PREVIEW: CSEAS Film Screening–Thai Movie Night. How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) / ‘พี่ชาย My Hero’

As we come up on our long-yearned for Thanksgiving break, it can be hard to stay focused without occasionally giving our minds some time to rest. People are simply not meant to exist as machines that continuously churn.

Grease your gears with another great selection of film in CSEAS’s Thai Movie Night series. This time it is the intriguingly-titled How To Win At Checkers (Every Time). It tells the story of a recently orphaned young boy as his older brother and new caretaker must submit to the country’s draft lottery. The troubling  uncertainty and personal growth of the brothers raises questions about the justice of the structure of society.

The movie will be presented at 7pm on Thursday, November 21 in 1500 North Quad (the Video Viewing Room in the Language Resource Center). There is no charge for admission.

REVIEW: Flying DOWN to RIO with P.O.R.K.

The Zal Gaz Grotto Club, it seems, never disappoints.

I had a grand evening watching a Fred Astaire classic and tapping my foot to some hot jazzy tunes played by local ensemble P.O.R.K. The movie was everything you could hope for in a theatrical 1930s musical–the dancing scenes alone were enough to bring this film great fame. The choreography was excellent, each pair a carbon copy of the others in their motions and timing. Elaborate, multi-textured costumes added infinite flair, the skirts on dresses in flight with dance. The love triangle that formed the major tension in the movie was enticing, all-encompassing, and the plane choreography was superb despite the physical constraints of the dancers. I was most shocked by how well the humor works today; I am woefully untickled by most old movies, given the difference in speech patterns and slang. The whole experience was vibrant enough to pull me right into the 1930s; inexplicably, I felt the urge to light a cigarette and dance in glamorous clothes, touching foreheads and moving every which way in the wild Carioca. Everyone seems impossibly beautiful, skin so smooth and clothing so stylish and perfectly suited for each character. And, I must say, Gene Raymond is built. 

The live music portion of the evening furthered our education in America’s rich artistic past, bringing life into the antique. Had I come with a partner, I would have joined the dozen or so couples who got up to dance to the passionate music that snaked and drifted through the dimly-lit space. While the others got up to waltz and swing, I and the lady in the motorized wheelchair next to me sat and watched. She tells me that many in the band are university professors, and I’m surprised to find that they never rehearse, only playing together at gigs. Besides songs from the movie, they play a few old hits, like “Sleepy Time Down South.” All the instruments worked well together as one, though their individual solos were enjoyable. I was reminded then how mournful a dampened trumpet can sound, ripping through the air to cry directly to you.

My favorites were the ones that involved singing, as there are some great sets of pipes in the group. Bonnie channeled the exact energy of a time so long before her own, so that I could picture her in costume singing to the dancers of the Carioca. She is quite a strong alto, perfect for this style of song. Jean’s voice was soft, understanding of the mournful themes of his solos. Justin (or “America’s heartthrob,” as he was introduced) made a lovely contribution to one of the ending pieces, somewhat reminiscent of Bublé, and maybe even a touch of Sinatra. Most of all I thought of my favorite cartoon frog, George Washington. There are videos below if you’d like to compare for yourself.

They played for two hours with minimal breaks, which did seem unnecessarily long for both the audience and the dead tired band. I would suggest that in future evenings they cut a few songs from their sets, to reduce the likelihood of depleting the energy of everyone involved.

P.O.R.K. plays every first and third Sunday evening at the Grotto, so you have a chance to swing by soon. Their next performance will be December 8th.


PREVIEW: Flying DOWN to RIO with P.O.R.K.

Sundays are all too often reserved for the results of a week of steady procrastination. Or perhaps various responsibilities have tugged you every which way and through the mud despite constant work. The end of the week turns from an intended relaxation day to a horror-filled scramble to finish everything at once. We must fight this international tragedy, by starting to save time for ourselves to self-educate in the matters of the heart and spirit.

And so I invite you to join me at the Zal Gaz Grotto Club (2070 W Stadium Blvd) at 4pm on Sunday, November 17 for an evening of old-time jazz and film. We’ll be “Flying DOWN to RIO with P.O.R.K.,” in which Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm Kings (P.O.R.K.) will be playing all the songs from the hit 1933 musical adventure comedy Flying Down to Rio after its screening. The cover is $10.

They say 1930s dress is encouraged, though not required, but I will be deeply hurt if I’m the only one in full costume, so I had better see some other participants in there.


REVIEW: Department of Jazz Showcase

Perhaps it’s all in my head, but there seems to be some sort of hierarchy of warmth in music. Maybe it’s the key in which it’s written, or the tone of the singing, or the instruments used. Some genres seem to strive to chill to the bone, full of macabre lyrics and intense strings of guitar melodies. Others cradle you like a loving parent, soothing with soft singing and a smooth, slow tempo. Truly, the distinction between songs that are cool and warm is so defined it might be able to cause a tornado if two music pieces clash.

To me, jazz always oscillates between warm and hot. The smooth, subltler variety brings forth sweat on the brow, draws a low breathy sigh, and it condenses in the air around us. We are enveloped in a holy environment then, and we are contributors to the mood, just as members of a jazz ensemble each contribute their own emotion to a piece. A few of the groups tonight offered this style to us, dealing in low thrums of the upright bass, the curling upward tune of the saxophone, the smooth brassy sound of the trumpet. Most of these pieces were already composed, either by members of the groups or well-respected musicians of the past. The velvet lining of the chairs and the fanciness of the food combined with the music to make the room swell.

When it runs hot, the tempo quickens. The brass sings higher, every instrument finds a place to work inside this great machine. Dampeners are thrust aside in favor of fighting any tiny crack of silence, and chaos comes alive. New, short tunes spiral off from the main theme like grand handfuls of confetti. It’s exciting and exhausting in the best kind of way. Music of this sort invites crazy dancing, fancy clothes, glitter and sequins and jewel-toned heels.

I appreciated all the groups I saw that night, though I was most taken by the all-female group. They played many songs the members had composed themselves, and introduced them well. I could imagine how the meandering notes explored the themes of maternalism the pieces were about. It was useful to have some background to round out the experience. Also, I’d be a fool not to mention the amazing (freshman!) drummer who performed with several groups this evening. I tragically did not write his name down, but I will always remember him for his great sense of rhythm and attention to the pressure needed for each beat.

The Creative Orchestra group had a similar impact on me, though not quite so positive. The whole thing was improvised, which is impressive in itself, and hey started out well, trying out a haunting tune on the harmonium and mixing it with a disturbing vocal melody. The pianist went on with its own somber song. Soon, all the strings and brass and the toy piano joined in, but they did not blend as well as I would have liked. Unlike the other groups, the instruments did not inform each other; they clashed in tone and created a tuneless cacophony.

While I didn’t much like the direction the group ended up going, I cannot deny it had a certain effect on me. It ran hot as jazz does; it abruptly filled me with anxiety; it forced me to try and pick out some kind of order among the chaos. Regardless, the variation and improvisation exhibited throughout the night was a clear indication that jazz will have a healthy, vibrant future.


PREVIEW: Department of Jazz Showcase

Tired of the relentless droning on of the work week? Can’t quite wait for the weekend to release yourself from monotony’s cruel grip?

Then head on down to the Blue Llama Jazz Club tomorrow, Thursday, November 7, at 7-10pm to witness a spectacular performance by Michigan students and faculty of the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation! The group will be showcasing both their own compositions and classic jazz songs by some of the old greats.

The cover is free with the purchase of food or drink, though there will be a spot on the check for you to offer a tip for the night’s entertainers. Show up when the mood strikes, or stay for the whole evening. Due to the popularity of the establishment, it is recommended that you make a reservation ahead of time, which can be done here:

Hope to see you there!

REVIEW: International Studies Horror Film Fest

Another year of the annual International Studies Horror Film Fest has come and gone, and with it went my hope that they would show actual horror movies.

Don’t get me wrong; the selections were wonderfully artistic and variable in tone and theme and texture. All three featured original plots and unsettling undertones. They each force a bit of creepiness into one’s idea of the world, while remaining quite beautiful. However, I would have appreciated at least one fully, overtly gruesome movie in the program. The gore was almost nonexistent in all of the films, limited to a few scenes of graphicness apiece. I found myself groaning over the romantic subplots and long periods of calm while trying to focus on the main stories and character dynamics. On Halloween, I need fear to rule. This can be done in complex, story-rich, writerly ways; the artistry of a film need not be sacrificed. Thus, even if the fest’s planners intended to get together a group of intellectually stimulating movies, they could have done so while giving the audience a little more of a scare.

Face was basically CSI or Criminal Minds in all it accomplished horror-wise. The whole movie seems cast in shadows, plagued by an uninspired soundtrack and TV-drama style acting. But the pace of the film was perfect, a slow reveal of a shocking truth whose slime does something venomous to the psyche of the audience.

The Lure was an entire musical, and certainly the only movie of its kind, however impossible to define that may be. The heavy glamour of the strip club pairs so well with the mythology surrounding mermaids, and the girls’ dead stares were a perfect balance for all the life in their musical numbers. The unwholesomeness of the young girls participating in this business combines with the sexual power of mermaids in lore to create an uneasy feeling for the audience, similar to the trickery sailors face in all the stories. But even with the violence and the complex uneasiness, this movie is far closer to a comedy than a horror film.

Dogtooth seemed like something I should have enjoyed, given that its creator is the same man behind The Lobster (a movie which, after watching, made me feel so unmoored that I literally held onto street signs as I walked to the bus stop, certain I’d blow away with the wind). It bears obvious similarities in how the cast is directed to act (basically emotionless, flat) and the minimalism of the indoor environments. But it falls short of creating the same level of effect for me that Lanthimos had in his later film. I think he realizes later in his career that there is a limit to the lack of expression he can write into his actors and the barrenness of the landscape before it becomes too offputting for the audience to focus on the story. In short, I got bored, and the beauty of the expertly done lighting and the carefully constructed garden space did little to change that. Some emotional music would have gone a long way.

Truly, these movies have tons of artistic value to consider and appreciate. In another sort of film festival, they would be great additions (and indeed, they have been inputs of such festivals as Cannes and Sundance), but I still hold that they are unwise selections for a true horror fest. I hope that next year, they have more time in the gallery to show an extra movie that a Halloween lover would appreciate.