REVIEW: Oscar-Nominated Shorts (Live Action)

So often I am struck by how little film makers do with their medium. It is an art form that combines visual and audio elements more immersively than reading a book or perusing an gallery can really claim to do. Yet we end up with so many American Pie types, popular but containing no real depth. Emotion and meaning are dulled when movies become uniform in this way, and their power to deeply affect dies. Moreover, even the aesthetic capabilities of the film medium are often ignored, settling for unimaginative school or office buildings, with costume designers seeking normalcy so fervently that their characters’ dress becomes boring.

Fortunately, there are some who understand the abilities film has to deeply move its audience. All five of Academy Award-winning live action short films (Mother, Fauve, Marguerite, Detainment, and Skin) provoked a larger range of emotions in me than nearly any other movie I’ve ever seen. Mother gave me a feeling of creeping cold desolation, with its wide sweeping gaze at the empty beach in the beginning and end. Using the point of view of the lost boy’s mother gives the audience a closer look into her desperation and helplessness. We listen to him with her, clinging onto every word his soft voice says through the phone. The camera work is disorienting, making us panicky with the mother and grandmother as the reality of the situation sets in.

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In Fauve, there are two drastically different sceneries: the wildly beautiful Canadian countryside (wildflowers, long grasses, mountains) and a stark mine site (plain grey earth for what seems like miles on all sides, reminiscent of an alien planet). The scenes in the mine site seem surreal compared to the lushness of the fields the boys travel through to get there. I almost expected the earth to begin to rumble and rise, revealing itself to be some enormous living creature.

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Marguerite was the only one to make me cry, and one of the few movies that have ever made me cry. The loneliness she must have felt moved past the screen and into the most melancholy part of my mind. It is unclear whether she loved again after her soulmate was married, but because she lived alone in the movie, it seemed her companionless existence had been eternal. The whole movie had me feeling cold: the slowness of all her actions, the neatness of each room in the house, the millions of wrinkles lining her face.

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I felt least connected to Detainment, though it disturbed me more fully than the true crime documentaries on TV have ever done. The documentary-esque style of the piece did not go well with the narrative tone, and the same few images of the boys abducting the baby were played over and over again, without adding much value to the film. However, the filmmakers played on the boys’ conflicting stories, which helped create an uncertain, uneasy feeling.

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Skin was by far the most brilliant star of the five. It played on racism in modern America, the psychology of childhood development, gun politics and violence, the idea of innocence and how easily it can be destroyed, the uncertainty of placing blame…I could go on. It made me question my own life and thoughts, those of my family, of the country and the greater world. I had to catch myself when I unconciously started distancing myself from the white family’s attitudes and actions, recognizing the weakness in that thought, the automatic stereotypes I’d applied to make myself feel better. And when the two young boys locked eyes for the second time, I was haunted. Somehow within the film’s disturbing content, there was still an attention to lighting and landscape details that made it uncomfortably beautiful, the exquisite drip of blood, the lonely desert nothingness.

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REVIEW: Ice Carving Festival

There are far too few true delights in this world, especially when living in Michigan in the middle of winter. Most things are dead, either outwardly or inwardly. Going gloveless to text a friend back could invite frostbite in minutes, and the threat of entire sunless weeks is omnipresent.

Luckily, we’ve identified one of the handful of things that the cold preserves, rather than kills: ice! Beautiful, wooded County Farm Park was the perfect backdrop for a wintry festival, with a playground for kids, a pavillion for the artists, and a rec building for arts and crafts. The ice carving teams from Washtenaw Community College, Macomb Community College, and the University of Michigan supplied the Ann Arbor area with a Saturday full of joy with their astounding skills. The sun even stayed out for the day, reflecting off the sculptures, glittering off smooth curves and edges.

There seemed to be an animal theme: a giraffe, rabbit, and salamander emerged from three blocks of ice, while U of M also constructed a vintage-style camera.

The audience was mostly families with small children, and the outdoor environment thankfully allowed for a great many adorable dogs to walk amongst the crowd. My girlfriend and I were probably the only childless adults to make pipecleaner snowflakes in the craft room, but we received no criticism, even when mine turned out looking like a deformed spiderweb.

Children below the age of ten did appear to be the festival’s sole target audience, which felt like a bit of a mistake. In future years, they could decide to open it up to older children and childless adults, perhaps with a musical guest or a few local food trucks. There could be a reception that goes later into the evening after the carvings are completed, adding in an element of colorful lights, during which the artists can explain their pieces and process. There is only so much an event with no admission fee can add in, but there is a variety of routes planners could take to expand the festival that involve little cost.

But the place they are at now is wonderful already; they had secured a sponsor (an living community with new apartment buildings opening nearby), which allowed them to serve hot chocolate and popcorn, as well as to supply several crafts.

I am always thankful for free stuff. The sponsor gave out hot chocolate mugs to keep, which is a beautiful thing for any college kid (I, for instance, am the proud owner of exactly two $1 plastic plates from Target). Despite the cold, the day was made infinitely more joyful with a little sweetness, and some cool art.

 

PREVIEW: Ice Carving Festival

Each brutally cold winter, millions of people across the state of Michigan ask themselves the same question: “Why do I live here?”

But then we remind ourselves of the existence of ice carving festivals, and the frostbite miraculously retreats from our extremities.

Yes, that’s right, this Saturday, February 9th is Washtenaw County’s annual ice carving festival! Come on down to County Farm Park from 12-4 PM and watch students from regional colleges compete for ice carving fame. Admission is free, if you needed more motivation to watch amazing art created before your very eyes.

Additionally, there will be refreshments and crafts for kids (though if we’re being honest, I will also be participating), so bring along the whole family!

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REVIEW: Your Name

Despite the snow day-provoking frigid air last Wednesday, upwards of 100-150 moviegoers came to the Michigan theater to see Your Name. Directed by Makoto Shinkai (known for films like The Garden of Words and Voices of a Distant Star), it is the highest-grossing anime movie of all time. This fact comes as no surprise if you’ve had the privilege to see it, as its unique storyline and beautiful, shining animation style makes it stand out from other animes.

As the movie began, the entire theater let out a collective groan at the English dub that had been mistakenly played (even the movie’s theme was sung in English, unfortunately in a fashion unbelievably similar to a song by The All-American Rejects). The presenter switched the settings to English subtitles and, beyond a slight hiccup where the subtitles were half cut-off, the day was saved, and we all applauded.

Mitsuha and Taki are two high school students living in the Japanese countryside and Tokyo, respectively. One day, each inexplicably wakes up in the other’s body, and grow to be quite good friends. It somehow smoothly combines the cute, carefree humor of a rom-com with the deeper emotions of a tragic drama, along with elements of wondrous fantasy.

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The variety of landscapes in the film is a big part of what makes Your Name such a great success. We’re taken from Mitsuha’s house, surrounded by ancient forest and bathed in golden sunlight, to Taki’s homey apartment in the heart of Tokyo, skyscrapers glittering and city lights glowing warmly. The sky is always amazing, painted with the colors of a sunset, a bright fall day, the steely twilight. The artists never neglect to include the way the sun skips along the clouds or sinks beneath them to the horizon, trailing light.

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It is the beauty of Mitsuha and Taki’s bond, as well as of their surroundings that makes the reality of their situation so much more tragic. We learn that the two exist in different times; in Taki’s timeline, Mitsuha’s town was destroyed by a divergent meteorite three years prior, while Mitsuha lives in the time right before the strike. They’re star-crossed in an incomprehensibly sad way, yet captured in a dramatic irony that allows for the sweetest, impermanent happiness. This sharp contrast in emotion makes the film especially powerful, beyond that of many other films. Though there is a sense of innocence present, it is expertly corrupted by circumstances so unfortunate and uncontrollable that purity can still remain.
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As I exited the theater, shuffling my still-frozen feet back toward the cruelly icy outdoors, I was struck by the glow of the end credits on the audiences’ faces, illuminating tears and bubbling conversations between friends as they discussed the movie. How beautiful it was we’d all gathered in this small haven of warmth and light in the middle of a bitingly cold night to watch a good movie together.

PREVIEW: Icons of Anime: Your Name

The Center for Japanese Studies presents the next installment of their Icons of Anime lineup: Your Name! Come see it at 7 PM Wednesday, January 30 at the Michigan Theater (if you can stand the cold!).

The film tells a tale of two highschoolers who have the magical ability to switch bodies with each other. Complications inevitably arise, and we follow the two on a deeply emotional journey to meet eachother. Your Name  is beautifully animated and deservedly critically acclaimed, earning an impressive 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Student tickets are $8.50, and 10.50 for adults. Please make sure to dress in lots of layers, as temperatures will be far below zero, especially in the evening. Be sure to limit exposed skin, including your face and hands.

 

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REVIEW: Paul Rand: The Designer’s Task

If you’re anything like me, art is confusing. It seems to display some specific idea that should be obvious, hidden only to those too uninspired to see it. As I wandered through the UMMA looking for the Paul Rand exhibit, looking conspicuously un-artsy in my Ugg boots, I came across so many pieces that I was unable to understand. There was the marble sphere with circular concavities carved into it (representing giving birth, the sign told me), a giant monochrome canvas with a single stripe of other colors (I think this one was called “Untitled”), an enormous painted fabric sheet haphazardly hung on the wall (something to do with feminism in 1960s art). By the time I got to the exhibit I’d come to see, I was more than a little intimidated by everything around me that I couldn’t really understand.

Once I made my way over to the Rand exhibit, I began to feel less out of place. The showcase featured some of his design work from the 1930s to the 90s, including designs for various corporations like IBM and NeXT, as well as book covers and unrelated pieces. This art is accessible to anyone, appealing only to the eye’s love for simplicity and clean lines.

       

Rand’s work is characterized by his fondness for bold colors and shapes, not shying away from either clashing hues nor unbalanced compositions. While the restrictions of working in two dimensions tempts many artists to strive for some three-dimensional elements, Rand instead embraces his chosen mediums, not even adding any shading. His penchant for keeping his work strictly graphic is what makes his style so distinguishable; he lived without adhering to the classical rules of art.

Beyond the finished and published pieces, the exhibit also included pages of doodles and work that has remained largely unknown. These are my favorite parts to a collection; it shows the personality and creativity of an artist beyond what the public’s impression of them is. Most showcased work of late artists is distorted by a popularity contest put on by the viewers; we see only the public piece of an artist, missing out on the earlier works, or half-finished pieces, or the more experimental phases in their life. Complete artist profiles like this exhibit are necessary for better understanding their procession through artistic expression and exploration.

                    

The only additional thing I would have liked in the exhibit is a bit more of a biography, maybe a picture of Rand drawing at his desk, even earlier doodles, something saved from his childhood. This would add to the personal feeling of the exhibit. Overall, though, it was put together well, and works as a fine addition to the UMMA.

For information on current and future UMMA exhibits, check out www.umma.umich.edu/exhibitions.