PREVIEW: 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival

Nestled into the predictable hustle-and-bustle of a Midwest college town, nearly swallowed by the indifference of overworked students, March Madness, and the encroaching doom of finals, a week-long event brings a lucky glimpse of worldwide talent to Michigan Theatre. The Ann Arbor Film Festival is the oldest experimental and avant-garde film festival in North America, reaching all the way back to 1963.  Each year, thousands of film submissions compete for less than two hundred spots in the six-day event. As prestigious of an honor it is to even secure a spot in the lineup, AAFF competitors are even eligible to qualify for Academy Awards, illuminating a world of possibility beyond the big screens. This showcase of creative talent annually sets up shop in our own backyard at the Michigan Theatre, so why not make the walk to witness a couple of hours of rare genius? The week of film screenings extends from March 22nd to the 27th; each day features a schedule of special screenings and “Films in Competition” that compete for awards. The festival wraps up on Sunday with screenings of the winning films. Attendees can choose from a range of events to attend, from experimental shorts to animated features and grim documentaries. There’s something for everyone at AAFF.

I am attending the third night of film screenings on Thursday the 24th, specifically the special program titled A Lantern Through Your Labyrinth: Out Histories of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. This program focuses on experimental LGBTQ cinema throughout the film festival’s history; going into this with very little knowledge of the film festival or its queer artists, I hope to be enlightened about the intersectionality of film and its role in this distinguished event.

Student tickets are only $8 for any event of your choice! Find more information, buy tickets, and view the full schedule at

REVIEW: Wolfwalkers

There is a certain kind of beauty to animated films, especially hand-drawn ones. The world-building is always extremely extensive, as they are not restricted to practical effects and sets, and whatever the latest advancement in CGI may be. One animation studio that has excelled in the hand-drawn art department – both in terms of backgrounds and character designs – is Irish studio Cartoon Saloon. They are responsible for films such as The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner. All of these films are illustrated in a unique, very 2D and flat style, which makes up for its lack of dimension with detail and color palettes. The studio’s art style is reminiscent of what you would find in a children’s book. The studio never fails to create beautifully animated fantasy worlds with fun characters, and their newest film showcases how much the studio’s art style has advanced since 2009.


Wolfwalkers is Cartoon Saloon’s newest film, which follows a young girl named Robyn, who has recently moved to Ireland with her father, who has been tasked with wiping out the last pack of wolves. Robyn believes she is capable of helping her father and she feels restricted by the town’s rules and Lord Protector. After sneaking outside of the town walls, she meets Mebh, whose mother is the leader of the pack of wolves. She soon discovers that Mebh is a Wolfwalker, a human who turns into a wolf when she sleeps. The film is directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Steward, and the duo has drawn inspiration from Irish folklore in most of their feature films. Additionally, Wolfwalkers touches on the environment and extinction, and the history of the English invasion of Ireland in the 1600s. The film is set during this time, and addresses the divide between Catholics and Protestants, as well as the history behind how the English worked to rid Ireland of its wolves.

These themes are expressed not only through the story itself and the characters’ motivations – there’s Robyn who is forced to be a scullery maid by her protective father who fears the Lord Protector, all contrasted by the wild and carefree Mebh – but also through the animation. As Robyn’s world becomes more intertwined with Mebh’s, her character design evolves to resemble that of Mebh and the wolves. The character design of the townspeople is very clean and precise. On the other hand, Mebh and the wolves are designed to be more sketch-like, as the initial sketches are visible underneath outlines. The film represents magic as it has in the studio’s past films, with beautiful sequences illuminated by more abstract figures.

I would say more about the story, but due to the nature of a film that geared towards kids, I would cross into spoiler territory very quickly. However, I will say that although this is a film for kids, it’s still a beautifully animated movie that addresses themes of family that can be appreciated by audiences of all ages. The film has been well-received by critics, and I’m excited to see how it will perform during awards season.


Wolfwalkers is now streaming on Apple TV+.

PREVIEW: Wolfwalkers

Wolfwalkers is a new animated film by the studio that produced The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner. The recent release follows a young hunter who comes to Ireland with her father to wipe out the last pack of demonic and evil wolves. However, the young girl saves a wild native girl who introduces her to the world of the Wolfwalkers, the very thing she and her father are sworn to destroy.

I have seen both Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner, and I love the studio’s art style. It’s been a while since I watched The Breadwinner, but I recently saw Song of the Sea and I loved the attention to the backgrounds in addition to the character designs in the film. The art is reminiscent of what you would find in a children’s picture book. From just the trailer, I’m glad to see the art in Wolfwalkers is in the same style and as beautiful as always, and I’m really looking forward to watching the film!

Wolfwalkers is now streaming on Apple TV.

REVIEW: Weathering with You

Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering with You tasted like something akin to cilantro: soapy, spritely, sometimes confusing, and ultimately, edible. The Japanese animated romance-natural disaster-fantasy film weaves an aesthetically compelling yet narratively lacking film about two young lovers brought together by the power of sunshine amidst Tokyo’s endlessly dreary summer rains. Hodaka, the male protagonist, is presented as an impulsive high school runaway who leaves the vaguely depicted discomfort of his hometown to chase a more unrestrained lifestyle in Tokyo. His story thus becomes entwined with that of Hina, a cheery “sunshine girl” whose prayers cause the city’s clouds to part for minutes of sunlight.

“I want you more than any blue sky.” – Hodaka Morishima, Weathering with You

The film motions towards gritty themes through the pair’s struggles with homelessness, the sex trade, and armed terror – which at times seem like decorative attempts to add dimension rather than gripping allusions to reality. Due to the sheer number of unresolved issues added to flavor the narrative, the film’s ending felt incomplete and soapy. I questioned the importance of certain ‘gritty’ motifs such as Hodaka’s recurring gun stint, and the development of his savior complex in response to Hina’s woes. I found Hina’s character, an orphaned “sunshine girl” fatefully burdened by dramatic choice, emotionally strong yet ultimately stifled by Hodaka at every twist and turn in the film’s plot. Though Hina braves mature duties to her brother, the eternal fate of Tokyo’s weather, and herself, Hodaka continuously leaps in to save his magical “sunshine girl” – most of the time without her consent. Hina’s acts of sacrifice exhibit both mental strength and a keen understanding of her fate with cumulonimbus clouds; however, they are selfishly averted by the ever-spontaneous Hodaka. Indeed, Hodaka’s character does not seem to view Hina’s personal decisions with the autonomous power that they deserve – eventually, Hodaka’s failure to recognize such leads to Tokyo’s partial submergence in water. I found this plot decision to be the most confusing and also the most inconsistent with the traditional collectivist views perpetuated in many East Asian countries like Japan – why value Hina’s corporeal existence over the entire wellbeing of Tokyo and its citizens? Is Hodaka’s intervention representative of the foolish nature of young love? Or perhaps, the stubborn inaction over climate change concerning Earth as we know it? 

Climate change and its ominous effects on the human spirit are central to Weathering with You; beyond the film’s narrative soapiness, the animation direction does a beautiful job of capturing the nuances of weather and mood. Hina’s characteristic hand movement of reaching up towards the sky, the newfound sunlight filtering through her fingers, is so distinctly human, and touching within the context of Tokyo’s depressing weather. The animations carry the same underlying thread of childlike wonder and curiosity throughout the film, transporting the viewer into a parallel universe set aglow with fantasy with every sunshine prayer Hina wills unto the clouds.

REVIEW: Loving Vincent

A painting in motion — Loving Vincent. Brushstrokes that mimicked the iconic artistry of Vincent van Gogh’s own paintings moved to tell the biography of Vincent in a never-before-seen feature film. An hour and thirty-four minutes of animated paint, in the style of Vincent van Gogh, was an exquisite film that I felt honored to behold with my own two eyes.

It was a rainy Sunday night, with the typical wind chills of early November in Ann Arbor, when I went to see the film with some of my colleagues. We had just come from a fantastic dinner of pizza, including margherita pizza — my favorite kind of pizza — and joined the ranks of Loving Vincent moviegoers lined up outside of Michigan Theater.

Luckily, we had arrived just in time not to miss the beginning of the film itself. The whole lot of us settled upstairs in the balcony, appreciating the extravagance of the Michigan Theater’s classic theater setting and ambience. As soon as we settled into our seats, the lights dimmed and the screen flitted between trailers of upcoming indie films and the like. And then, at long last, Loving Vincent painted itself across the screen.

In a word, Loving Vincent was…divine. Artistic. Exquisite. Every second of it, quite literally the epitome of a painting in motion, enraptured the audience with its imagery.

Honestly, the second the movie opened, I was already mesmerized by the names rolling on the screen through their careful and immaculate brushstrokes. I was watching the lines of colors, imitating Vincent’s illustrious and iconic style, move across the screen in unison to depict movement. It was enrapturing.

I felt chills go down my spine.

The movie opens with the most renowned and perhaps most well-known work by the artist: Starry Night — hooking every audience member with its fine brush work and celebrated imagery as one of the most historically reputable works of art. It was so meaningful to see that be the opening scene to a film revolving around the artist, to whom the film is dedicated for, I was just captivated and touched by it. And then, when that Starry Night picture began to actually move, animated brushstrokes depicting the scene, my heart melted. Such an extraordinary picture transformed into a setting for a narrative to take place. It was the most fitting way to tell the biography of Vincent van Gogh.

As for the narrative itself — the story follows Armand Roulin, who is to hand-deliver a letter from Vincent to Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother. In this narrative, Armand learns more and more about the late artist Vincent, who had been a new artistic sensation in Paris at 28 but took his life while at the verge of his own impending success as an artist. Although skeptical and critical of Vincent in the beginning, Armand slowly grows wistful and fond of him. In fact, Armand even comes to Vincent’s defense when bad gossip arises and surrounds his death and reputation.

I’ll spare you all the details, but basically — the film follows Armand, a man who seems far detached from having any relation or kinship with Vincent van Gogh, and Armand’s journey to find the truth behind Vincent’s death — whether it was a suicide or a murder, what his motives were, who Vincent van Gogh truly was.

Ultimately the film really is a biography of Vincent van Gogh, which doesn’t lend itself to having that much opportunity to deviate from reality and express creativity and imagination as wildly as possible, as one might expect from an animated film. I have heard criticisms of the writing in Loving Vincent that claim the story is hard to follow, but they heralded the artistry of the film itself. Animation is a breathtaking craft, and it’s painfully difficult, and being able to dedicate an entire feature film of animated oil paintings for Vincent van Gogh is truly the only way to express his biography, I’d say. I personally don’t have a bad opinion of this film, having been so mesmerized by the immaculate craft of the moving pictures.

Now, my colleagues and myself hail from the art and design school at the University of Michigan, and inevitably we were drawn by the uniquely beautiful craft of the film, especially because we all express an interest in the art of animation. Safe to say we were all very moved and absolutely amazed by the sheer amount of work and effort required to make Loving Vincent and transform his most distinguished and impactful works of art into moving pictures.

If you have not seen Loving Vincent, I hope you at least consider it! If not for the story or biography of the great artist Vincent van Gogh, then for the beautiful craft of the film and its hundreds of artists who carefully painted and animated each frame of the film.

Go and love Vincent!


REVIEW: Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea is an enchanting story that addresses family, loss, and closure through the lens of an animated fantasy drama. Directed by Tomm Moore, who is known for Academy Award nominee The Secret of Kells (2009), the magical tale of Song of the Sea follows the adventure of a 10-year-old Irish boy named Ben and his mute sister, Saoirse, a selkie — a mythological creature of Irish folklore that is human on land and a seal in water.

The story begins with a little background behind Ben and Saoirse’s family. Suffering the loss of their mother, Bronagh, their family struggles to be happy. Ben blames his sister for their mother’s passing, Saoirse longs for the love of her broken family, and their father, Conor, still struggles with the loss of his wife. When Ben and Saoirse discover her magical abilities, the two find themselves on a journey to save all the faeries in the land with the “Song of the Sea,” a song of healing that only the selkie can sing.

For those of you who have seen and marveled at the beauty of The Secret of Kells (2009), Song of the Sea proves itself to be even more beautiful. Although at times the story may be a little hard to follow, the breathtaking art and intricate details of the film captivates the audience and keeps them engaged.

The animation is entirely hand drawn and 2-dimensional, playing with the depth of the scenery by overlaying parts of the background with the characters on screen. Almost like a fairy tale book in the form of animated cinema, Song of the Sea is imaginative and beautifully crafted. The animation sequences are fluid and careful, drawn with precision and a kind of gentle softness that draws our eyes, and it becomes enchanting to watch.

Apart from the art, the characters in this film are also very representative of the different ways people deal with loss. The magical characters draw parallels with human counterparts, expressing a variety of ways that people mourn and reasoning with the harmful consequences that they might bring. Macha, the owl witch, promises to take away the pain and suffering by petrifying those who are hurt, even petrifying her own son to save him from the pain. However, Song of the Sea proves that bottling up your emotions and removing yourself from your feelings is not as helpful as we hope it to be.

Song of the Sea inspires its audience to find closure during times of loss and mourning through love and acceptance. The very end of the film brings about the closure the family desperately needed. After Ben and Saoirse’s journey brings them home to their father’s lighthouse, they realize their cooperation and love for each other saves them and their family, as well as all of the endangered faeries and mythological creatures.

Here’s the official summary for the film: “In this enchanting new story from the Academy Award-nominated director of The Secret of Kells, Ben and his little sister Saoirse—the last Seal-child—must embark on a fantastic journey across a fading world of ancient legend and magic in an attempt to return to their home by the sea. The film takes inspiration from the mythological Selkies of Irish folklore, who live as seals in the sea but become humans on land.”