Interview: Disney Animator Matthias Lechner

FILM & VIDEO INTERVIEW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Review: Direct from Sundance - The Lobster

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Preview: The Bard at the Michigan Theater

PREVIEW FILM & VIDEO

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

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

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

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


Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at AADL.


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

Review: National Theatre Live's Hamlet

THEATER & DANCE FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

Gertrude questions Hamlet with a wicked tongue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Preview: Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North

PREVIEW FILM & VIDEO MUSIC

Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North.

Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North.

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

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

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


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



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

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

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Carol is currently screening locally at the Michigan Theater.

Local Woman Sees Star Wars: The Force Awakens

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

Local Woman Sees Star Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[end embarrassing transcript]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

I'm Dreaming of a Non-Holiday Holiday Movie Fest

FILM & VIDEO

Hans Gruber falling

The holiday season means different things to different people. To my sister and I growing up, it meant it was time to pull out the Christmas special VHS, which contained A Chipmunk Christmas, The Smurfs' Christmas Special, and, my personal favorite, He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special. We didn't love them for their holiday messages, because frankly, they all fail to have a cohesive or believable plot. I think we loved them just because they were part of the season and also because my mom forgot to pause recording on the commercials, which meant re-watching holiday ads that got weirder and more dated with each viewing. Anybody else remember ice-skating Ronald McDonald? It just goes to show that movies made for Christmas can sometimes, you know, suck.

As more and more people each year identify Die Hard as their favorite holiday movie, I asked my fellow co-workers and Pulp contributors to share their favorite non-holiday holiday movies. Please enjoy this list of movies in which Christmas happens but isn't why the film exists in the first place.

Evelyn recommends Nick Offerman's Yule Log, the lowest-key of seasonal viewing experiences, featuring no action, no dialogue, and just the crackle of a fire and the enjoyment of a fine Scotch to admire.

Sara suggests The Thin Man - come for the martinis and mystery, stay for Nick shooting balloons off the Christmas tree with his new airgun and Nora's Christmas threat:

Amy, our classic film buff, suggests The Apartment, Meet Me in St. Louis, and The Lemon Drop Kid, in which a small time crook played by Bob Hope attempts to pay off an angry mobster with a bell-ringing Santa donation racket. This film also featured the debut of the holiday standard "Silver Bells."

Anne has some recommendations that celebrate the 80s and early 90s at their cinematic best. First up is Gremlins, which you should definitely watch if you are tired of Christmas carols:

And then there's Batman Returns, featuring this moment, which has Christmas lights, Santa references, and gifts being hurled through the air. Tim Burton must have had a thing for incorporating Christmas settings (Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas) into his movies.

Eli voted for The Ref, which is probably the second-most popular home invasion-themed holiday movie in which a burglar is a main character. Because the first has to be Home Alone, right?

Oh wait, I almost forgot about this guy:

Erin came up with a whole mess of movies in which Christmas makes a passing appearance, including In Bruges, Go, Little Women, and Bridget Jones's Diary - mmm, turkey curry, my favorite.

But my favorite of her suggestions has to be Trading Places, complete with Dan Ackroyd's filthy Santa suit.

Andrew's picks included L.A. Confidential, because what says "holiday spirit" better than a prison beatdown scene, and Holiday Inn, because Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby singing and dancing to Christmas tunes to impress a girl really does say "holiday spirit".

So from all of us on the Pulp team here at AADL, we wish you very happy movie-watching, from our couches to yours!


Sara Wedell is a Production Librarian at AADL and would like to note that Auntie Mame also features a very sweet and touching Christmas scene amid the zaniness and camp that makes up the rest of the film.


I'm Dreaming of a Stockingful of Holiday Stuff

Dash through the snow (dirt?) to these holiday events!

Dash through the snow (dirt?) to these holiday events!

December is upon us and, like the giant rolling boulder in that one Indiana Jones movie, the holidays are rumbling ever closer.

If you need some tips to help you celebrate the season, here's a handy list of festive holiday things going on in the area:

Dickens: An A Capella Carol
Friday, November 27th - Sunday, December 20th
Performance Network Theater - Ann Arbor, MI

National Theatre of Scotland: A Christmas Carol
Thursday, December 17th - Sunday, January 3rd
Power Center for Performing Arts - Ann Arbor, MI

Ypsilanti Community Choir's Annual Holiday Concert
Thursday, December 17th
Washtenaw Community College - Ann Arbor, MI

Gifts of Art presents Holiday Harmonies with Counterpoint
Thursday, December 17th
University Hospitals - Ann Arbor, MI

Home for the Holidays! with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Friday, December 18th - Sunday, December 20th
Detroit Symphony Orchestra - Detroit, MI

The Corner Christmas! (Not Your Family's Christmas Party) at the Corner Brewery
Saturday, December 19th
Arbor Brewing Company Microbrewery - Ypsilanti, MI

Krampus Costume Ball
Saturday, December 19th
The Dreamland Theater - Ypsilanti, MI

Scones and Shopping at the Eyrie
Saturday, December 19th
The Eyrie - Ypsilanti, MI

X'mas Explosion 4 feat. Archimime, Meridians, Scapegoat and The Path Of Exile
Saturday, December 19th
The Maidstone Theater - Ypsilanti, MI

Museum of Natural History Planetarium: Season of Light
December 19th-20th, 27-30th
University of Michigan Museum of Natural History - Ann Arbor, MI

Winter Solstice Celebration
Tuesday, December 22nd
Cultivate Coffee and Taphouse - Ypsilanti, MI

Gifts of Art presents Sweet Sounds of the Season with Wanda Degen
Thursday, December 24th
University Hospitals - Ann Arbor, MI

Black Christmas Feat. The Suicide Machines, The Black Dahlia Murder, BIGWIG, Mustard Plug, Koffin Kats
Saturday, December 26th
The Majestic - Detroit, MI

Mittenfest X
Tuesday, December 29th - Saturday, January 2nd
Bona Sera Cafe - Ypsilanti, MI


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and she's been listening to Christmas music since July.


I'm Dreaming of Mortality

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE FILM & VIDEO

Joseph Keckler

Performance Artist and Vocalist Joseph Keckler / Photo by M. Sharkey

If you’re growing weary of all the holly jolly happenings that this time of year has to offer, then it might be time to take a break to contemplate mortality. I mean really take some time, like four hours worth, and spend it observing a classically trained vocalist perform operatic death after operatic death.

In Let Me Die, Joseph Keckler ties together and performs hundreds of deaths from the history of tragic opera. The project also involves a series of videos, incorporating operatic fragments into stories and images of contemporary life, realized in conjunction with Holly Hughes' Interarts class. Performance and video will be shown, surrounded by an environmental installation that sparsely combines operatic set elements. Audience members are welcome to come and go as they please during the four hour performance. Seating is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. MOCAD galleries and Cafe 78 will be open during the performance.

Joseph Keckler has spent the last few months as Witt Artist in Residence at the University of Michigan working with students to create music videos and to delve deeply into the world of the tragic. He has spent endless hours researching operatic deaths and has expertly categorized them under such headings as “the Stabbies,” "the Sickies,” and “the Poison People.” You can read more about his process in this great interview by M. Starkey.

Still not convinced? Then watch this video as a preview of the greatness that you will witness. Keckler sings Schubert to a cat. Need I say more?

Death is, quite simply, what gives meaning to life. Shakespeare understood this well as he wrote in King Richard II,
“O, but they say the tongues of dying men enforce attention like deep harmony.” Go to MOCAD this Saturday and face your mortal anxieties straight on.


Anne Drozd is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and is mortal.


Joseph Keckler performs Let Me Die Saturday, December 12, from 1 – 5 pm at MOCAD, 4454 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201. In partnership with the Penny Stamps Speaker Series , the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), and the Roman J. Witt Artist in Residence Program. This event is free of charge and open to the public.