REVIEW: Oscar – Nominated Animated Shorts

These animated films featured a mixed bag in terms of origin, tone, genre, and visual quality.

One film was in a post-industrial style, using currently- common animation style (similar to Pixar, at least to my eye), and depicted robots as humane beings and animals. This film was about the everlasting friendship between a robotman and a robotdog, and the loyalty binding them. Another was more pencil-sketched, all in black and white, and quite dark in tone, about a feral child who, after being taken and sent to school by a hunter, escapes a civilized life through a mystical, transcendental dissolution of his material body. As the feral boy dissolves, he morphs through several configurations as various wild animals, finally becoming rain for the forest and creatures.

One film is about a squirrel searching for a scarf, encountering a handful of forest creatures during his search, and aiding them through philosophical conversations, offering his counsel. Finally the squirrel realizes the world will end eventually and that his scarf doesn’t matter, and is soon killed in a freak accident. This film expresses a combination of darkness and playfulness uncommon in popular animation. I loved the wisdom of the moral, that one may spend their lives philosophizing, but in the end, life is precious and fragile. Another film is a meditation on Japanese folklore. In Japan, a caption says, unused or misused objects carry trapped spirits. During the film, a man is stranded in a hut in the jungle and cannot escape until he puts a handful of neglected materials to use. These objects are personified throughout the film, and mutual gratitude is expressed at the end. Finally, in a British film, a witch and her cat travel around, showing compassion toward various forest creatures, and inviting them to ride on the witch’s broom, although there is not ample space. A dragon tries to eat the witch and the forest creatures band together to scare off the dragon and save the witch.

These synopses depict a clear theme in this year’s animated shorts : a celebration of the individual nature, and a prioritization of one’s material and spiritual freedom and present-mindedness. As I had anticipated, the general tone was brighter than non-animated shorts, but I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by the depth and dynamic of moral and emotional material. A few of these films are unapologetically inspired by classic folklore (the British and the Japanese especially), and most involved mystical elements. These animated films used technology and gorgeous artwork  to bring sequences of images into the mind’s eye, otherwise impossible for the viewer to experience. These images enabled emotional and moral experiences, equally unique and rare.

2014 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

REVIEW: Oscar Award Nominated Shorts (Foreign)

2014 Oscar Foreign Shorts

This collection of foreign shorts is an intense experience. The primary characters in each, respectively . A dying child wants to know his fate in the afterlife, and a hospital janitor risks his job to save his soul with a fable. A man in a straightjacket proves  to a skeptical psychiatrist that he is God. A woman and her children are frightened for their lives as they attempt to flee from an abusive father. A husband and wife are doctors in a war-ravaged country and become subject to terrible violence and assault, ultimately choosing the path of compassion. Lastly, a much-appreciated comedy about a wife’s struggles to manage her family’s preparation and arrival for a friend’s birthday party.

Perhaps the theme of this year’s foreign Oscar shorts is domestic issues and death — that was my impression, at least, on a more shallow level. But on a deeper level, perhaps this year’s foreign shorts are inspired by questions of empathy for the “Other.” In most of these stories, a failure to act with empathy toward an adversary or companion resulted in a regrettable situation. In multiple stories, a protagonist risks everything in the attempt to avoid such a regret. The subject matters of these stories — sexual and physical violence, domestic struggles, family, sickness, death, war, hierarchal and institutionally-driven repression — these are some of the most prominent themes I gathered from the films. The overarching expression through these short films, however, is a striding yearning toward compassion and peace.

These films are unapologetic in their rawness, vividness, and depth. I cried once, and grimaced a good amount, and held my date’s hand a little too hard through some tense passages. The general level of intensity remained consistent, excepting brief moments. These films were made by risk-takers with large moral and expressive aspirations, and so it makes sense they are critically celebrated.

REVIEW–Wolf of Wall Street

Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street is one of those movies that reminds me why I love watching movies so much. From Leonardo DiCaprio’s tremendous acting to the engaging and contentious script and of course a slew of technical marvel conducted by directorial legend Martin Scorsese, this is one of the most technically proficient films I have seen in a while. Wolf of Wall Street distinguishes itself from other technically proficient films, however, in its controversial and topically conscious subject matter. Inspired by the life of wall street trader and ex-convict (for insider trading) Jordan Belfort, the film depicts the glamorous and callous life of an investment banker, drawing strong thematic parallels between life in finance and life in the mafia.

 

Scorsese establishes this parallel in part by returning to filmmaking techniques he used in his classic ‘90’s gangster film Goodfellas. Wolf makes use of long tracking shots following DiCaprio through his personal carnival of grandeur, reminiscent of iconic shots of Ray Liotta walking through a five star restaurant in Goodfellas as if he owns the place. DiCaprio’s portrayal of Bancroft also defies common conceptions of investment bankers—rather than a reserved math wizard making calculated decisions, he is a swaggering and impetuous party animal with drug habits that make Scarface look like a teetotaler. DiCaprio’s performance is crucial to Scorsese’s message. His acting style creates a new archetype for the investment banker in Hollywood, a character type informed by the reckless behavior of investment firm executives precipitating the housing bubble of 2009.

 

DiCaprio’s performance owes a lot to Terrance Winter’s beautifully written script, a cynical critique of the moral hazards intrinsic to a deregulated capitalist economy. Winter’s script focuses on the idea that wealth allows an individual to live above the law. Bancroft’s character engages in selfish reckless behavior that warrants arrest throughout the film. He evades legal repercussions several times due to his wealth and status. Even at the end of the film, when Bancroft finally receives jail time, he spends his days in a prison nicer than most 5 star hotels, and returns home to plenty of wealth a few years later. Bancroft’s personal story serves as a metaphor for the housing bubble. Investment firms intentionally supported the housing bubble knowing they would be bailed out by taxpayer money. The firms were such an integral part of the economy that we had no choice to bail them out. Similarly, Bancroft lives the rockstar lifestyle, indulging in wanton drug binges and avoiding legal persecution because he can easily post bail and leverage his status to evade arrest.

 

I expect Wolf of Wall Street to be a major contender for awards during the academy awards. The film is excellent on all fronts—grandiose set design, fast-paced and intense editing, a cynical and topical script, perhaps DiCaprio’s best acting performance yet, and all of these elements held together by Scorsese’s directorial signature to form a coherent jaded post-recession retrospective on the self destructive, over-indulgent lifestyle of the elite which precipitated economic calamity on the US.

REVIEW Lightworks Film Festival

As I mentioned in the preview, Lightworks is a biannual film festival put on by the Film Video Student Association (FVSA), showcasing works produced in students by Screen Arts and Cultures (SAC) production classes.

One warning to potential future festival-goers: dress up! I was lucky to be coming from an interview, so I walked into the Natural Science Auditorium in a shirt and tie thinking I would be out of place—only to be surrounded by sweater vests, make-up, and slacks. This is by no means Cannes or Sundance, but I was pleasantly surprised to see so many students dress up for the festival because, after all, it IS a film festival.

One more thing: arrive early! FVSA provides free popcorn, drinks, and other movie theater food to people that get there in time.

The biggest caveat for these kinds of film fests is that they are composed almost entirely of student films. While I was stunned to see such beautiful work from students in upper level production classes, there were also sub-par films scheduled into the program. By the same token, none of the films were universally terrible; one film’s audio problems ruined an otherwise good feature, a few films had questionable camera work that called attention to the operator rather than the images on the screen, and of course, instances of poor writing. Most importantly, these were the exceptions, rather than the rule to a wonderful (and free!) film festival right on campus.

I found out by the middle of the first evening that the programs passed out each night were terrible incorrect. What resulted was a roller coaster of films—some that were in the order of the program, and others arbitrarily sprinkled in or taken out. In one particular instance I was overjoyed to see a documentary about the homeless people living in Ann Arbor, but this came at the expense of a documentary about the Detroit music scene that never showed.

Many of the films are taken directly from the pages of college life. “Sublet” dealt with three college boys who sublet a room to a hot girl—hilarious and topical. “Quick Step to Columbus” followed the Ballroom Dance Team to the national championships in Ohio, and “The Great Escape” was about an attractive GSI who has to escape a frat house after accidentally sleeping with a frat brother. “College Town” was easily one of my favorites of the entire festival. Imagine the drama of Glee and High School Musical without anyone breaking out into song, mixed with a slightly more biting comedic feel, and you have “College Town.” Not only was the production value cinema-quality, but the writing and acting was spot-on.

Several films took the risky step of incorporating the fantastic into their storylines. After taking a few SAC classes myself, I know first-hand how difficult it can be to make anything other than a straightforward film set in reality. “Residual Dreams,” and “Grasp” were very different films with common themes of love and horror; these stood out because they truly pulled off the horror genre. “Cooking With the Stewarts”—based on the simple premise of a holiday special with several celebrity Stewarts, was absolutely hilarious.

Lightworks was just as good, if not better, than many previous film fests I have attended. No matter which film festival you attend, there will be a dichotomy of good and bad films, and the great festivals leave you with satisfaction. I came to Lightworks with few expectations of any kind, and after attending Fall 2013, I can say for certain that I will be back in the spring.

Review: Stamps Series Presents Joseph Keckler in “I, as an Opera”

The Michigan Theater hosts a Penny Stamps Lecture Series every Thursday at 5:10pm, open to the public. This past Thursday, the series replaced the lecture with a performance by Art and Design school alumni Joseph Keckler. Keckler performed segments of “I, as an Opera”, a multimedia opera performance. Keckler’s performance felt particularly personal, he began with a humorous conversational anecdote which served as seamless transition directly into the performance. What followed was a kaleidoscopic exploration into Keckler’s life, mind, and soul.

I admit I have no prior experience watching opera, but since Thursday I have scoured the internet for more information and feel safe to say Keckler’s presentation was quite original and innovative.

(A quick digression—I’ve never been interested in opera, nor did I ever expect to be, the fact that I have since googled opera speaks volumes about how creative and immersive this performance was.)

TL:DR, “I, as an Opera” is a humorous retelling of a really bad shrooms trip. I can not confirm or deny
On one hand, the tone of the piece was really funny, because the experiences Keckler sang about were so absurd, and hearing about a bad drug experience via opera singing is probably something I will never get to see again. At the same time, the story was quite disturbing—at one point Keckler tells about his drug-induced sensation of demonic possession.

I felt the inherently humorous concept of presenting a drug story through the conventions of opera is an incredibly bold idea, one that would probably never work in a traditional operatic performance. This is why Keckler’s unique spin on the opera worked so well. Rather than fill the stage with an elaborate set and a large cast, he used a projector to present a variety of visuals to the audience—a lightshow while talking about the positive aspects of the mushroom experience, a silent reel of his old singing teacher while recounting memories from the past induced by the psychedelics. This unique style both accentuated the personal nature of the narrative and successfully demonstrated the mind-warping nature of the story.

There was one other person on stage for about 5 minutes—a man dressed up as a minotaur near the end. Other than that, Keckler performed on stage alone. The one man show style created an intimate connection between lone performer and audience. Keckler also interacted directly with his projections. The audience saw the most important visual representations of the experience—absolutely no extraneous details. This performance, from start to finish, focused entirely on one man on a lot of drugs, and his disjointed journey through his own mind.

The visual details we did see gave us a greater insight into the psychedelic, introspective nature of the experience. Keckler projected images of strobing, colorful lights to illustrate his warped visions during the experience. Much of his performance also delved into memories of his teenage years, time spent learning singing. During this part of the performance, Keckler exhibited a silent film featuring a talking head of his singing teacher. She broke into a series of tangents about Keckler’s personality and habits. Whether this was her opinion or Keckler’s projection of his self-image is unclear. Regardless, this scene illustrated a psychedelic exploration of the self.

Keckler’s performance was a compelling introduction to opera. His performance focused on subject matter that is relevant and entertaining to today’s youth, but he told his story using an archaic style. This marriage between modern themes and classical storytelling made for a refreshing experience.

Watch Joseph Keckler‘s video short based on the opera here

Review–Seeing is Believing / A Consideration of Image, Memory, and the Velocity of Time

The UMMA has recently installed an exhibition in their new media gallery located on the main floor entitled Performing Still Images: David Claerbout and Matthew Buckingham. The exhibition problematizes the relationship between photography, film, and time. Buckingham’s piece, “Image of Absalon Projected Until it Vanishes”, features a still image with the intention that the image continually deteriorates over the course of its exhibition. I saw this piece for the first time Wednesday, and it had already deteriorated to the point where Absalon’s figure is barely recognizable, and many of the finer details of the photograph have already disintegrated. The piece is a haunting reminder of the limitations of the medium—although we tend to see photography as an art form that immortalizes a snapshot of time, Buckingham reminds us that the medium, like our own memory, is faulty and transitory, ultimately worn away like all other things by time. Claerbout’s piece, “The American Room”, is a 25 minute video of a series of still photographs taken from a room—it is as if someone hit a pause button—everyone is eerily still. Although the images are still, the Claerbout has manipulated the images using green-screen technology to create the effect of a moving camera within each shot—audiences see sweeping pans and changing camera angles over these stills, a seemingly impossible phenomenon.
This Wednesday, I attended the exhibit and a panel discussion on the artists afterward. The exhibit featured a curator, two local artists, and a visiting lecture through the Stamps school, all individuals from unique artistic backgrounds who lended the audience their insight in hopes of achieving a greater understanding of the internal meaning the exhibit presents. During this exhibition, the panel addressed themes relevant not only to the two works in the exhibition, but also relevant to each artist’s entire body of work.
After viewing Claerbout’s earlier work, I understood his artistic progression to the piece I saw in person, his tremendous fascination with the social reality of time as opposed to the objective reality of time—in other words, real time versus experienced time. The computer generated effect of camera movement imposed on still images detached me from the subject I was viewing—rather than attempt to identify with the characters in the photo, I identified with the photographer, who must choose one ideal vantage point out of thousands of possibilities in order to capture the emotion of his or her subject. Another fascinating idea the panel discussed was the idea of experiencing filmic time while viewing a still image—Claerbout turns a still image into a 25-minute film that is compelling enough to keep people watching. In some sense, he’s creating something out of nothing.
Buckingham’s also considers the distinction between experienced and real time. His decaying photograph is like a metaphor for memory—our own perception of the experiences we have had in our lifetime is imperfect and fleeting. The longer it has been since the event we are recalling, the more fuzzy the details get, the more likely we are to remember the event in question incorrectly. My personal interpretation of Buckingham’s work was a confrontation with the mortality of human experience. We believe we can immortalize our experiences by logging historical records and photographs, but we forget that these records are also vulnerable to the passage of time.
Needless to say, the exhibition features fascinating and creative works of art that challenge the limits of what their medium is capable of, and present some stirring philosophical and metaphysical questions to mull over. I highly recommend attending UMMA’s hub lecture series to students interested in the UMMA’s exhibitions. The panels are an opportunity to gain a deeper introduction into an artist’s work, and to glean understanding into the artist’s personal philosophy, which in my opinion enhances the museum experience as a whole.

Read more about the exhibit here: http://www.umma.umich.edu/view/exhibitions/2013-davidclaerbout.php

Some links to videos presented during the panel discussion:
Claerbout’s “Piano Player”
Bas Jan Ader’s “The Fall”—This is pretty funny to watch on repeat
Bill Viola’s “Reflection Pool”—A 7 minute video that is a time commitment, but well worth a contemplative viewing.