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: The 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival — Films in Competition 5

Films in Competition 5 was my very first taste of the Ann Arbor Film Fest, and it was exactly what I expected. 

Even if you haven’t been to any of the films, you may know the AAFF as something along the lines of “the one with all the weird films.”

Indeed, the very first short film–Everything Turns…–was a roller-coaster of a film that quite literally stayed true to its name. Shot on what looked like either 8 or 16mm film, Everything Turns… jolted the audience from one sequence to another without breaking stride. Nothing was static. Film manipulation caused colossal stone blocks to open and close, a wooden barn to rotate, and other structures to recede into the distance. Although the work was clearly from a talented individual, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a little too long.

Commodity City, presented the audience with a look inside the bowels of China’s New South China Mall, the largest shopping mall in the entire world. The director of the piece was clearly a photographer, as every shot of the film was static and composed like a photograph. While they were certainly all beautiful, I wish she had done more with the piece. Without crafting the hours of footage together into a coherent story, Commodity City is a collection of unrelated clips that is aesthetically pleasing, but lacking narrative thrust.

Railment was one of my favorites of the night. The filmmaker, hailing from Japan, animated a film taken from his commuting experience on Japanese railways. All tones were in blue and grey, and the protagonist stood lonely in the car, isolated despite being surrounded by thousands of other commuters. Beautifully crafted and haunting.

Snatched dealt with two French (?) girls running from a number of institutions–an orphanage, an abusive lover, and an oppressive workplace. Fighting against all of these forces draws them closer together by the end of the film. Snatched reminded me a bit of Moonlight, but with girls.

Etude 1a: Release(1)  was the perfect example of an eccentric and eclectic AAFF film. Slow motion, zoomed in shots of cowboys rounding up cattle. Screeching soundtrack. Black and white footage. No idea what the film was about.

Gardening at Night was the “biggest” film of the block in terms of production value and crew size. The film concerned a woman waiting for a phone call from the hospital regarding her friend’s battle with cancer. Autobiographical in nature, Gardening at Night also mixed in elements of horror. It reminded me a little of an M. Night Shyamalan film–one of his good films. My only wish is that the film had kept the lighting consistent throughout. I felt jarred a few times when the film went from a darkened living room at night to a bright swimming pool outside at noon.

Crossing was too long. Regardless of it’s merits, 17 minutes is too long for a film that uses a repetitive soundtrack as the only source of sound to complement blurry sequences of people crossing the street. I enjoyed the concept, but the film was too long. There’s nothing more to say about that.

Any given block of films at the Ann Arbor Film Fest will leave you with a different experience, but I would wager that the experience will be worth it. The nice thing about this fest is that the filmmakers get invited on the stage afterwards to answer questions from the audience. You don’t often get that opportunity.

REVIEW: Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”

On Saturday night I had the pleasure of experiencing my first full Beethoven piece!  I expected to be yawning half of the time as the singers and orchestra droned on and on.  But there was SO MUCH talent spewing out of the UMS Choral Union and the Ann Arbor Symphony that I was captivated the entire time!

Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” was written about his spiritual awakening towards the end of his life, and according to the UMS website, he spent more time working on this piece than any others.  Conductor Scott Hanoian brought “Missa Solemnis” back to life in UMS after 40 years!  Not to mention, the soloists Erin Wall (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (alto), Matthew Plenk (tenor), and Nathan Stark (bass) were incredible!

More information on Betthoven’s “Missa Solemnis” can be found at http://ums.org/performance/beethovens-missa-solemnis/.

PREVIEW: Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”

Photo Credit: Peter Smith (UMS Website)

Looking for something to do this weekend? Look no further!  Beethoven is coming to Hill Auditorium on Saturday!  Well… Maybe not Beethoven himself.  But the UMS Choral Union and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra are coming together, conducted by Scott Hanoian, to perform Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”!

Photo Credit: Peter Smith (UMS Website)

This performance will take place at Hill Auditorium on Saturday, March 11 at 8pm.  Tickets are on sale now at the UMS website for $12 – $36 (depending on seating).  For more information, visit: http://ums.org/performance/beethovens-missa-solemnis/.

 

 

REVIEW: A Night of Rakugo

Sitting on a 2’x2’ cushion on stage, in front of a large audience, telling a funny story — that is the 400-year-old art of Japanese storytelling, or rakugo.

Having some prior knowledge of rakugo, the moment I heard about a live performance in Ann Arborfree of charge — I knew. I was there. Doors opened at 6:30PM in U-M’s Modern Language Building Auditorium 4. The performance was planned for 7PM sharp. Although my friend and I arrived on time, we were greeted by a full house. In fact, it was so crowded, people were standing against the walls. We were handed a very nice program that was half in Japanese and half in English, detailing the night’s schedule.

Organized by the U-M Japanese Language Program and Center for Japanese Studies, I saw the faculty dressed in kimonos. In case you don’t know what kimonos are, they’re long, loose robes with wide sleeves and tied with a sash, originally worn as a formal garment in Japan.

Seeing beautiful and intricate patterns, colorful fabric, wooden sandals, I could feel my heart punch a hole through my chest. This was the real deal.

Well, thanks to my punctuality, my friend and I found front row seats…on the floor. The faculty handed us Japanese newspapers to sit on and apologized that there were no seats left. It was really no trouble, though. Sitting on the floor was a pain in the butt, but the show was free, and we had a great view of the stage. It was red, with a lush purple 2’x2’ cushion sitting on top of it. A paper lantern stood on each side.

The show began by first teaching the audience a little bit about rakugo and giving a short demonstration as to how a typical performance is done.


Rakugo
is a traditional comedic performance that definitely throws anyone for a loop the first time around, but it’s actually pretty easy to understand. Long story short, the performer sits on the cushion on stage and tells a story. They do this by enacting every character in the story, and using their only two props: a paper fan and a tenugui (Japanese towel). They may stand up on their knees but never on their feet, so the performance never leaves the cushion.

Because the performer has so much to act out, their creativity and skill shine through the performance. They can use the fan as a pair of chopsticks or as a pen, they can use the towel as a letter or a book! The performance really delivers the story.

After the crash course on rakugo, the performances came next. Because the show was organized by the university’s Japanese Language Program, students studying Japanese were able to participate in this unique art of storytelling. One by one, short stories a couple minutes long were told by each student.

One of the students told a story about a little girl greeting her father who had come home from a seaward trip. The girl urged to see his photos of the ocean, gushing over the fish swimming underwater. In one photo, the girl found a sea creature that was uglier than the rest and, disgusted, she asked her father what it was. Then the father scolded her, because it was not a fish — it was her mother!

In rakugo, the story typically leads up to a hilarious punch line at the very end. And honestly, they were really funny! I was cracking up on the floor, trying to hold in my hideous snorts.

After the students were the two Japanese rakugo performers, who had flown to the United States all the way from Japan as cultural envoys. Rakugo professionals.

Yanagiya Sankyo (柳家さん喬) and Yanagiya Kyonosuke (柳家喬之助) are two widely famous rakugo performers in Japan, and tickets to see their shows are priced usually over $30 per person! It was the biggest honor to be able to see their performances for free. I was just happy to be there. Even if I was sitting at eye level with people’s feet.

Unfortunately, photography was prohibited for the two famous rakugo performers. But I promise you, they were amazing. Sitting up there with their commanding presence, their expressions and voices varying with every character — it was truly an art. Just by a small turn of their torso, they suddenly became a different person! Their performances were definitely the highlight of the night.

Yanagiya Kyonosuke (柳家喬之助) performed first with the story Hatsu Tenjin (初天神, “First Tenjin Festival”), which was summarized in the program: “A precocious boy named Kinbou convinces his father to take him to the festival at the Tenjin shrine, on the condition that he won’t bother his father to buy him anything. At the festival, of course, Kinbou can’t help asking for everything he sees, causing problems for his father.”

It was a hilarious performance, and the room roared with laughter as Yanagiya Kyonosuke pouted and wailed as the child. Kinbou was one spunky child, and I loved every second of his character on stage. It was an incredible performance by an incredible performer!

The last performance carries the most prestige in a rakugo show. After a brief intermission, Yanagiya Sankyo (柳家さん喬) delivered the last performance, telling the story of Shinigami (死神, “The God of Death”). In the program, it was summarized: “The God of Death tells a man who has decided that he wants to die that it’s not his time yet and teaches him a way to make a living as a doctor. He grants the man the ability to see the God of Death and teaches him a spell. If the God of Death is sitting by the patient’s feet, then the patient will recover. He simply has to recite the spell and the sick person will get well. If the God of Death is at the patient’s head, there’s nothing that can be done for him. The man becomes very wealthy but spends lavishly on trips and ends up broke. When patients stop coming, he becomes desperate to regain his fortune. But is it possible to trick the God of Death?”

Shinigami (死神, “The God of Death”) is one of the most popular and famous rakugo stories out there, and although it’s a little on the scarier side, it has its funny moments. Shinigami was beautifully told by Yanagiya Sankyo. Everyone was plunged straight into the story as he acted out the God of Death and the cheating doctor. As the God of Death, Yanagiya Sankyo held the fan like a cane under his hands, chuckling at the man’s misfortune. I was enraptured by his performance, visualizing the elements that weren’t there. It was a wonderful story told by a wonderful performer to end a wonderful night.

If you ever catch the word rakugo keep your ears peeled. A story will be told!

PREVIEW: Consent by De-Zine Release Party

Consent. Relationships. Although these two topics occupy a certain space on university campuses, Valentine’s Day makes these subjects more relevant than ever. SAPAC — the sexual assault prevention and awareness center of the University of Michigan — will be addressing these topics through a zine that has compiled student art and written work showcasing these topics. The release party will be celebrating the publication of this zine.

SAPAC has been working all year to compile this zine of artwork and poetry, and is proud to celebrate its release. Come support SAPAC and attend the event! Details are on the image above, but also in text below!

Details
When: Monday, February 13th
Time: 7:00 to 9:00PM
Location: North Quad Room 2435