REVIEW: M-agination Film Festival

After a brief delay due to technical difficulties, the festival was quickly underway. A total of sixteen student films were shown at this festival and the run-time was approximately three hours. There was a brief intermission, but transitions between films were otherwise kept short. M-agination board members only gave one little talk–the rest of the event was entirely films. Almost every film was fantastic and they covered a wide variety of  genres, so despite the lengthy runtime, the event was quite enjoyable.

Unfortunately, it would be impossible to give an individual review for each film shown, so I will stick to the highlights, and discuss some films that stood out to among an outstanding collection of films:

Cheater: This was the perfect movie to start off the festival. The plot of Cheater is that, well, a student is attempting to cheat on his exam, but the execution of this relatively simple idea is masterful. Things begin with an edge-of-your-seat-intensity that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie or spy thriller, and from there, the “action” builds and builds in both intensity and ridiculousness, until by the end of the film we’ve witnessed a mental breakdown, a phone chucked across the room, and a even a guy getting stabbed in the eye. Satire is a difficult art to master, but this movie hit all the right notes and the entire audience was laughing nonstop.

Jam: Taking us in another direction of ridiculousness, there was Jam, a movie which involved a man killing people so he could make jam from their blood. The film was entirely in black and white with the exception of the jam which provided a somber splash of color. It was well-shot and the narration was excellent. Although disturbing, it was too strange–cannibalistic jam eventually became a global obsession–to be threatening. The film filled it’s role as “that one super weird film” quite well.

Millenia: Many of the films at the festival were comedies or, at least, comedic. Dramas are a far more difficult feat, but Millenia pulled it off. The film revolved around two college students feeling isolated from their community and peers, who go around narrating their hopelessness until finally meeting at a party. Despite some moments of cheesiness (“welcome to the mind of me”), the film overall does a wonderful job of realistically depicting depression in college students. Furthermore, it was easily the most gorgeous film shown at the festival–it gives viewers a new appreciation for familiar Ann Arbor.

Anna Garcia Does a One Woman Play: This one was my personal favorite. For a film that has essentially one character (Anna Garcia), it does an amazing job at keeping viewers engaged. The premise of the film is that Anna Garcia arranges to do a one woman play, and to have a documentary about herself doing the play, and there’s just one little problem: she doesn’t have a script or any idea what her play will be about. Viewers watch as Anna desperately scrambles around Ann Arbor, trying to get other people to write her play. It’s funny, it’s meta, and it’s even got a bit of heart.

The Little Grebe: As the only animated film at the festival, this film immediately stood out. Though the animation was no Pixar, its painted style and simple movements made it beautiful. However, the real draw of the film was the narration. On screen we saw a little bird floating through the debris of a drowned city as we listened to the narrator telling its story as one that her mother once shared with her. The story of the bird was simple, but the emotional intensity of the actress playing the narrator elevated the piece beyond the confines of the story. It isn’t the story of the bird that makes this film great so much as it is this story of a girl who was told said story.

Low Expectations: Unlike the other things shown at this festival, this piece wasn’t a film but a pilot episode to a sitcom. The sitcom follows three college roommates as they navigate love and other hardships on a college campus. It was hilarious and real, but also hyper-aware of itself.

Overall, the festival (despite it’s length) was a great showcase of some amazing work. I plan on attending next year’s festival and I recommend it to everyone.

REVIEW: M-agination Film Festival

After sixteen years of existence, the M-agination Film Festival has only improved with time. Being at the Michigan Theater, the event felt more like a night at the Ann Arbor Film Festival than an evening of student-made films.

Actually, I think M-agination’s festival was better. Before the festival started, I noticed the number of small touches that made it feel like a full event. Not only was there free popcorn and T-shirts and the obligatory programs, but I also saw a photo op  area with the M-agination logo and posters of each movie set on the a table in front of the theater.  

Of course, the most important part about a film festival are the films. I was impressed at the level of production of each film. Several that I saw, such as Millenia and Anna Garcia Does a One Woman Play looked pretty darn close to something I might see on TV or at a regular movie theater.

The very first film, Cheater, was admittedly pretty superficial. One boy’s goal to cheat on an assignment any way possible, with the action escalating, until the very end when we find that the assignment was to write five things about himself. Simple, yet I was nevertheless laughing throughout the film.

Foodie Daddy was a fresh take on  the concept of a sugar daddy, but with food. Innuendo played to everyone’s predilection for sexual humor. The Little Grebe was an adorable animated children’s story about a bird with a message in search of a recipient.

Like many student films, however, the M-agination docket lacked the depth that you would see in award-winning films. The Ladies Room was a “drunkumentary” that capitalized on the novelty of following girls as they prepped themselves before and after a party. I really enjoyed the idea of the film, but I would have liked to see a little more of a cohesive story there. Perhaps if the filmmakers did a genuine documentary shot in a ladies room, there could be some filmmaking gold.

Low Expectations, an honors thesis in the form of a sitcom pilot and the last film of the night, followed three girls as they struggled through the trials of college. It was a good film, but it was also the kind of film that is almost frustrating because it could have been much better with a few tweaks here and there. As most student films go, Low Expectations was color-corrected like a Marvel Movie (desaturated and flat). There were several wonderful jokes and ideas throughout the pilot, but they felt too far apart. Alas, it’s still worth a watch.

I highly recommend watching a few of this year’s films. Hopefully they will be uploaded to the M-agination Vimeo Page soon.

PREVIEW: M-Agination Film Festival

First, watch this film:

That’s only a taste of what you’ll see at the 16th Annual M-Agination Film Fest.  M-Agination Films is a student group operating out of UAC. Producers work with directors, actors, and other film crew members to make passion projects a reality. All films made throughout the year are screened at the festival in April.

When: Thursday, April 6. Doors open at 8 PM and the show starts at 8:30

Where: The Michigan Theater

Cost: FREE!

Also includes FREE T-SHIRTS & POPCORN!

Link to Facebook Event

Link to the M-Agination Films Vimeo Page

REVIEW: The 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival — Films in Competition 7: Animation

Another year of the incredible Ann Arbor Film Festival and another year of incredible films. And I have the great honor and pleasure of sharing the night of Films in Competition 7: Animation.

As any AAFF enthusiast and animator knows, animation brings inanimate characters to life. That can be anything between 2-dimensional drawing, stop-motion photos, claymation, 3D modeling, or maybe even any wild combination of them! Animation is a constantly growing and changing field in the film industry, and we can always trust technology and innovative animators to find new ways to impress and wow the audience with never before seen styles of animation.

The 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival showcased a series of remarkable new animations for the audience. As the official website phrased it, “Ten recent animated films from near and far, featuring an artificial intelligence with the affective capacities of a kitten, memories of the ‘birds and the bees’ talk, a suburban woman who can’t stop growing fingers, a mother’s alcohol addiction, the most notorious women’s prison in East Germany, broken dolls and boiling stew, screen obsession and more.”

Friday night, I walked into the Michigan Theater with a friend. And having arrived a tad bit late, we were greeted by a packed theater of fellow film enthusiasts. We managed to spot seats on the balcony and found ourselves under the gaze of a cat on the big screen — Kitty AI.

Artificial Intelligence for Governance: Al the Kitty is an animation directed by Pinar Yoldas with the official description: “It is year 2039. An artificial intelligence with the affective capacities of a kitten becomes the first non-human governor. She leads a politician-free zone with a network of Artificial Intelligences. She lives in mobile devices of the citizens and can love up to 3 Million people.”

In other words, AI the Kitty is a computerized cat governor destined for greatness. As messy as politics can be, AI the Kitty assures the audience of her efficiency and equity, promising that she herself is far too intelligent for the chaotic nature of politics and that her level of professionalism in her field of expertise was no laughing matter. I was definitely convinced.

Artificial Intelligence for Governance: Al the Kitty is an animation that felt a little like propaganda for a kitty campaign, but as if I would ever object to that!

The following feature was a 9-minute animation directed by Alain Delannoy, called “The Talk” True Stories About The Birds And The Bees. The title did a pretty good job of describing the short film. It was just as the title advertised: a group of people discuss their experiences with their parents when they first had “the talk.”

Fun, entertaining, and hilarious, “The Talk” True Stories About The Birds And The Bees circles the topic of sex with honesty and humor. It definitely questions the humility of the subject, addressing the fact that although we as a society are embarrassed to talk about it, we accept sex to be a “normal” part of life, something that humans do in order to reproduce. Simple biology. And yet, the way parents go about teaching their children always winds up on a whole new level of crazy, ridiculous, and unnecessarily embarrassing.

Up next on the screen was director Matt Reynolds’s Hot Dog Hands, a 7-minute animation following the woes of a woman tormented for her — you guessed it — hot dog hands. This woman grows fingers at an exponential rate, and even her arms are consumed by the growing number of fingers, making her unable to use them for anything and rendering her opposable thumbs useless. The fact that this woman is pink like raw hot dogs probably didn’t help her situation either.

Pushing the boundaries of body horror, the animation is definitely not for the faint of heart. Although it is brightly colored and playful, the mischief and playfulness in color and style is juxtaposed with disturbing acts of cannibalism that take place later in the film. Of course, Hot Dog Hands Lady does end up finding happiness, by losing her fingers to the mailbox-living-underground-cannibals who desperately need to feed on her fingers to sustain themselves. As a result, Hot Dog Hands Lady loses her unwanted fingers and is worshipped by the Hot-Dog-Hands-eaters who are able to sustain themselves off her regenerating fingers. And they lived happily ever after.

After that, was Whatever the Weather, a 12-minute animation directed by Remo Scherrer. In contrast to the animation that preceded it, Whatever the Weather carried a much darker, more solemn, and somber tone. Set in black and white, the animation is driven by the play between negative and positive space, using one and the other to create depth and shadow in the characters on the screen. The lack of solidity in the animation reiterates the theme of the narration: a child’s troubles beset by her alcoholic mother.

As it is summarized on the website, “Wally’s childhood is increasingly turned upside down by her mother’s alcohol addiction. She experiences the excesses and consequences of addiction first hand. Desperately, the eight-year-old tries to keep up normality in her own life and the life of her family by any means. A roller coaster ride between helplessness, excessive demands and desperation begins. It’s a daily struggle for survival.”

Following this somber telling of Wally’s childhood, was Lauren Cook’s TRANS/FIGURE/GROUND, a 5-minute animation: “Painted 16mm film undergoes a monstrous transformation becoming neither analog nor digital. A film about uncanny valleys and the space between.”

Without definitive characters or voices, Lauren Cook’s TRANS/FIGURE/GROUND becomes strictly visual and compelling. The entire animation thrums and the entire theater tremors to the pulsing sounds of this animation, which forces the disorientation in the audience to become innate and charged with emotion.

With four films left for the night, next was a dreary and somber 7-minute animation called Broken – The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck, which shares the story of political inmates Gabriele Stoetzer and Birgit Willschuetz at Hoheneck Castle, the most notorious women’s prison in East Germany. As the official website says, “Their story is one of overcrowded cells, despotic hierarchies, ruthless everydays, and the enduring effects of incarceration. Most of all, however, it is about the crushing pressure of forced labour. Prisoners at Hoheneck manufactured millions of pantyhose, bed sheets, and other products for West German retailers, bringing enormous profits to both sides of the Iron Curtain. Part of the young animadoc tradition, the seven-minute film pairs original audio interview extracts with abstract, monochrome animation.”

Edge of Alchemy comes onto the screen after it. A 19-minute animated collage directed by Stacey Steers, “Edge of Alchemy is the third film in a trilogy examining women’s inner worlds. In this handmade film, constructed from over 6,500 collages, the actors Mary Pickford and Janet Gaynor are seamlessly appropriated from their early silent features and cast into a surreal epic with an upending of the Frankenstein story and an undercurrent of hive collapse.”

“Surreal” and “Frankenstein” are the two best words to describe the world of Edge of Alchemy. Although I was out of context and had no clue about the other two films in the trilogy, Edge of Alchemy definitely delivers a world of intrigue, science, and bees. Scientist Lady brings Bee Lady to life, much like in the classic tale of Frankenstein.

The night of animation ends on a fun note in the form of two short and sweet 5-minute films.

First is Batfish Soup by Amanda Bonaiuto, a short story that is a little too relatable about relatives coming over to visit. As it is summarized in the official website, “Wacky relatives give way to mounting tensions with broken dolls, boiling stew and a bang.” Very, very wacky, Batfish Soup definitely proves itself to be entertaining and weird, in the best way possible.

Last but not least, swiPed! Directed by David Chai, swiPed is a fun take on the modern age’s obsession with smartphones and tablets. It’s cute, short, and playful, poking fun at everyone’s inability to stay apart from our devices. Equally as funny is its playful summary: “Texters texting, tweeters tweeting, likers liking, posters posting, Googlers Googling, Amazonians Amazoning, webheads surfing, snappers chatting, pinnters pinning, tubers tubing, tenders tindering, Netflixers chilling – are we binging too much? More connected than ever, but more distant by the day. Is humanity being swiped away?”

All in all, another year of the incredible Ann Arbor Film Festival and another year of incredible films.

REVIEW: Page of Madness

For the second time since spring break, renowned Japanese benshi, Ichiro Kataoka, joined us in Ann Arbor for a special performance of a Japanese silent film, this time the avant-garde film Page of Madness.  Page of Madness revolves around man who works as a janitor at an asylum to be near his wife who is a patient there. With only 10 of these benshi, traditional narrators of Japanese silent films, left in the world this is a true treat.  I had been absolutely stunned by Kataoka’s skill the first time I saw him perform alongside the silent gangster film Dragnet Girl, and was only left more impressed by talent and professionalism this time around.  Just like last time, whenever I could tear myself away from what was happening on screen, it was fascinating just to watch him perform, his face and body language changing and emoting along with his voice.

Little Bang Theory getting up from their station

The music was done wonderfully by the trio Little Bang Theory.  I was constantly in awe by their performance, they didn’t’ seem to be working off any sheet music but didn’t miss a single note. The soundtrack matched perfectly with the visuals, both haunting and frenzied, complementing the overall tone of the film.  I was also intrigued by the vast array of instruments ranging from quite traditional to ones I had never seen before.   What I found the most amusing were the small wind up toys, similar to the kind you might find in an antique shop, that were used throughout the movie.  Each member of the band was in charge of a variety of different instruments and noisemakers and would switch back and forth as needed, seamlessly keeping the live soundtrack going as they did so.  Just watching them was worth the price of admission itself.

What surprised my friends and I was how brilliantly the story held our attention, despite having absolutely no english subtitles or translation for the entire 60 minute run.  None of us understood more than a handful of words in Japanese.  We credit this to the talent of all the performers, for providing inspiring and haunting performances that perfectly complimented the film itself, along with the film’s rich visuals and intriguing story.

Performers on stage taking a final bow.

When the show was finally over, the performers took a bow to a loud roar of applause and a standing ovation by many.  As my friends and I walked back to our dorm we were left in a state of shock and admiration, talking about the experience and our different interpretations of the movie the entire walk back.

While the film festival is over, I encourage you to see what different events are coming up in the Michigan theater, as well as start making plans for next year’s film festival! Events like these, that combine film with live performance are not one to miss!