Review: Encore Theatre’s Assassins is Excellent Entertainment and Trenchant History, a Must-See


The cast of Assassins proves you can change the world with just a little finger.

The cast of Assassins proves you can change the world with just a little finger. / Photo by Michele Anliker Photography

In a time of intense political grievance, the Encore Musical Theatre Company is presenting a riveting, brilliant production of Assassins, a work that uses music, drama, and comedy to explore the darkest side of our democracy.

Presidential assassination is an odd topic for a musical but offers compelling material for lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman. Since the 1920s production of Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat, Broadway musicals have dealt with many serious topics, but usually in the context of a romantic core. Assassins is different, a multi-leveled examination of grievance and despair that is at once sympathetic and horrific, funny and sad, maddening and challenging.

Assassins tells the stories and the complaints of presidential assassins and would-be assassins from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. Yet this is no dry history lesson. The stories begin with Booth but are not chronological. The assassins interact across decades, each a separate and distinct personality with similar discontents but varied reasons. And the grim reality is fractured by comedy from musical lilts to slapstick.

Matthew Brennan does triple duty here as director, choreographer, and cast member as our storyteller/balladeer and as Lee Harvey Oswald. In Brennan’s director’s note he writes that this is the show that made him want to be a director and he gets everything right here. He has obviously thought long and hard about the rich possibilities opened up by Sondheim and Weidman, dramatically and musically.

Each part is well cast. They reflect our precise images and ideas of Booth and Oswald while delving deeper into the characters through the precision of Sondheim’s lyrics and music. The other assassins also have their day.

Brennan has that lean chiseled face of Oswald and looks about in that bewildered way that became so well known in the brief time he was on the public stage before his own murder. As the balladeer he is a clear note of conscience but also a fair guide to each grievance.

And who are these dark figures who present their stories, appropriately, on a set designed by Sarah Tanner of the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository?

David Moan is a dead ringer for John Wilkes Booth, the suave, handsome matinee idol. He wears the dashing mustache and styled hair but Moan’s face mixes the look of charm and steel that was Booth. He sings in an almost sweet and yet anguished voice as he makes his case and unburdens his agony that “our country is not what it was.” In the final scenes his voice has that rich syrupy southern warmth that must have made Booth the stage star he was, though always in the shadow of his brother Edwin.

Daniel A. Helmer is the funny, chipper, ever optimistic striver Charles Guiteau who assassinated James Garfield. Helmer sings, dances, and clowns and captures every nuance of a man who believed in his deepest heart in the American dream and never understood why he didn’t get his fair share. Helmer has him nailed in his performance.

More pathetic is Samuel Byck, who planned to kill Richard Nixon by hijacking an airliner and crashing into the White House. He was killed before he got off the ground. His story here is told in the recreation of two tapes he made, one addressed to Leonard Bernstein (for whom Sondheim wrote the lyrics to West Side Story) and another to Nixon. Keith Allan Kalinowski gives a shattering performance of a man on the verge of mental breakdown, everything in his life a mark of failure. Kalinowski’s performance is brusque, funny, soulful and full of pathos.

On a more “humorous” note are Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who in September of 1975 both decided to assassinate the least controversial, blandest president ever, Michigan’s own Gerald Ford in separate attempts. Fromme was as she said lover and slave of Charlie Manson and participant in his crimes. Sara Jane Moore was a scatter-brained, middle-aged housewife who wasn’t sure what she was doing or why.

Carly Snyder as Fromme and Sarah Briggs as Moore bring these characters to life in all their craziness and ineptness. Snyder has an interesting cross generation duet with John Hinckley (James Fischer) justifying her bizarre love for a madman. Briggs is a superb comic, with body motions and facial contortions that reveal the special anguish of Moore’s mental illness.

Dan Johnson plays the angry but personally retiring anarchist Leon Czologz, McKinley’s assassin. He captures the tight bewilderment of a man never at home in America and not really sure why. He speaks and sings poignantly of what it’s like to be on the bottom of the American economic system.

Ari Axelrod brings ferocity to his performance of Giuseppe Zangara, who in the attempt to kill president-elect Franklin Roosevelt killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. His death scene is ferocious but brilliantly undercut by a competing ensemble piece of bystanders who yearn for publicity for “saving Roosevelt.”

Fischer’s Hinckley is a quiet boy man. Fischer is a plaintive suitor to a phantom Jodie Foster. In one of many clever stagings, Hinckley’s pathetic assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan is stylized and highlighted by Reagan’s heroic voice of humor, calmness, and strength.

The music is alternately bracing, lush, and humorous, excellently performed by the orchestra under Tyler Driskill. The ensemble cast is excellent, especially on the multi-voiced final “Everybody’s Got the Right.”

One small glitch was a problem in the sound system but it didn’t distract from an outstanding show.

History often repeats itself, sometimes tragically in the form of assassinations. In a democracy we need and encourage dissent, strong voices with aggressive and sometimes vital complaints. But there is a line where complaint becomes madness and visions of a better day when our country was a better place distort reality. Sondheim and Weidman have given us a history lesson that provokes, amuses, shocks but never gives an easy answer. Encore brings that vividly to life.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

Assassins continues at the Encore Theatre in Dexter at 7 pm on Thursdays, June 23 and 30; 8 pm on Fridays, June 17, 24 and July 1; and 3 and 8 pm on Saturdays June 11, 18, 25 and July 2; and 3 pm Sundays June 12, 19, 26 and July 3. For tickets, call the Encore Theatre Box Office at (734) 268-6200 or visit the website at

Preview: Love's Labour's Lost in the Arb


Only love's labour's--and not the audience--are planned to be lost in the Arb this June.

Only love's labour's--and not the audience--are planned to be lost in the Arb this June.

After reading Station Eleven — the recent sci-fi best seller about a troupe of actors and musicians traveling the dangerous shores of post-apocalyptic Michigan in order to keep culture, most notably Shakespeare, alive — I have a newfound respect for our peripatetic Tree Town tradition that attracts thousands of participants every summer: Shakespeare in the Arb, now in its 16th season.

This year, Kate Mendeloff of the University of Michigan Residential College will direct Love’s Labour’s Lost which she first took up and fell in love with 10 years ago. As the scenes change, performers (students and local actors) as well as the audience will move to various locations in U-M’s Nichols Arboretum, where the setting's natural landscape and pastoral splendor — broken only by the occasional jogger — will provide the perfect backdrop.

Bring a portable lawn chair or blanket. And remember that the stray bug (or two) is but a small thing to endure for the pleasure of experiencing Shakespeare al fresco. Just don’t forget to bring the OFF!

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

Love’s Labour’s Lost runs Thursday-Sunday, June 9-12, 16-19, and 23-25, at 6:30 pm in Nichols Arboretum, 1610 Washington Heights. Tickets go on sale at 5:30 pm the day of each performance. Visit the Matthaei Botanical Garden website for more information, or call 734-647-7600.

Preview: The Outer Vibe at Top of the Park


Top of the Park's

Top of the Park's "musical vacation" is definitely a vible option for your Saturday night.

The self-described “musical vacation” that is Grand Rapids’ The Outer Vibe will bring its neverending party to Top of The Park’s Rackham Stage for a free show this Saturday. The eclectic indie rock band — which comprises lead vocalist/guitarist Sean Zuidgeest, singer/guitarist Nick Hosford, singer/bassist Andrew Dornoff, singer/guitarist Nick Hosford, singer/trumpet player/keyboardist Lisa Kacos, and singer/drummer Noah Snyder — fuses radio friendly pop hooks with blistering surf guitar riffs, brassy orchestration, and lyrics that exude pure positivity.

The band has won friends and fans young and old alike on its most recent national tour, thanks in part to its generation-spanning influences ranging from Dick Dale and Paul Simon to Alabama Shakes and Foster the People.Trumpeter Lisa Kacos, speaking to me on the phone as the band headed out for a short East Coast tour, said even audiences unfamiliar with the group tend to get swept up in their infectious good vibes.

“Sometimes if it's our first time in a new place, I think a lot of people just kind of sit there and feel you out for a few songs, but I think I can say pretty faithfully that 100 percent of the time we have the audience up and dancing and having a great time.”

The group is currently on the road to promote a new live album, recorded this April in their hometown at the end of a three month trek across the country in support of their 2015 full-length, Full Circle. The Outer Vibe is one of the Mitt’s must-see live bands, and they promise to get the entire crowd on their feet this Saturday.

I caught up with Kacos to talk about the band’s recent travels and what fans can expect from the band going forward.

Q: Michiganders joke that it’s winter half the year here, but The Outer Vibe sounds like an endless beach party. Where does that positivity come from?

A: We write music that makes us feel how we want to feel. It's funny, a lot of people think we're from California. We've been told that quite a bit on tour. Our drummer likes to tell people that our music is a slice of paradise. We like to feel good, we like to be happy. Whether we're convincing ourselves of that because it's December in Michigan or not, we like to feel good and we want other people to feel good when they listen to our music.

Q: The Outer Vibe has earned a lot of attention for its dynamic performances. How do you sustain that level of energy night after night, for months at a time?

A: A lot of coffee [laughs]! No, it's just what we do for a living. We love music, we love putting on a live show, and we love meeting new people and new audiences all across the country, and seeing old fans too. It's a really exciting lifestyle, and it's always different, it's always changing. There's always something to look forward to.

Q: Has being on the road so much influenced your material in any way?

A: We are absolutely influenced by our travels, all of our experiences together. It's all about your relationships with the people you meet and living life to the fullest, we feel. We've made all kinds of great friends across the country, and it's very inspiring. I think that plays a big role in our writing.

Q: You have a live record coming out this summer, recorded at The Intersection in Grand Rapids at the end of your most recent national tour. What made that night so special that you decided to release it as an album?

A: We called it a homecoming concert, because we'd been on tour for three months covering the bulk of the United States, pretty much from Michigan straight down to Florida, and pretty much everything West. We saw the Pacific and the Atlantic, and we were right by the Canadian border and right by the border of Mexico. We covered a lot of ground, and we were gone a long time.

We decided to have a big homecoming concert in Grand Rapids because we missed our friends and family and we wanted to party with West Michigan. We just made it a really big thing. There were a lot of people there, and we were feeling really good about our live set. We'd played sixty concerts, so we figured it would be a good time to make a recording.

Q: The producer you worked with on Full Circle, Brad Dollar, has worked with some really big names in the past. What kind of influence did he have on the sound of the record?

A: Brad is great. We were on the same page, and he loves capturing a live, organic sound like we were after for a record. He's super enthusiastic. He was really good at reminding us how important it is to be ourselves, dig deep within, and write music that we love. I think that's going to stick with us as we work in the future.

Full Circle was a great album for our band. That was the first one with Noah, our drummer, so that was kind of a fresh start for us. We had a whole bunch of new music and we were deciding who wanted to be at that time. That album's a pretty good representation of our sound, so we're taking some of those sounds and using that as a jumping off point.

Q: What's next for the band?

A: We're writing all the time. We're also going to be touring a lot this summer. We kind of do both at once. We are looking to make an E.P. We're always working on our sound. We're always trying to be creative and push ourselves to create more great songs.

I think what we've been talking about doing is more of the things that really make our band The Outer Vibe, really utilizing the things that make us special. Like Nick's' guitar style is pretty particular to Nick. He's a classically trained guy with a master's degree in guitar performance, and he's pretty skilled, so we want to make sure he gets to play his guitar in a way that's unique to him. And my trumpet's a little bit different than most bands that have trumpet. And our rhythm section, the drums and bass, are just working the groove and making people feel good and dance. And I think Shaun’s voice is pretty recognizable. We're taking everything we like about our group and honing that in.

Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.

The Outer Vibe will play the Rackham Stage at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival at 10:45 pm on Friday, June 10. The Rackham Stage is located at Top of the Park at 915 E Washington St. Admission is free, and venue and parking information can be found at

Preview: Sophia Kruz's 'Little Stones' Sheds Light on Art and Gender


Sophia Kruz's forthcoming documentary Little Stones.

Sophia Kruz's forthcoming documentary, Little Stones, rocks.

Along with being an EMMY® Award-winning documentary filmmaker whose films have been screened all over the country, Ann Arbor native Sophia Kruz is using her directing skills to shed light on global gender inequity in her forthcoming documentary Little Stones . The documentary is currently in post-production under the working title Creating4Change.

Kruz, along with Little Stones cinematographer Meena Singh, is a co-founder of the non-profit Driftseed, an organization that "seeks to empower women and girls through the art of documentary storytelling." United through a mission to use art for social good, the women in Kruz’s Little Stones range across continent and industry: American fashion designer Anna Taylor empowers impoverished Kenyan women; Indian dance therapist Sohini Chakraborty helps heal survivors of sexual abuse; graffiti artist Panmela Castro uses her art to advocate for survivors of domestic abuses; and Senegalese musician Sister Fa challenges female genital mutilation. Behind the telling of these narratives of empowered women is Kruz’s own artistic vision. I asked Kruz about her motivation for the film, the process of making an international documentary, and how members of Ann Arbor’s community can follow in her footsteps to foster positive change locally.

Filmmaker Sophia Kruz (left) and director of photography Meena Singh (right).

Filmmaker Sophia Kruz (left) and director of photography Meena Singh (right).

Q: Your early work as a filmmaker focuses on immediate stories in the Ann Arbor community as well as within your family. What drew you into these initial subjects?
A: My first documentary, Time Dances On tells the story of my parents, how they fell in love, how their marriage slowly dissolved, and ultimately, how my dad decided to come out as a gay man because of the love and friendship he felt towards my mom. It's a story that I felt really compelled to tell throughout college, first as a fun get-to-know-you fact in my freshman dorm, then sophomore year as a short fictional essay in an intro to creative writing course, then junior year as the premise of a fictional screenplay, and finally senior year in documentary form. I suppose in some ways I needed to work through that story first to be able to move onto other projects, but it was also the story that allowed me to discover my passion for documentary.

Q: Little Stones is a study of human rights issues all around the world, jumping between several countries and cultures. Was there a common thread you found within the people you interviewed?
A: Little Stones follows four women in India, Brazil, Senegal, and Kenya who are using dance, graffiti, music, and fashion to create positive change for women and girls. There were certainly a lot of themes and similarities between the four artists that I started to see when we went to visit the women in their home countries, the most prominent of which was self-sacrifice. All four women have given up something to be an artist and activist. Sister Fa perhaps says it best: "If you just come close to most of the activists, we try to find solutions for the world, but we don’t have solutions for our own lives.”

Q: What is the function of art in changing norms and attitudes?
A: I think art is hugely important in changing culture. Often, artists are also activists, on the front lines of social change movements. Art can ignite an idea in the collective consciousness, rally a community around an issue, and provide healing for those in need. I do think art is undervalued in American culture and that just saying, as a community, "art is important," really isn't enough—we need to invest in the arts as well.

That said, I think some of the best forms of problem solving come about when artists and creative minds are paired with activists, lawyers, law enforcement, government agencies, philanthropy, and everything in between. The challenges and barriers women around the world face are great, and they take many forms. Our approach to problem solving needs to be equally great and all-encompassing.

Q: Why does the film matter to those living in the Ann Arbor area?
A: I would quote Alyse Nelson, Executive Director of Vital Voices, who said in an interview for the film:

"If you look around the world with all the issues women face, the one thing that unites us is that there is not a single culture, community, country, religion that can say violence against women, domestic violence, culturally harmful practices, trafficking, rape does not exist. It exists everywhere. It is that thing that all of us face. And really the heart of it is how we value women in our societies, and in our communities, and our cultures, and if culture and values are a barrier, couldn’t we also look at how to use culture, to use the arts, and innovative creative means, and brains, to combat the negative influences of culture?"

That quote certainly rings true in Ann Arbor, where we have a human trafficking clinic run by the University of Michigan Law School dedicated to seeking justice for sex and labor trafficking victims in our own communities, local women's shelters in constant need of resources to support survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence, local law enforcement dealing with cases of sexual assault on U-M and EMU campuses, and lower rates of female executives and board members in local businesses and non-profit organizations. Everyone in this community, not just artists, but women and men, can volunteer at these organizations, fight for gender equity in their workplace, and be an agent of change.

Q: In addition to the local issues affecting gender equity in Ann Arbor, what will be unique about screening the film in your hometown?
A: We're planning a sneak preview screening of Little Stones at the Michigan Theater this October, in part because Ann Arbor has played a huge role in making this film possible. I say that for two reasons. First, I'm from Ann Arbor, and I think the values that launched this film—that art can create social change, and we all have a role to play—are a product of growing up in a community that values the arts and gender equity.

Second, this film literally would not have been possible without the moral and financial support I've received from my friends, family, mentors, colleagues, local artists, women's organizations, business leaders, state government, and the University of Michigan. I want Ann Arbor to get a sneak peek of Little Stones as a way to say thank you to everyone who's believed in the film from the beginning, and all the new allies we've made along the way.

Juliana Roth is a writer currently living in Ann Arbor whose poetry, essays and fiction have appeared in The Establishment, Irish Pages, Bear River Review, DIN Magazine, and other publications.

Little Stones is currently in post-production. You can stay up to date with Sophia Kruz’s work and future screenings on her website.

Review: Civic's 'Wedding Singer' is an entertaining musical trip to the go-go '80s


The Wedding Singer, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre.

Chip Mezo is The Wedding Singer.

A twirling mirror ball fills the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre with a dazzling display of twinkly stars setting just the right tone for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's giddy and highly entertaining production of The Wedding Singer. It's a nostalgic musical trip back to the go-go Reagan years of the 1980s and a search for true love by two lost souls.

The Wedding Singer was a Broadway musical based on the popular Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore rom-com. The film's writer Tim Herlihy teamed with Chad Beguelin to fit the movie to a theater stage and substitute an '80s Top 40 soundtrack with an original score with music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Beguelin. The result is often hilariously funny and sometimes a bit touching, even though we all know how it will end.

The trick for Sklar was to create music that echoes those hits without actually copying them. You'll recognize the inspirations immediately and smile. Beguelin's lyrics effectively capture the schmaltzy side of the era but also excellently parody some of the more strident songs.

Most importantly, the A2CT cast is fully engaged as they romp through several weddings and a bar mitzvah before true love finds its way to a Vegas wedding chapel (replacing a hectic airport scene in the movie and weary travelers with celebrity impersonators). Director Ron Baumanis keeps the sets simple, mobile and interchangeable. The focus is all on the performance of his talented cast.

Chip Mezo is Robbie, the wedding singer, who believes that the happiness he brings to the newlyweds and their guests is better than being a rock star. Unfortunately, it means he is reduced to living in his grandparents' basement. But Robbie believes in love. Mezo is a fine pop singer with just the right amounts of swagger and innocence.

He can do a Billy Joel style riff on "Somebody Kill Me," find the ethnic humor in "Today You Are a Man" and go all mushy on "Grow Old With Me."

The ultimate object of his affection is the sweet, consoling, ever hopeful Julia. Kimberly Elliott gives each of those qualities full play in her fine performance and, of course, adds a bit of goofiness as well. Elliott is a fine singer, whether on a song of longing, "Someday", or on a cheerful song of affirmation, "Come Out of the Dumpster".

The course of true love does not run smoothly. Robbie is in love with Linda, who dumps him early on as a loser who will never be the rock star she deserves. Julia is engaged to a Wall Street investor with a bullying personality and a roving eye. But they have loyal friends who help to steer them in the right direction.

Salina Burke as Linda gets two songs to display her strong pop voice. On "Let Me Come Home" she gets to sing, jump and perform a tasteful strip tease all at once.

Michael Cicirelli is Glenn, Julia's obnoxious boyfriend. He does a fine run down on Wall Street ethics in the song "All About the Green."

Robbie's band mates Sammy and George offer contrast. Sammy is a mullet-haired dude played with easygoing sincerity by Daniel Hazlett.

George is an observant, quietly mocking gay man who wonders at his friend's misplaced optimism. Chris Joseph is a bright, always engaging performer who often steals the show. He is hilarious as he noodles away at a bar mitzvah blessing and brings a bit of Little Richard to a dance with Robbie's forward-looking grandmother Rosie on "Move That Thang." But best of all, his face is a Greek Chorus of commentary on what's going on.

Becca Novak brings another big '80s style voice to the role of Julia's best friend Holly. She takes the lead on the rollicking "Saturday Night in the City" and joins Hazlett on a duet "Right in Front of Your Eyes." Karen Underwood plays Rosie with warmth and humor without overdoing the stereotype.

The solid band under the direction Jim Territo does an excellent job of hitting all the sounds of the '80s.

The ensemble brings those déjà vu weddings to life with some excellent bad dancing, drunken dedications, conga lines, and, as always, tense moments that might lead to a brawl.

This is a happy show. The songs are not very original and that's the point. The story is set in stone at the beginning and that's why it's so appealing. The director and his cast bring it all together into a concoction that is as spritzy and bright as a mirror ball twirling in the night.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The Wedding Singer continues at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the main campus of the University of Michigan at 8 pm June 3 and 4 and 2 pm June 5. For tickets, visit or call (734) 971-2228.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #601: Spotlight on Australian Fiction


Relativity by Antonia Hayes

In Antonia Hayes' debut novel Relativity, nerdy, bookish and a ready target for bullies, 12 year-old Ethan Forsythe is obsessed with physics and astronomy. Raised by Claire, a single-mother who gave up her career as a ballerina, Ethan is increasing curious about his father whose identity Claire refuses to disclose.

When a seizure sends Ethan to the hospital, they discover his remarkable abilities might be related to a previous brain injury suffered as an infant that sent his father, Mark to prison. Meanwhile, Mark, who tries to rebuild his life in the far-reaches of Western Australia, is back in Sydney, to attend to his dying father who is asking to see Ethan, his only grandson. When Ethan secretly intercepts a letter from Mark to Claire, he unleashes long-suppressed forces that—like gravity—pull the three together again, testing the limits of love and forgiveness.

"With a heart-wrenching plot and a style reminiscent of Jodi Picoult, this is an excellent novel with deep characterization and powerful imagery.” -Library Journal

The Railwayman's Wife by Ashley Hay

2014 winner of the Colin Roderick Award, and set in the remote coastal town of Thirroul at the end of WWII, The Railwayman's Wife by Ashley Hay is the story of Anikka "Ani" Lachlan, a transplant from Scotland who is trying desperately to make a home for herself and her 11 year-old daughter Isabelle.

After her husband, the railway-man Mac(kenzie) was killed in an accident while on the job, Ani was given the job as the librarian in the railway's lending library. Returning to settle at Thirroul are Roy McKinnon and Dr. Frank Draper, childhood friends who for years, have vacationed at this idyllic spot with their families. McKinnon, a published poet has lost his words from his battlefield experience; while Draper who could not reconcile with his inability to save the 550 prisoners in one of Hitler's concentration camps, has turned bitter and sardonic. They soon find refuge in the library, and gradually a friend in Ani.

Over the course of a year, with Ani as his muse, Roy manages to write again. His first poem is an anonymous offering to Ani, who mistakes it for a hidden birthday gift from Mac. Despite the promise of a new publisher, Roy's despondency grows as Ani never acknowledges the gift. Frank fares better, being taken in hand by Roy's patient and take-charge sister, Iris.

"Multilayered, graceful, couched in poetry, supremely honest, gentle yet jarring, Hay’s thought-provoking novel pulls you along slowly, like a deep river that is deceptively calm but full of hidden rapids. Much to ponder." -Kirkus Reviews

Readers interested in the Australian setting might enjoy (the film adaptation of) Peter Carey's Oscar & Lucinda; the winner of the 2001 Orange Prize - The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville; The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (a soon-to-be released feature film); and Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany.

Preview: Cinetopia International Film Festival


Official art for the fifth year of Cinetopia

Let the fifth year of Cinetopia reel you in.

The Cinetopia International Film Festival, now in its fifth year, has never failed to live up to its name. But this year’s lineup is fit to surpass every other international film festival in the Midwest. Spanning numerous venues throughout Detroit and Ann Arbor over the next two weeks, Cinetopia will host 55 of the most exciting independent films that have screened at Sundance, Cannes, SXSW, and more. From narrative feature films to shorts, documentaries, and animated features, Cinetopia promises the cream of this year’s worldwide film festival crop.

This year’s programming features new offerings from established talent—including features starring Penelope Cruz and Viggo Mortensen, as well as Werner Herzog’s latest documentary—in addition to work from lesser-known talent, like Grand Rapids’ Joel Potrykus (writer/director of last year’s Buzzard) and L.A.’s Will Allen, whose buzzed-about new film Holy Hell examines his youth spent in a spiritual cult.

Cinetopia will also present several rare Disney screenings—Bambi and Fantasia are among them, both hosted by Leonard Maltin—outdoor screenings at Ann Arbor Summer Fest and the Detroit Institute of Art, and a selection of the finest Arab films on the festival circuit.

Michigan Theater CEO and Cinetopia founder Russ Collins offered some advice for navigating the festival’s vast offerings, suggesting, “Instead of picking out a whole bunch of films you want to see day after day after day, pick a few and set aside as many days as you can afford to go to the festival. Take a vacation in your own hometown.” His personal suggestions include the wacky Chinese musical Johnnie To's Office, the New Zealand comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Girls Lost, a film adapted from a Swedish young adult novel which he says is a favorite among Cinetopia’s programmers.

Though every film at Cinetopia has played another prominent film festival in the last year or so, Collins says each film isn’t guaranteed to please. He hopes festival-goers will embrace the element of surprise and try something outside of their comfort zones. He also notes that Cinetopia is one of the rare festivals that offers a stipend to its participating filmmakers, instead of making its money off of submission fees like, say, Sundance, which receives thousands of hopeful entries each year.

"I'm not promising that everyone's going to love every film that we show, but every film that we show has been vetted by other festivals,” Collins says. “We watched 450 films to come up with our 55 films on the program. We thought we could deliver a better quality international film festival by not having to try to adjudicate 4,000 films. We can benefit the filmmakers and the audience by working it this way."

Even given Collins’ suggestions, parsing out Cinetopia’s massive line-up is still a daunting task. Here are five films to consider to get you started, some of which I’ve seen and others that I’ve read about over the last year and am excited to finally see playing in my hometown.

The Alchemist Cookbook English Language Fiction "> NR "> 82 min">

The Alchemist Cookbook "> English Language Fiction "> NR "> 82 min

Grand Rapids filmmaker Joel Potrykus might finally find the larger audience he deserves with his latest film, about a young hermit who tries to summon Satan with a chemistry set in his backwoods trailer. Potrykus’s three previous films—the so-called Animal Trilogy—also center on outcasts compelled by destructive urges. His debut short Coyote is a minimalist werewolf movie about a junkie struggling to keep up with his addiction; his feature length debut Ape concerns a failed stand-up comedian who finds relief in pyromania; and last year’s excellent Buzzard follows follows a frustrated temp worker who pilfers money from his employer and turns a Nintendo Power Glove into a deadly weapon.

Just as his protagonists are simultaneously reprehensible and strangely likable, Potrykus’s films have a low key charm you can’t look away from, even when you’re horrified by the action onscreen. The Alchemist Cookbook is just as challenging and idiosyncratic as Potrykus’s other work to date. Not quite a horror film and not exactly a comedy, it’s loosely plotted but never aimless, and it’s totally unlike any other film playing at Cinetopia or elsewhere. In short: It’s the work of a promising young director at the peak of his powers.

The Alchemist Cookbook will screen at College for Creative Studies on Friday June 3 at 9:30 p.m., and the Michigan Theater on Wednesday June 8 at 9:30 p.m. Director/screenwriter Joel Potrykus will participate in a discussion following the opening night screening.

Closet Monster English Language Fiction "> NR "> 90 min">

Closet Monster "> English Language Fiction "> NR "> 90 min

Writer/director Stephen Dunn’s feature debut Closet Monster won Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival for, “...its confidence and invention in tackling the pain and yearning of the first love and coming of age of a young gay man in Newfoundland.” That’s no small honor, and no small feat given the surprising scarcity of earnest, relatable queer characters in film and television today.

American Crime’s Connor Jessup stars as Oscar Madly, a troubled teen who longs to leave his abusive home life behind for his dream of becoming a movie make-up artist. Oscar’s saving grace is his creativity, which manifests itself on screen with visual panache thanks to Dunn’s inventive direction. Oh, and Isabella Rossellini voices Oscar’s pet hamster and main confidant, Buffy. What more could you ask for?

Closet Monster plays at Cinema Detroit Saturday June 4 at 7 p.m. and The State Theatre on Friday June 10 at 7:15 p.m.

De Palma Documentary "> R "> 107 min">

De Palma "> Documentary "> R "> 107 min

Brian De Palma is one of the most distinctive directors of the last five decades, if not one of the most revered, but his career has nearly as many downs as ups. The man behind classics like Carrie, Scarface, and The Untouchables is also responsible for bombs like Snake Eyes and Bonfire of the Vanities, but he’s never lost his trademark voyeuristic style.

De Palma finally gets to tell his own story in this new documentary from Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) and Jake Paltrow (The Good Night, Young Ones). De Palma sits down for a fireside chat and tells the tale of his rise from low budget hopeful to underrated elder statesman. This isn’t your standard congratulatory, talking head ridden retrospective: De Palma’s is the only voice present, and no subject—be it his controversial depictions of women, or his films’ over-the-top violence—is off limits.

De Palma screens at the Detroit Film Theater on Sunday June 5 at 1:15 p.m.

Iggy Pop: Live in Basel 2015 Music/Concert "> 79 min "> NR">

Iggy Pop: Live in Basel 2015 "> Music/Concert "> 79 min "> NR

Iggy Pop has hinted that his current tour will likely be his last. If you missed the godfather of punk’s historic return to Detroit in April, this film of his 2015 performance at Baloise Session in Basel, Switzerland (where he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award) is the next best thing. Nothing can compare with seeing Pop twist and flail his wiry 69-year-old frame in person, but Iggy Pop: Live in Basel 2015 captures the wild energy of one of rock’s most outrageous artists going out on a high note. The sprightly sextuagenarian blasts through an 80-minute set that balances crowd-pleasers like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “Lust For Life” with deep cuts like “Five Foot One” and “Mass Production.”

Iggy Pop: Live in Basel 2015 plays at the Detroit Film Theatre on Sunday June 5 at 7 p.m. and at the Michigan Theater on Sunday June 12 at 7 p.m.

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World Documentary "> NR "> 98 min">

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World "> Documentary "> NR "> 98 min

In the last decade Werner Herzog has primarily trained his efforts on documentaries, and in that time the German auteur has tackled subjects as diverse as death row (Into the Abyss), ancient cave paintings (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) the dangers of texting while driving (From One Second to the Next), and the notorious bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man).

If those films have any one theme in common, it’s an urging to question the murky territory between perception and reality. It’s no surprise, then, that his his latest film, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World examines the origins and implications of the most revolutionary and potentially catastrophic invention of the last century: the Internet.

With his devastating wit and sobering philosophical observations in full force, Lo and Behold claims not only to tell the story of how the World Wide Web came to be, but also to humanize the technology we rely on to automate our lives.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connect World plays at the Detroit Film Theatre on Sunday June 5 at 4 p.m., the State Theatre on Saturday June 11 at 9:30 p.m., and the Henry Ford on Sunday June 12 at 5 p.m.

Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.

Cinetopia International Film Festival runs June 3-12 in Detroit, Dearborn, Bloomfield Township, and Ann Arbor. Detroit screenings will take place at The Redford Theatre, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Cinema Detroit, the College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts and The N’Nambi Center for Contemporary Art. Dearborn locations include The Arab American National Museum and The Henry Ford Giant Screen Experience. The Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township will host several films.

The festival will shift its focus to Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater and the State Theatre June 9-12. Ticket info, showtimes, and screening locations are available online.

Preview: 2016 Allied Media Conference: Holistic Solutions for a More Just and Creative World

Preview: 2016 Allied Media Conference: Holistic Solutions for a More Just and Creative World.

The awesomely expansive 2016 Allied Media Conference will be held in Detroit this year and aims to “bring together a vibrant and diverse community of people using media to incite change: filmmakers, radio producers, technologists, youth organizers, writers, entrepreneurs, musicians, dancers, and artists.” The content of the conference is diverse too, including workshops, shows, and dance parties.

I interviewed Morgan Willis, Program Director of the AMC, about what we can expect from this year’s conference.

Q: You talk about AMC as a collaboratively-designed conference. Can you give a sense of the number and scope of collaborators who have worked on this year's event?
A: The Allied Media Conference is created each year through the passionate contributions of hundreds of coordinators, presenters, and volunteers. The AMC organizing process has been developed from an iterative cycle of feedback and learning between AMC participants and organizers. Through trial and error, survey and response, the organizing process is a continuous work in progress.

This year we have 60+ volunteer coordinators of the 28 different tracks, practice spaces, and network gatherings at the conference. We also have approximately 10 full time and part time staff members that work on the conference, as well as an advisory board of nine intergenerational, long-time AMC participants. We share the conference organizing process through our zines “How We Organize the AMC” and the “AMC Presenter Guidelines.”

Q: Who do you hope to see at AMC?
A: The AMC is a conference that is excited to center participants who live at the margins of conventional conference spaces: immigrants, youth, elders, black and brown folks, queer folks, parents, and others, while remaining open to our vast network of participants across all identities and spectrums. We hope to see first time AMCers, returning participants, Detroiters and media-makers from all over the continent.

Q: How does being situated in Detroit influence the conference?
A: This year will be the AMC’s 10th anniversary of being held in Detroit! Detroit is important as a source of innovative, collaborative, low-resource solutions. Detroit gives the conference a sense of place, just as each of the conference participants bring their own sense of place with them to the conference. Detroiters are also a significant percentage of our coordinators, participants, presenters and attendees.

Our offsite tours and field trips allow participants to see a variety of grassroots media-based organizing initiatives and experience different parts of the city that they may not know about or have access to. One of the most popular tours that is back this year is “From Growing Our Economy to Growing Our Souls” which explores Detroit history and emerging visionary organizing, led by Rich Feldman of the Boggs Center. Other tours will explore urban farming, “green” infrastructure, the Motown United Sound Recording Studio, and more unique places and initiatives in Detroit.

Q: Any tips for navigating the conference for newbies? How about return visitors?
A: As the AMC continues to grow, we hope to ensure that it is a welcoming space for first timers while also cultivating the intimacy and network building that many returning AMCers value so much. This year we will be offering “homeroom” sessions for first timers, hosted by returning AMCers who will help orient first timers to the AMC and offer best practices for navigating through the conference. We will also be sharing a list of “10 Things to Know as an AMC First Timer” on our website ( so stay tuned!

One thing we always emphasize to both newbies and returning visitors is to plan your schedule in advance. We just released the online schedule and we highly recommend that attendees read through the 250+ sessions to get a feeling for what you’re most interested in before you arrive. This will also help you identify people and organizations you’d like to connect with so you can grow your network and build long lasting relationships.

Q: What are you personally looking forward to in this year's conference?
A: The Opening Ceremony is always a highlight! This year, through a partnership with the Detroit Institute of Arts museum, we will host the Opening Ceremony inside the beautiful Detroit Film Theater, which has double the capacity of our previous venue. The event is produced by Tunde Olaniran and will bring together performers, activists, and live music as a celebration of the powerful wave of creative movement-building happening across the country.

I’m also especially excited to see the evolution of workshops from last year into tracks (series of multiple workshops) this year, like the “Black Death Mixtape” session, which has expanded into the “Black Survival Mixtape” track. And I love the return of tracks and network gatherings focused on important topics such as climate resilience and disability justice.

We will also be hosting several community dinners this year, which are a way for attendees to meet and connect over affordable, delicious, and locally sourced food. I’m especially looking forward to the Saturday night community dinner, “Bil Afiya: A Community Feast” at Cass Corridor Commons!

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

The 18th Allied Media Conference takes place June 16 - 19, 2016. AMC offers housing, registration, childcare information, and more online. Registration is on a sliding scale from $75-$500.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #600


Fabulous Fiction Firsts #600

The word is getting out about The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick.

It is a must-read for fans of A Man Called Ove; The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry; The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared; and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand—another curiously charming debut about a lonesome widower's life-changing adventure.

Clinging to the simple daily routine established long before his beloved wife of 40 years, Miriam's death a year ago, Arthur Pepper finally feels strong enough to sort through her things. He comes across an exquisite gold charm bracelet hidden inside her winter boots. Puzzled and curious, he senses that Miriam has kept secret an extraordinary life lived before meeting him.

What follows is a surprising and unforgettable odyssey as Arthur traces the origin of each of the charms: the elephant charm with a valuable emerald takes him to Goa, India; the tiger sends him to a dilapidated estate near Bath; an engraved book brings him face to face with a renown poet. Paris is where he tracks down the lovely giver of the golden thimble...

Along the way he was robbed, mauled by a tiger, confronted by a nude portrait of his wife, but he also met kindness and friendship where it was least expected. More importantly, Arthur found strength within, a sense of adventure, and a new zest for life.

Review: Force Touch World Premiere


Writer/director Rik Cordero gives the introduction at the world  premiere of Force Touch at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, May 19th.

Writer/director Rik Cordero gives the intro at the world premiere of Force Touch at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, May 19th.

When Rik Cordero, a talented young filmmaker with a passion for science fiction, had the inspiration to work with a local teen center on a creative, collaborative project, their combined talent and drive to create made the possibilities virtually endless. Yet of all the vast realms and universes out there to explore, they wondered what would happen if they decided to venture into the most volatile and dangerous of all—the human psyche?

With acute insight into the effects of modern technology on human relations and a Black Mirror twist on a beloved Twilight Zone tale, writer/director Rik Cordero and the digital dream-weavers over at the Neutral Zone set about telling a story that would resonate with viewers—a story marked by that humbling moment when the whirlwind dreams of our early-20s must reconcile with the kind of reality that doesn't make ratings. The result was Force Touch, which had it's world premiere at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, May 19th. An emotionally-charged, fifteen-minute short, Force Touch centers on a group of young friends whose fates are sealed after they discover a cell phone with a camera that takes pictures of events just before they really happen.

By day the Senior Media Producer at Duo Security, Cordero already had an impressive filmography when he departed his native Queens for the greener pastures—literally and figuratively—of Tree Town:

"My wife Nancy (Executive Producer of the film) and I, moved from New York City to Ann Arbor last July. We shot a ton of music videos and commercials during our time there but the work life balance sucked. Once we moved, the creative quality of our lives improved almost immediately through meeting many diverse folks with common interests."

"With more time to focus on storytelling, I came up with the idea of Force Touch and my goal was to capture elements of the college culture here from an outsider's point of view. I'm a college football fan but maybe not to the degree as some of my friends who have lived here their entire lives so I wanted to explore those emotions and how they would bounce off the characters in the story. Also Ann Arbor was a new canvas for me to employ a layer of sci-fi and technology which is another passion of mine."

It was Duo Security owner Dug Song and his wife Linh who introduced Cordero to Neutral Zone Executive Director Lori Roddy and Community Relations Director Mary Moffett. Later, after touring the facility, the filmmaker hatched a plan to write and direct a short to be produced by the Neutral Zone in collaboration with Alysha Schlundt-Bodien, Facility and Training Coordinator at CTN in Ann Arbor.

Tasked with supervising the teens during the shoot, Schlundt-Bodien was thrilled to witness firsthand how valuable the experience was for the teens: "I asked one of the Neutral Zone teens to talk about his experience to the VP group, and he said that he learned so much from the production. He learned that it takes way more time to set everything up than he thought it did—from the lighting to the staging—and how important it is to be organized. He also said it would be great to help out with something like this again."

Of course every independent film is a struggle, and though a major snowstorm on the first day of shooting set the tone of the turbulent production, the teenage crew weathered on, gaining valuable experience about the importance of persevering amidst unexpected set-backs. Despite even the most meticulous planning, any number of things can go wrong on a movie shoot at the last second, making a filmmaker's ability to improvise under challenging circumstances a critical component of success.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the camera, you'll find a talented selection of actors thst Cordero and his wife/filmmaking partner, Nancy, became acquainted with during last year's YPSI 24 Hour Shootout, which challenges independent filmmakers to produce an engaging short in a single day.

But the fortuitous connection to local talent was just one of the perks of participation; in Cordero's words, "There's a special sense of camaraderie and collaboration here that's been missing for awhile in New York City. It's easy to stay busy in NYC but most video creatives including myself were often stuck hustling multiple gigs just to pay the bills. There's a better work life balance here that's very refreshing and reminds me about why I got into this business in the first place—to share stories and stay inspired."

And inspiration was exactly what Cordero intended to do by showcasing Force Touch, along with a specially-curated selection of other locally-produced shorts, on Thursday, May 19th at the historic Michigan Theater. During the lively question and answer session that followed the sold-out screening, Cordero voiced hope that the event could act as a sort-of catalyst of creativity among local media artists. Judging by the stellar turnout, he may be onto something, too; the Michigan Theater's Screening Room was buzzing with excitement as the cast and crew fielded questions from the audience before raffling off prizes that included enough filmmaking gear to make any aspiring Scorsese salivate.

Nancy Mitchell, Rik Cordero, Adam Ruff, and  Alysha Schlundt-Bodien at the sold out premiere at the Michigan Theater.

Nancy Mitchell, Rik Cordero, Adam Ruff, and Alysha Schlundt-Bodien at the sold out premiere at the Michigan Theater.

Highlights of that session included the revelation that the story was originally set to take place during football season, but that the plan was scrapped due to the aforementioned snowstorm (the actual film production only lasted a couple of days), and that the idea to offer a twist on the original Rod Serling tale from the Twilight Zone episode "A Most Unusual Camera," came after reading a news article about a prototype iPhone accidentally left at a bar by a careless member of the development team. That story, combined with Cordero's fascination with "things we don't see that can control our lives," such as complex social media algorithms with the potential to alter real-life relationships, served as the pillars of Force Touch's plot.

Near the end of the question and answer session, Cordero, visibly moved while addressing the packed auditorium, hinted that this event could be the first in a series aimed at showcasing local films and filmmakers. It's a noble goal that, judging by the "Sold Out" sign at the box office, is well within reach.

But that's the future. As for the present, the seeds of creativity definitely appear to have taken root. Asked about his experiences working as a production assistant on Force Touch, Neutral Zone teen Adam Ruff exclaimed, "I definitely want to move forward in filmmaking, although I don't know in what capacity just yet."

With events like this premiere and the YPSI 24 Hour Shootout, as well as the abundance of creative programs offered by the Neutral Zone, Ruff will no doubt have an abundance of opportunities to stay inspired and grow his talents. You don't need a camera that can see into the future to be certain of that.

Jason Buchanan is a writer living in Ann Arbor.