hospitals. It’s been around for almost 40 years, but somehow I had managed to stumble through life without ever seeing it. I never accidentally watched one while at a friend's house or in a waiting room or settled on one while flipping through channels—you know, back in 2008 when people still had cable.

So when the new movie came out, and friends invited me along, I decided, “Yeah, ok. That could work. How important is it REALLY to have seen the other movies? I mean, I know stuff about Star Wars.”

This line of thinking was pure folly. A group of Star Wars-loving co-workers showed me just how wrong I was with an informal, pre-movie interview. Here are the things I “knew” about Star Wars before seeing the movie - spoilers ahead, but only for people as Star Wars-sheltered as me:

[begin embarrassing transcript]
So, what are you pretty sure you already know about Star Wars?
Luke and Darth Vader are related.

They sometimes fly around in ships and shoot at things, like giant desert rats.

One of the planets is, like, a desert planet.

Han Solo shot first. The internet was pretty adamant about that one.

Yoda talks funny and is green and small and…him and Luke were buds?

Jar Jar Binks is a gold robot. No, wait, he's the guy with the weird face!

There's a scene where there's deserts! Or planets.

Ok, what do you know about the general plot of Star Wars? Give us a summary.
Luke Skywalker is the Chosen One of some kind. He lives on a planet that is not Earth and fights some dudes. Not really sure about his motivation. He hangs out with Yoda and Han Solo and they teach him how to use a lightsaber. He goes to fight Darth Vader because no one likes that guy. They go to the Death Star, which is round and has a dent in it. Darth Vader wants to kill him for... reasons? Then there are storm troopers and they wear white and there are other kinds of storm troopers that look similar but are different. And they fight them? And they win? And Darth Vader dies? But first he says "Luke, I am your father." And that's all I know.

Who is Jabba the Hutt?
He's a fat guy who has Leia in a gold bikini. I know that because of Friends. Wait, is that guy blue?

What do you know about Boba Fett?
I don't remember. Is he an alien? He's not a person. Not as crazy looking as Jar Jar Binks. Is he a robot?

What about Obi-Wan Kenobi?
I used to think Harrison Ford was Obi-Wan Kenobi. But actually, he's Han Solo. I just assume they are both Harrison Ford.

How do you think the ewoks enter into this?
Oh. Yeah. Is Chewbacca an ewok? They are some sort of space animal…that are either Chewbacca or…I'm imagining them smaller? Like the footstool in Beauty and the Beast. You know that little dog?

Who is Anakin Skywalker?
That one I know! That guy is Darth Vader. He was a nice guy once and then his face got jacked up. So under his mask he has a jacked up face. What's his motivation? What's that guy up to? Is he trying to take over the universe? People are always trying to do that.

Who's the Emperor?
Is that different than Darth Vader?

Who is Lando Calrissian?
He is from across the Narrow Sea and has dragons and wants the Iron Throne?

Who does Natalie Portman play?
She was Princess Leia, right?

No.
Really!? Wow. I was like 80% sure she was Princess Leia.

What is the Force?
It's like chi? Energy. You use it for... fighting? With lightsabers? You should use it. I know you use it. And also that sometimes it is with you. Can it be good or bad? I think it's good.

What's a Jedi?
Oh, a Jedi is like an auror in Harry Potter. They fight crime and stuff and they wear brown robes. Also like Harry Potter! Wait, lightsaber color is important. I don't know why I know that. Do they have different powers? Do people have powers in this movie? Um, I know Jedis can return. They went somewhere and came back. Is Jedi plural? I think it's a job.

[end embarrassing transcript]

Yup. So, clearly I was starting on a solid foundation of very correct facts. I’m pretty sure by the end of the conversation, I was just directly quoting from movie titles. I am still not totally sure how wrong my information was, but I could kind of gauge it by how horrified my co-workers looked after each answer.

And so, armed with all of this very factual knowledge, I went to see the seventh Star Wars movie. I waited in line for two hours with a horde of die-hard Star Wars fans wearing quippy t-shirts. Some were dressed up as That One Character Who Wears Gray, or That Person With the Brown Clothes, or Princess Leia (nailed it). And lots of them were toting around what I thought at the time was some kind of zany orange and white space-hat (but was apparently a robot called BB-8). I watched my Star Wars-obsessed friends answer trivia questions and yell at a guy who dared to wear a shirt with a Star Trek font. I ate two pretzels.

And then it was finally time for the movie. We flooded into the theater, the lights went out, and the magic began.

Considering that I barely knew who anyone was or what was going on, the movie kept me completely hooked from beginning to end--aside from a very brief couple of seconds when I fell asleep because, well, it was almost midnight and I was basically full of pretzel cheese.

I thought the movie was funny, exciting, and incredibly realistic for a space opera. Spaceship chases? Yes, please! Lightsaber fights? Bring 'em on! But there were also real feelings, real relationships, and real stakes in this movie. Who'd have thought?

The main characters were just impossible not to root for. Finn, the stormtrooper who's been trained to kill for the dark side, but decides run off and fight for the Resistance; Rey, the clever, solitary junkyard girl who accidentally gets swept into this epic battle between good and evil; and BB-8, the world's most adorable space-hat, who is being hunted by the Republic.

Now, I'm not sure if a stormtrooper turning his back on the dark side and running away to fight for good is something that has ever happened in the Star Wars universe. If I'm honest, before Finn pulled off his helmet in the movie I didn't even realize stormtroopers were people. If I'm really, really honest, I didn't even know stormtrooper was one word. But the revelation that stormtroopers could have feelings and weren't all just soulless killing robots felt like a pretty new and exciting leap in character development to me--and a pretty cool introduction to the universe. All my preconceived notions, few though they were, were just blown to bits and suddenly it felt like anything could happen. If stormtroopers could be good maybe C-3PO would pull off his face to reveal that he's the Emperor. The possibilities were endless!

Rey was a joy to watch as she went from impoverished junkyard scavenger to lightsaber-wielding, butt-kicking fighter for the Resistance, and her chemistry and banter with Han Solo was so much fun. Kylo Ren, with his motivations and backstory left intentionally foggy, managed to seem well-rounded, and the relationships that were hinted at gave his character some great depth. As far as I can tell, Star Wars isn't known for making two-dimensional villains, and they certainly haven't started with Kylo Ren.

These allusions to histories and relationships between the movie's characters felt like completely new revelations, not old references that I just wasn't getting. But it was interesting how easy it was to pick up on the things that were old inside jokes. I didn't get any of them, of course, but I could tell when some classic Star Wars thing had happened because suddenly the camera would pan around to a nondescript, decrepit spaceship and everyone would start screaming and cheering. Or Han Solo would stop and say something completely unremarkable and the entire theater would explode into laughter and applause.

The combination of old references and new information made something incredibly clear, though. While I could probably say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a good movie--I enjoyed seeing it and only fell asleep the one time--it would be impossible for me to say just how good it was without having seen the other beloved (and less-beloved) films in the series. Are these ideas, these characters, these plot lines original and revolutionary and surprising, or are they overdone tropes? Are they carefully planned and well-thought-out tie-ins to plot lines from the previous movies or have they kicked the old plot lines to the curb? Is this the continuation of one great big, epic story or an entirely new story with some familiar faces tacked on?

On a great big list of "Things I Don't Know About Star Wars," these questions have all risen to the top. Right below the biggest question of all: Was Star Wars: The Force Awakens really a good movie?

I think so. But I can't know for sure until I've seen the rest. And so, with the next movie in the franchise looming on the horizon, it might be time to give in to the gravitational pull of the Star Wars universe and just…watch the movies already.


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and if she had to rename The Force Awakens, she would call it Star Wars: Stormtroopers Have Feelings Too. Or maybe, Star Wars: Everyone In Space Has Daddy Issues.



Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in theaters everywhere, all the time.

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