Fans of Roald Dahl's 1982 children's book The BFG will find that source text replicated lovingly in Steven Spielberg's new film adaptation–occasionally perhaps with even more detail than they wanted.
Spielberg restages Dahl's tale almost beat for beat, as the stubborn orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is swept away from her orphanage one night by a big friendly giant, or "BFG" (Mark Rylance). The BFG makes an occupation for himself capturing dreams and redistributing them into "human beans'" heads by night, and he takes Sophie back to Giant Country with him for fear she'll expose him to the world. Sophie warms quickly to the plight of the loving but somewhat dimwitted BFG, who is harassed constantly by nine man-eating and considerably larger giants (a voice cast led by Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader). As the giants devour humans by night and plague the BFG by day, Sophie hatches a plan to stop them, requiring the assistance of no less than the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) herself.
It's a common complaint that cinematic adaptations of books deviate too much from their source material, but there are pitfalls in holding too much reverence for the original text as well. Screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who penned classic family flicks including The Black Stallion, E.T., and The Indian in the Cupboard before her death last year, translates Dahl's material to the screen almost directly. The film thankfully wastes no time revealing its title character and whisking Sophie away with him, but from there it occasionally bogs down. Mathison and Spielberg place Dahl's material on a pedestal and just leave it there to be admired at unnecessary length.
This tendency is persistent throughout the first two-thirds of the movie, most noticeably in an initially lovely but ultimately overlong scene in which the BFG and Sophie collect dreams. The film develops some momentum, and some of its greatest comic energy, when Sophie and the BFG take off for Buckingham Palace, but it takes quite a while to get there.
The two leads are so excellent throughout that you'll wish one of them were more physically present. Barnhill, whose previous filmography includes just six episodes of a British children's TV series, comes off very well here. Not just your average precocious young lead, she plays Sophie with a mature self-assuredness that still has just the right undercurrent of childish vulnerability. Rylance, coming off a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar win for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, makes an extremely endearing BFG, gently enunciating the character's goofy malapropisms.
How unfortunate, then, that Rylance's performance is motion-captured and his BFG entirely computer-generated. The character is convincing in certain moments–particularly in close-ups, where the effects team appears to have smartly concentrated its efforts–but surprisingly wooden in others. Given Rylance's physical resemblance to illustrator Quentin Blake's original rendition of the giant, which the film closely mimics, Spielberg's decision to create a CGI giant instead of using more practical filmmaking magic to put Rylance onscreen in the flesh is rather perplexing.
Ultimately, Spielberg and Mathison's heads are basically in the right place when it comes to this material. They understand Dahl's sense of humor and his essential warmth, although they also don't shy away from the brutality that underlies much of his work. They just make the mistake of putting too much effort into bringing Dahl's simple but vibrant story to life, whether lingering too long over minor details or throwing millions of dollars in effects money at creating CGI giants where practical effects would have worked better. In the end, The BFG is certainly not a bad movie; it's often charming and sometimes even delightful in its own right. But its humbler source material tops it in both those departments–and you can probably read it in less time.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. If he were a giant, he would certainly choose to eat snozzcumbers rather than small children.
The BFG opens in theaters on July 1 .
All three floors of the Ann Arbor Art Center pulsed with energy Friday night for this summer's inaugural Pop-In event. While the center's programming is generally eclectic on the whole, the free Pop-In series presents a particularly diverse assortment of art and entertainment in a single night, suitable for all ages but particularly aimed at young adults. This Friday's event, curated by Charlie Reischl, was billed as a "digital takeover" of the art center with a variety of offerings related to electronic arts. While some attractions adhered to that theme more than others, the evening was nonetheless consistently stimulating and entertaining in unexpected ways.
Upon entering the art center, DJ Scout set the mood on the first floor with some laid-back electronic grooves. Ascending to the second floor, attendees were welcomed by members of Kickshaw Theatre, who were recruiting "test subjects" for a short theater piece entitled Technology, In the Flesh. The 15-minute play repeated numerous times throughout the night, as Dr. Tina Burglorgler (Alysia Kolascz) and her assistant Quatthew (Aral Gribble) led audiences through a series of comical "experiments" exploring the differences between our reactions to analog and digital stimuli. In the most entertaining bit, Burglorgler showed the audience several slapstick YouTube videos and then replicated them on Quatthew in some cannily executed bits of stage violence. The differences in audience reaction were striking, as attendees remained mostly straight-faced during the videos but laughed or gasped openly as Burglorgler slammed Quatthew's head into a table and whacked him in the crotch with a baseball bat. The show oversold its point a bit–real-life experiences are consistently more stimulating than digital ones. But it was an amusing, creative second effort from the extremely promising new Kickshaw company, which produced the extraordinary The Electric Baby earlier this year.
Moving up to the third floor, attendees had a wide variety of attractions to explore. Attendees could have a hands-on experience with new technology by experimenting with a sampling of instruments from AADL's music tools collection or with a Wacom digital drawing tablet (under the able guidance of cartoonist Jerzy Drozd). Wandering into an adjacent darkened room, visitors could also take in a variety of unique musical performances, like the improv duo and art project Efflux. Efflux percussionist Jon Taylor and keyboardist Simon Alexander-Adam riffed wildly on their respective instruments while a custom-built program responded to their music in real time with abstract digital images projected on several small cube-shaped screens. Between the duo's inventive improvisation and the hypnotic digital imagery, Efflux presented a surprisingly spellbinding experience.
The highlight of the evening, however, was a concluding musical performance by members of the unconventional international rap performance collective known as the Black Opera. Ann Arbor rapper Jamall Bufford and Detroit rapper Magestik Legend kicked things off with what they described as an "opening set" for the Black Opera, energetically encouraging audience participation throughout. The two departed the stage but then returned, clad in oversized masks, to perform as the Black Opera themselves. The duo blasted through an impassioned set of songs with topics ranging from police violence to overuse of social media to the Flint water crisis. Bufford and Legend changed costumes for each song, ranging from dashikis to ski masks, with striking music videos projected behind them. At the conclusion of their performance, the duo announced that they and their entire audience were now part of the Black Opera. While the audience seemed equally divided between those who were previously aware of the Black Opera and those who were initially puzzled by what they were seeing, by the show's end Bufford and Legend had thoroughly accomplished their goal: drawing the crowd into a kind of critical, but positive, musical social movement.
Pop-In will continue this summer with events on July 22 and August 5. The July event will feature an inversion of this past Friday's theme, with an emphasis on analog music, tools, and art. The August installment will split the difference, focusing on the intersection of technology and creativity in a partnership with the new conference Intermitten. If Friday's Pop-In is any indication, attendees of the two coming events are in for an eye-opening, thought-provoking, and thoroughly entertaining experience.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He would prefer that you neither slam his head into a table nor whack him in the crotch with a baseball bat, even if it would be funnier than watching a YouTube video.
Pop-In will continue this summer with events on July 22 and August 5.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (alliedmedia.org/amc) 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.
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.
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.
Director Jason Zeldes’ film is about the turf war that haunts the youth from Richmond, CA. Forced to live in the middle of this war, activist and poet Donté Clark and his courageous band of teen poets decide to create a contemporary adaptation of Romeo and Juliet set in their embattled home town. The film takes us on a dramatic journey of creative expression through performance art in an attempt to bring change and hope to a community.
Donté Clark, who is the inspirational focus of the film, will be giving a talk along with his mentor and Neutral Zone Alumni Molly Raynor.
Romeo is Bleeding has earned numerous awards across the festival circuit, including Best Documentary Feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Laura Pershin Raynor is a Youth and Adult Services Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Romeo is Bleeding, will be shown at the Neutral Zone (310 E. Washington Street, Ann Arbor, MI) on Wednesday, June 1st at 7:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public.
For the first time ever in Ann Arbor, the annual Banff Mountain Film Festival sold out. It’s not surprising for the festival to sell out in places like Denver or Salt Lake City, with populations of over a million people, but in Ann Arbor there are usually plenty of seats. Not so this year, as 1,650 people filled the Michigan Theater’s main auditorium Sunday night, eager to view the breathtaking selection of films that comprise the festival.
Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, named for the national park in Canada that hosts it and for The Banff Centre, is a celebration of stories about profound journeys, unexpected adventures, and ground-breaking expeditions. The main event takes place over nine days in Canada, but then select films from the festival go on world tour. Ann Arbor has been lucky enough to be a stop on the tour for many years now. The three-and-a-half hour event features a dozen films of various lengths along with a raffle and an intermission where attendees can peruse booths set up by sponsors of the event and learn more about the festival itself. I’ve gone to the festival for the past five years and the films are always a breath of fresh air in the dreary days of April: from mountain biking to base jumping to heli-skiing to rock climbing to white water rafting, the scenery shown is stunning, the stories told are amazing, and the physical prowess required to do the things captured on film is unbelievable. I leave feeling inspired, relaxed, and with many new travel destinations on my list each year.
This year’s tour opened with The Important Places, a film by Forest Woodward that juxtaposed his father’s aging with his own move away from their home in Colorado to the city. Ultimately, Forest and his dad recreate a rafting trip on the Colorado River that his father had taken 30 years before, in an attempt to reconnect: with each other, with the land, and—for Forest’s father—with his younger self.
In the 5-minute film DarkLight mountain biking at night was made even more amazing by neon lights emphasizing the silhouettes of the bikers, and of the dust they kicked up as they sped across rock outcroppings. The lighthearted film Paradise Waits featured two phenomenal skiers showing off their skills in Wyoming and Alaska while Girls Just Wanna Have Fun blared in the background.
The feature film of the evening was Across the Sky, the story of rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, the first people to complete the Fitz Traverse in Patagonia, Argentina in one go. It won the award for Best Film on Mountain Climbing at the festival this year, and it truly was an incredible story. The two men spent almost a month in Patagonia before their hike, waiting for a weather window to open up so that they could attempt the Traverse. Skilled as they were, journeys such as the one they completed always come with unexpected twists and turns, and this one was no different. From gale-force winds to ice-coated handholds, their trip was as much a feat of mental strength as it was of physical. Caldwell and Honnold’s senses of humor and positive outlooks were not only amusing throughout the film, but inspirational to me after it ended, too.
The highlight of the second half of the show was Eclipse, a multifaceted film about a group of “eclipse-chasers” seeking the perfect photograph. Photographer Reuben Krabbe had had a vision of capturing a skier in front of an eclipse for years and knew that such a shot was a once in a lifetime chance. As the eclipse neared, he and a team of guides and professional skiers headed up to the Arctic, pursuing what seemed to be an impossible dream. For Krabbe to get the shot, not only did he have to find a spot from which to shoot that would work, but the weather had to be clear so that the eclipse could be seen and so the skiers could ski safely—and the weather is not usually clear in March in the Arctic. The shot that he ultimately captures is worth the weeks spent huddled in igloos, battling frigid winds, and rescuing sunken snowmobiles. The film won Best Snow Sports Film at the festival this year.
The festival concluded with a 60-second parody film: an advertisement for Nature Rx, the cure for irritability, boredom, and apathy, which gave many audience members a good chuckle. The Banff Film Festival will be back in Ann Arbor next April and, if this year is any indication, buy your tickets to this delightful event in advance!
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library and would love to go mountain climbing in Patagonia, but never wants to heli-ski.
The highly unconventional sci-fi film Midnight Special opened in most theaters nationwide this past weekend, coinciding with the opening of another highly unconventional sci-fi film, the ultraviolent “first-person shooter” Hardcore Henry. The two films could hardly have been marketed more differently. Hardcore Henry has been widely promoted, preceded by opening-night “Ultimate Fan Events” (can a movie no one has seen yet even have ultimate fans?), while Midnight Special has hardly been marketed at all. The Henry marketing team seems out to convince the world that the next cult classic is upon us. This may well be true; I haven’t seen it yet. And although I expect to have a blast when I do, I doubt extremely that it will even begin to hold a candle to the singularly awe-inspiring experience writer-director Jeff Nichols has crafted in Midnight Special.
The film follows a father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who possesses bizarre powers. The boy can communicate with electronics in eerie ways and occasionally undergoes episodes during which his eyes glow and he communicates mysterious information to those who gaze back at him. However, due to his condition he can’t be outside during the daylight, leading Roy and his companion Lucas (Joel Edgerton) to transport Alton only by night. The already harrowing situation is compounded by the fact that our protagonists are on the run–from the FBI, the NSA, and a Mennonite-esque religious sect who consider Alton the imminent instrument of their salvation.
The less said about the film’s plot, beyond the above summary, the better – and to some degree, even that brief description almost gives too much away. That’s because one of the key drivers behind Nichols’ story is uncertainty. We’re thrown into the narrative and allowed to figure things out on our own. There is exposition, but it’s doled out slowly and naturally as the characters converse. We’re often forced to draw our own conclusions in the moment until a better answer comes along, both about smaller plot concerns as well as the overarching question of whether Alton is an alien, a religious savior, or just a freak.
However, thanks to Nichols’ excellent direction of a strong cast, the nature of the relationships between the characters is never in question. Shannon, best known for colorful performances in films like Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel, and Nichols’ own Take Shelter, here underplays to extraordinary effect. Roy’s all-consuming love for Alton is right there in Shannon’s eyes from frame one, to the extent that Shannon probably could have made this movie work just fine without a word of dialogue. Lieberher gives an excellent performance, precocious by the nature of his character but never showy or unnatural. Edgerton and particularly Kirsten Dunst are also terrific in their supporting roles. Everyone in the film is cast in a resolutely unglamorous role, forced to prioritize emotion over ego, and they rise to the challenge to tell a powerful story.
“Unglamorous” is a good word to describe Nichols’ vision overall. He summons the steamy Texas and Louisiana backwaters the characters speed through with such accuracy one can almost feel the humidity in the air. His pacing and tone are perfectly pitched, masterfully juggling the tension of the chase with graceful scenes of familial tenderness among the protagonists. And – oh yes – this is a sci-fi movie, and there are some spine-tingling supernatural moments rendered with judicious use of CGI. But unlike Christopher Nolan, whose genre films effectively crank both family drama and visual spectacle to the max, Nichols dials back and lets the audience lean in a bit to embrace a sense of wonder instead of bombarding us with emotional and sensual stimulus.
The cumulative effect is extraordinary, building to a protracted, breathtakingly beautiful climax that brought tears to the eyes of even this usually stoic moviegoer. One wonders what Nichols might do with a budget bigger than Midnight Special’s modest $18 million, but hopefully the director’s marvelous restraint isn’t just a product of financial necessity. However, the film's relatively low profile compared to Hardcore Henry, its main genre competitor this weekend, is likely a more direct result of budgeting. And that’s a shame, because it seems likely that Midnight Special will remain a lot more compelling a decade or two from now than Henry’s admittedly audacious technological gimmick. Midnight Special’s greatest strength is its humility, its unassuming and unpretentious genius. Here’s hoping that doesn’t hold it back from well-deserved recognition as one of 2016’s very best films.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.
"Midnight Special" is now playing in select theaters including Rave Cinemas Ann Arbor and Quality 16. Check theater's websites for showtimes.
In the summer of 2015, the University of Michigan sold more than 7,000 instructional films owned by the Askwith Media Library to the public. The films had been used in campus classrooms from the 1940s to the 1970s and represented a variety of forgotten media formats – including 16mm and VHS. The collection was unique in its subject matter and scale, but having digitized the titles, U-M sold the films to gain shelf space.
Local film lovers, collectors, and treasure-hunters flocked to the sale, seizing the opportunity to own these rare films. Some shoppers lamented the loss of such a sizable collection; the films would now be spread among many owners and would not be preserved as a group. But no one could deny the price tag, as film prices started at just $1. So, film cans and VHS tapes were carried home by the armful and the collection was dismantled.
And that was it – until now.
A local Ann Arborite, Frank Uhle, has coordinated an amazing opportunity to see the films from this collection reunited on screen. The Festival of Found Films from the Vault will be a celebration of 16mm films purchased at the U-M sale. Uhle is calling out to all those who shopped the sale, and asking them to bring their best purchases to be screened together at Bona Sera Café in downtown Ypsilanti. Anyone interested in screening one of their treasures from the film sale at the event should contact Frank at email@example.com.
Expect to see funny, strange, and surprising films, all projected on Uhle’s own 16mm projector – a special experience for all! You can bring films, or just your own curiosity, for an afternoon of small-screen entertainment.
Elizabeth Wodzinski is a Desk Clerk at AADL and 16mm is her favorite measurement.
The Festival of Found Films from the Vault will run from 2-5 pm on Sunday, April 17 at Bona Sera Café in downtown Ypsilanti at 200 W. Michigan Ave. The event is free and open to the public.