REVIEW: Isle of Dogs.

Momotarō is a peach boy in Japanese folk lore – a hero who had been born from fruit. In the story, he travels to Onigashima, the isle of demons, and defeats monsters with his newly acquired animal friends, obtaining treasure for his family. These parallels are seen in Inugashima, or Isle of Dogs, where Wes Anderson crafts his newest endeavor around a Japanese setting. When a dog flu sweeps through Megasaki City, the mayor Kobayashi exiles all dogs to Trash Island, exercising his authoritarian political precision with sinister intent. But Atari, his nephew, is determined on finding his bodyguard dog Spots.

For many reasons, Isle of Dogs is spectacular and clever. It bangs into its self-assured display like a firework – having the same amount of subtlety and persuasion as a firecracker, but similarly lacking as it dissolves too quickly and leaves a measurably less remarkable post-impression. It is undeniably fantastic, but there is something missing from all the razzle-dazzle.

The production is beautiful, one-of-a-kind. And even without the slick graphics of computer CGI, there’s a exactness in the stop-motion animation, detailed in scenes where a sushi chef prepares a lunch, or when Tracy recites the facts on the actors of her conspiracy theory, shining a flashlight on an elaborate tangle of clippings and string. At a technical standpoint, the film is incredible, made with 240 sets and hundreds of models, scenes constructed with a visionary lens to turn plastic sheets and cotton wool into interesting landscapes. From untranslated easter eggs printed on the overhead trolley to numerous references to Kurosawa, the visuals are refined. The colour schemes are beautiful. Not a strand of fur is out of place.

On the other hand, the film sometimes borders on using Japan like a mood board, as purely an aesthetic, swinging back and forth between succeeding and failing its original intention of being a cultural homage. It’s an interesting choice to have no subtitles for any of the dialogue given in Japanese, dialogue that is given by well-known stars such as Ken Watanabe and Yojiro Noda. It gives us the dogs’ perspectives and uses mistranslations as a plot device, but this can be hairy in certain aspects, especially when a character like Tracy emerges from this kind of language choice.

Nevertheless it’s an idiosyncratic plot, emerging from the surfeit of adaptions and remakes to tell us a story centered on man’s best friend with a weird but irresistible kind of charm in the folds of the writing. Isle of Dogs is ambitious in many ways, and in others, it’s all bark but no bite. It’s crafty in its humour, often deadpan and sometimes near ridiculous. The dialogue is well-timed and funny. And for a film about cute dogs, there’s a grittiness to it, never shying away from graphic themes or its political undertones.

But while there’s certainly a lot of good bois in Isle of Dogs, it’s difficult to form a relationship between the viewer and the number of characters the film introduces. We learn a lot about Atari, Spots, and Chief, but it doesn’t leave much room for the growth of all the other characters, including our main band of dogs. With such a hefty, vibrant plot, the screen time of under two hours ends up becoming a limiting reagent, not allowing the story to glow to its full potential.

In the end, Isle of Dogs is fantastic and it is fun to watch, but it lacks a certain depth – a certain howl – to its puppy snap.

Currently playing at State Theatre and elsewhere! Student tickets are $8.

REVIEW: Reverence by Salto Dance Company

It’s not too often that you see dancers en pointe, wearing Hawaiian shirts with sunglasses and holding up a beach towel.

But that’s exactly what Salto Dance Company did in their winter show, Reverence. And though unexpected, it was a move that cemented Salto’s identity as one of the most unique, innovative dance groups on campus.

Reverence is a French word meaning “a feeling of great respect.” At the end of performances, dancers perform a gesture called a reverence to show respect to the audience, and the audience applauds to return that respect to the dancers. After Salto’s opening number, the club presidents came onstage to teach the audience how to perform a reverence. Then they continued the show and put the crowd under their spell.

Salto is known for its blend of many different styles of dance; they are the only student dance group on campus that performs en pointe, but they also perform contemporary and lyrical pieces. Many of their dances transcend genre entirely. And indeed, Reverence provided a perfect blend of tempo, genre and mood.

Say My Name was the first piece that really stuck out to me.  A contemporary piece, the choreography pulled me in from the beginning and the leaps and turn sequences were technically impressive.

Several dances evoked nature with their movement. Revolution, a contemporary pointe piece, flowed like water, and San Francisco, the second act finale, made me envision birds. The technique and choreography were beautiful and captivating.

The solos — mostly classical variations — also impressed. The audience oohed and ahed over the difficulty and quality of movement. However, where Salto really shined was when it went outside its comfort zone.

Sunshine was the first example. Set to the song by Kyle and Miguel, it featured dancers en pointe wearing beach clothes. In the middle of the number, they held up a towel with the words “Salto brings the sunshine.” The dance was full of personality and evoked an almost Broadway feel. It was unexpected from a ballet and contemporary company, but it worked.

And when Salto came on for the second act, their opening number was entitled simply Broadway. Set to a medley of songs from Chicago and A Chorus Line, the musical theatre number was different from anything else in the show. It showcased a completely different side of the dancers and brought out a performance quality that was sometimes lacking in other pieces, especially in the first act.

Another unique piece was Focus, which featured three dancers using contemporary technique and three dancers en pointe. The choreography blended the two styles seamlessly and highlighted the strengths of each individual dancer.

When the show ended and the dancers came out for a curtain call, they did their reverence. And while the gesture was meant to show respect to us to thank us for coming, all I could feel was respect for them for blending so many styles, for displaying a full range of emotion, for pulling me in and never looking back.

REVIEW: An Evening with David Sedaris

I’ve been told that evenings with David Sedaris are memorable and hilarious, and I’m excited to say that it’s true.

A woman from Michigan Radio introduced him with an anecdote about him calling into the station to make a donation, leaving everyone on the other line starstruck. It seemed that the same starstruck feeling echoed in the almost-full auditorium of Michigan Theater as he walked out in a long dress shirt, untucked and down to his calves, beneath a jacket that had seen some scissors. He modeled for us as a start to the evening before his anecdotal debut: a quick mention of a time when he called into another radio station, who told him that he sounded like Piglet.

His timing there must have been on purpose, because I and several others afterwards discussed not being able to get that out of our minds as he spoke for the next two hours. Nothing that he brought was content that I’ve read before, so it was nice to hear something new to me.

Sedaris brought a couple of short stories to read, sprinkling in small anecdotes and some selections of his latest diary collection, Theft by Finding — along with some from his upcoming second selection of diaries. After reading an essay simultaneously about mysterious dental pain and traveling to Japan, he brought up something that I’ve been wondering since first reading Me Talk Pretty One Day: he never wants to write about just one thing at a time. He has a way of associating seemingly very separate things in order to avoid writing about just one thing. “I wanted to write this essay about my tooth, but I also was thinking about my visit to Japan, and it just had to fit.” And in some magical Sedarisian way, it worked. He seems to have the life experience to associate anything.

Another story that he read was called “Active Shooter,” about him and his sister going to a shooting range because they’d never done it before. His sister was interested in learning how to handle a gun, specifically just in case she was about to be killed and her killer dropped his gun — much of the story hinged on his sister’s oddly particular foresight and thinking of the most specific instances. It followed their journey through a long class about how to handle guns and ended with the sister being praised for her skills, while the teacher consistently called David by the name of Mike. Both siblings left without feeling the need to shoot again.

My favorite diary entry that he read — which made me and several cry laughing — was one about trying to translate the English idiom about the pot calling the kettle black into French (directed toward his French teacher who called him a sadist), which turned out something like “That is like a pan…saying to a dark pan…’you are a pan.'” I instantly thought of all my foreign language experience trying to translate what was in my head directly, and how often it just doesn’t work.

One of the final bits that he read was “And While You’re Up There, Check My Prostate.” This essay explored international methods of dealing with road rage, many sayings translating clunkily but funnily to English from various European languages and dialects. I liked the general theme of translation-based disconnects that evening, and also appreciated their delivery. They were hilarious enough to make anybody laugh no matter their translation experience.

Following the reading and before the signing, he requested to bring the lights up for a Q&A session with the large audience. I loved seeing how appreciated he was to locals here, and figured it made sense with his wit and attention to social culture. The question I best remember was somebody asking him whether he still picked up garbage (mostly as a gesture to preserving the environment) — to which he responded, yes. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he was the only one in the room who did that.

What I love about Sedaris’s writing is that it’s largely about the human condition, but also is so full of rich comedic timing and phrasing. It’s honest and fun, rarely distant, and always makes me wonder how much of it he’s actually experienced. Following the reading, I braved the long line to have him sign my copy of When You Are Engulfed in Flames and was delighted to find that he was just as funny and surprising on a conversational whim. I left Michigan Theater feeling ecstatic, especially after getting to meet him.

He’s returning in June to Ann Arbor, and I highly recommend going to see him read and speak! You’ll laugh and learn so much.

PREVIEW: Reverence by Salto Dance Company

My lasting impression of Salto Dance Company was this: as their first act finale in their winter show, their dancers came out wearing pointe shoes and Chance the Rapper’s signature “3” baseball cap. They danced ballet to Summer Friends. And it was captivating.

In my first year writing for ArtSeen, I’ve learned that Michigan has a lot of dance groups, and it especially has a lot of contemporary dance groups. But what Salto — a self-choreographed contemporary ballet company — brings to the stage is completely different from all the others.

In their fall show, they mixed the technical mastery of classical ballet with the artistry of contemporary. They performed both variations of well-known ballets and original pieces — many en pointe — both solo and in groups.

After the first impression, I’m ready for more. That’s why I’m going to Reverence, Salto’s spring showcase. Of all the dance shows I’ve seen in my first year here — and the number is close to 10 — Salto’s winter performance was one of my favorites.

I’m supposed to write what to expect in these previews, but the truth is I don’t know. I thought I knew what to expect the first time, and I was wrong. This isn’t your traditional ballet company. Instead, I’ll say this: expect to see something you’ve never seen before, something you’ve never even thought about seeing before. Something like ballet to Chance the Rapper.

Reverence by Salto Dance Company runs Saturday, April 21 at 7 PM at the Mendelssohn Theatre. Tickets are $8 for students, $10 for adults and free for children under 12 or with a Passport to the Arts.

REVIEW: The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin shows a hilarious sequence of powerful people doing stupid things to become more powerful. Kruschev, Beria, Malenkov, and Molotov, competing in the power vacuum of a post-Stalin USSR. The movie shows small, seemingly mundane decisions which you usually wouldn’t think about when considering the deaths and horrors of Soviet authoritarianism, adding a darkly funny twist to a heavy history.

The beginning of the film sets the mood–the four men, Stalin’s advisors, doing their best to impress him, make him laugh. They spend a night trying to see who can crack the best jokes about people condemned to death by Stalin’s blacklists, and watching a Western cowboy movie that the four pretend to enjoy for the thousandth time, only to fall asleep. This important yet superficial game plays like a group of elementary school kids trying to impress the kid who just got the new toy everyone wants to play with. Afterwards, Kruschev goes home to his wife and they sit taking notes in the middle of the night about the absurd jokes or topics that Stalin laughed at, sharpening Kruschev’s strategy for currying Stalin’s favor. The ridiculousness of the situation becomes evident when Stalin is on his deathbed, but none of the men decide to call a doctor, each displaying a front of extravagant emotion at the illness of their dear leader while hoping for his death. The themes of manipulation, power, and absurdity are present throughout the story, as the four men throw together feeble alliances with each other to leverage as much power as possible for themselves.

The portrayal of political processes not only shed light on the sequence of events after Stalin’s death, but also shows some of the absurdity of politics in general. It helped me see why politics are so exclusive and difficult to infiltrate–you need to learn the game to be successful in this sort of cutthroat environment. One character says about Malenkov, Stalin’s meek successor: “never trust a weak man,” a testament to the cruciality of a strong arm and thick skin in politics. While cold war Russia may not be a perfect representation of the United States today, there are striking similarities.

At the end of the movie, as Beria is being killed, the others are listing off his crimes, including numerous counts of rape and sexual abuse. Beria then shouts that they have all been guilty of murder and rape. This brought me back to the current me too movement, with allegations against many politicians and actors, including some of the actors on the screen. It was striking to see Jeffrey Tambor playing one of these powerful men, since he was recently accused of sexual harassment. This was an eerie erasure of the line between fiction and reality.

Ultimately, the Death of Stalin was entertaining and made me laugh out loud. It showed harsh realities in a comedic way. I would have preferred a more substantive plot, but recommend the movie to anyone interested in thinking critically about politics while having a good laugh.

REVIEW: RC Student Studio Arts Invitational Opening Reception

On a busy Friday the 13th, the Residential College’s art gallery opened its doors to show off several lucky students’ work. Granted, this exhibition is invitational and students were encouraged to drop off their works by their own hands, but we’re all pretty lucky to have this opportunity. All work from this exhibition is done by students taking RC studio arts courses and who have elected to show some of their work: ceramics, printmaking, sculpture, photography, and drawing. Individual works are not labeled, though a placard listing each contributing student rests among the artwork.

Even after four years at UM and several classes in East Quad, I’ve somehow never been inside this small gallery. It felt roomier than I expected, in a way that maximized the intimacy of the space. While I roamed around alongside a few other students, I still felt that I had plenty of time and space to admire the art on display.

Prints and drawings color the long wall and give it life. Several pieces were more political than others, though holistically mixing textures and adding to said life. A piece with a person stretching to reach their foot says “Let me live” beside a different piece shouting “The first pride was a riot” in stark contrast; a piece with an image of a gun and “Never again” sits above one of a mountain. I liked seeing how the creative minds of classmates look beside each other and how the individual pieces work into the whole. Despite so many different approaches, it all worked so well together.

From there, the gallery moves into sculpture and ceramics. A series of patterned blocks make a nice juxtaposition with a smooth and more organic-looking shape. Surrounding it, wire sculptures make shadows on the walls, reminding me of various works by Alexander Calder and their placements in other galleries. Mixed-media sculptures rest in the middle of the room: one being a sculpted human heart held up by wires attached to a three-dimensional frame.

Opposite the prints, ceramic vases and series give the walls texture among another color print and several black and white photos. I especially liked the glaze techniques on the smooth vases and the patterns that the artists were able to create — and I really loved the leaf patterns on one of them, with 3D ceramic leaves crawling around its rim. It was calming to view.

One of the walls of this gallery is a large window, so people can glance at art while walking past. Between that window and the rest of the gallery, exhibition space was definitely maximized by adding other walls. I liked this because of the chance given to see work during its closing hours: different types of work are displayed together, ceramic and photo in particular, giving passersby a glimpse into what the rest of the gallery has to offer.

My own work is on display as well (photos and poems teamed together). I’m taking the black and white photography course this semester, so I recognized some of the photos and series of photos from my peers. I haven’t been able to see the other section’s photos until this exhibit, and I enjoyed seeing what they’ve been coming up with for certain projects. Their displays both juxtaposed and mirrored the prints coloring the opposite wall: several different artists with different approaches/subjects adding to one array that still works holistically.

Part of me wished that each piece was individually labeled with titles and/or artist statements so I could see what some of the artists had conceptualized, but I also liked that they stood alone. This element truly added to the idea that art can have as many meanings as people who see it, and sometimes it’s fun to make your own thoughts separate from what the artist wants you to think.

This exhibition of student work is on display until the April 27th, so you have plenty of time to go see these wonderful pieces! The gallery is always free, and open M-F from 10am-5pm. If you’d like to one day have your work shown in an exhibit like this, consider taking an RC studio arts course. Some seats are open to non-RC students.

And, for those who also have their work exhibited — truly great work! I hope you’re as excited as I am to have something original shown in a nice gallery space.