REVIEW: Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival, Short Films

Short stories, done through any medium, have always felt the most challenging and striking to me. Reading Neil Gaiman in high school English really sealed that feeling for me, especially the story collection Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions. There’s a good amount of slack inside a full-length text that simply doesn’t exist for short story tellers, and in losing that there is a whole lot of additional meaning, interpretable and explicit, that invites itself in. Maybe that’s why I think and write and feel only in vignettes.

So let’s not waste any more time: here’s what I thought:

Tumble, style-wise, did not meet my expectations. True, the colors were moody and there was an interesting rabbit motif hanging around (symbolic of timidity, hiding away, uncertainty in oneself, I think), but it was weirdly repetitive even while having a small running time. The lack of explanations for how Adam’s guardian angel becomes visible to others and solves the problems Adam shares with his mother (they fight to the very end, and nothing is resolved) had the potential to be open-ended mysteries for the audience to consider, but they just feel too much like actual plot holes.

Marcel was no doubt my favorite; I will always, always be a sucker for a soft and quiet romance. The frank tone of the film’s setup reminded me of my favorite movie, Amelie. The idea of a stark change like that happening (going from virtual invisibility to becoming a member of society) as a result of a chance event has so much magic in it. I was also a fan of the division of warm and cool colors/lighting throughout the movie; the glow of little changes. The ending was a point of disagreement between my friend and I, though–for whatever reason I assumed the last line implied she had jumped from the balcony while he slept, but my friend argued that Marcel was only expressing his happiness that the two were together in the same apartment. The ability to have two wildly different interpretations like that makes the movie all the more powerful. 

View to the Wall had a physical pull to it, like I was being closed into a clearly-defined, small space, drawn into Larysa and Borys’ new home.

While I describe that like affection, I was cold throughout. Being artists, the characters were appropriately expressive, the actors who played them able to communicate minute, complicated emotional shifts very well. So much of the hopefulness of starting a family and starting anew as immigrants felt quite tragically earnest. Making a life for yourself is such a fragile thing.

Ricochets was more austere than I thought it would be, or maybe had hoped. The relationship between the brothers was not as thoughtful as it could have been, made a little too dichotomous. Still, it spoke quite clearly to how easily the state of the world can dissolve closeness.

While these movies are no longer available to stream on the Michigan Theater site, be sure to check back periodically for more–the Michigan and State Theaters have been hard at work providing opportunities to see movies while their capacity for in-person viewing remains altered. Keep up to date at https://www.michtheater.org/blog/

REVIEW: I NEVER CRY

Spoilers ahead.

 

Isolated in the basement of my house on a Saturday night, I try to tune out the pounding music that somehow manages to penetrate the two small windows separating me from fun. The rage of the closet light that won’t turn off is getting to me, so I waste no time in beginning my foray into the Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival, by way of Piotr Domalewski’s I Never Cry.

I Never Cry is a long awaited film for the “Euro-Orphans:” the kids whose parents left countries like Poland to work in the Western powers of the UK, Ireland, France, etc. The film’s protagonist, Ola (Zofia Stafiej), is one of these kids. When her father dies in a construction accident in Ireland, she must leave her mother and disabled brother behind in Poland to retrieve his body. With only a backpack and a dwindling pack of cigarettes, the 17-year old girl bounces around Dublin, doing her best to thwart the different levels of bureaucracy that stand in the way of her father. Ola’s story is one of amusing despair, as she drinks around Dublin and desperately clings to the few cigarettes she finds (12 euros for a pack of cigarettes? No thanks). In this search, Ola finds she knows very little about her father, and the mission gradually becomes about understanding him rather than finding him.

In stories about grief, by now it’s a cliché for the characters to spend the course of the narrative soothing their loss by trying to figure out who the deceased “really was;” if I’ve lost you already with my trite summary, I’m sorry.

But where Domalewski succeeds in this film is the subversion of that trope, because for Ola, she can’t seem to find out anything about her father. From the man at the hiring agency, to her father’s boss, to his roommates, Ola gets nearly nothing of significance about her father. The most she learns about her father is from his mistress, a hair-dresser scraping by who shows him a framed picture that Ola’s father drew of her—“he likes to draw.” And that’s it. That’s the most we learn of Ola’s father. Domalewski holds the man of the narrative’s longing at arm’s length, trapping us in Ola’s feeling of ignorance, of lostness.

The Euro-Orphan does not get a conventional redemption here. Instead, after discovering that her father’s mistress is pregnant, Ola gives the mistress the money that her father left Ola for a car, with the hope that she uses it to go to makeup school and get a better job. Her dreams of a car mean an escape—but realizing there is no escape from her cycle of poverty, she defers her dreams to the next generation. Like Ola, the viewer isn’t left with much hope with regard to the story at hand. But we must hope with Ola that her gift to her father’s future child pays off. At best, we hope with Ola for a do-over, for a kid that has a better life in a better place.

Psych 101 tells us that between ages 40 and 65 is the stage of development in which we worry about our contribution to society, to the next generation, to the things that will outlast us. But, with our legacy ever-present in the social media era of recording everything we do, I think it’s easy to find ourselves wondering at younger and younger ages, “what world do I leave my kids?” For the generation of “savers,” I Never Cry is a brutally realistic picture of what we have to sacrifice for the rest of humankind.

REVIEW: Emma.

Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. offers a refreshingly whimsical and defiant, pastel-colored adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic romance-comedy novel. The quirky addition of punctuating the title itself complements the film’s mood and aesthetics perfectly, and reflects the protagonist’s emphatic and self-assured mannerisms. The film opens with an elegant quote and homage to Austen’s 1815 novel,

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich… had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” – Jane Austen, 1815

Indeed, actress Anya Taylor-Joy portrays the titular character Emma Woodhouse every bit as ‘handsome, clever, and rich’ as she perceives herself to be. Taylor-Joy has perfected the detached and rational, yet keenly observant composure unique to Emma and other queen-bee characters, which she punctuates with a penetrating and cool stare that the viewer learns to associate with the plot’s twists, turns, and grievous misunderstandings. Unabashedly headstrong as Emma may be, the character has historically carried certain unlikeable qualities that set Emma apart from Austen’s other famous female protagonists – Emma is spoiled rich and prideful, and with that pride wholly conforms to her period’s class and status norms. Additionally, her stubborn convictions as a self-proclaimed neighborhood matchmaker are almost manipulative, especially when examined alongside the friendship she forms with the less-sophisticated, bumbling Harriet Smith. However, de Wilde’s adaptation and Taylor-Joy’s performance not only allow but also highlight these traditionally unfavorable traits, which is precisely what I find most charming about this film. Unlike its predecessors, Emma. does not attempt as much to reconcile Emma’s haughty, self-satisfied nature with ‘good-girl’ behavior; to the end, Emma’s pride remains undiluted, even as she receives her happy ending with Mr. Knightley. Taylor-Joy with Johnny Flynn, who plays Knightley in the movie.

Though de Wilde’s interpretation of Emma. is slightly modernized in terms of its unapologetic treatment of Emma, the storyline and costume elements remain true to the original narrative while introducing color and whimsy. The cinematography and visual aesthetics of Emma. are every bit as vivid and spirited as the female lead herself, and can be likened to a sugary and symmetrical Parisian macaron. De Wilde’s use of visual symmetry is consistent and strategic, most evidently when interweaving type into lush backgrounds and more subtly to emphasize Emma’s careful hold on her town’s social hierarchy. In later scenes, the visual symmetry is pushed to represent symmetries between characters such as Emma and Jane Fairfax, a multitalented, elegant woman of Emma’s same age. The dreamy and ornate filming locations, shot around England, further emphasize the lavish lives of the characters in Emma. and the comedic frivolity of their distresses.

If you’re seeking a wonderfully lighthearted, visually pleasing period film – I would highly recommend heading over to the Michigan Theater to watch Emma. You can find tickets here.

REVIEW: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

Truth be told, across all societal provocations, nothing makes me want to take flight faster than a sniffly horde of fruit-juice-charged youth excitedly tugging at their weary caretakers’ outwear. Yet for the sake of reviewing Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (The Musical!) from the most irrelevant age bracket’s perspective, I was ready to face even the most high fructose children of Ann Arbor.

Family engagement is a major part of most forms of educational entertainment fed to American children, and this show was no exception. Prior to the show, the Michigan Theater compiled a fun guide to facilitate viewers’ interaction during the performance that included detachable finger puppets and a musical cues document. Also, before the puppets took the stage by storm, an enthusiastic man led the audience in a collective warm up dance that had entire families jumping up and down in anticipation for the pigeon-ness that was to follow.

Mo Willems’ original children’s book series for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! has a minimalist aesthetic – most pages consist of one subject, most memorably the blue feathered protagonist, and a stylized speech bubble containing expressive text. However, director Jerry Whiddon and the show’s set designers went beyond Willems’ original minimalist aesthetic and transformed the stage into a colorful and flashy puppet world in which the sounds of a bus sputtering are personified into 30-second-long gibberish monologues. My favorite set elements were the two dynamic mini doors framing the main scene; actors would occasionally pop out of its segments to deliver funny additions to the musical number. Besides the wonderful gibberish bits and intense hot-dog eating noises, the performers shone with Jessica Hartman’s playful choreography with each musical number.

As far as the narrative goes, little bits and pieces of the performance triggered vague memories from my childhood experience with Willems’ works. In the original picture books, the Pigeon puts forth countless attempts to convince the reader to let them drive the bus. This component is often credited as a great introduction to teaching kids philosophical topics like the moral implications of giving into persuasion or viewing punishment and disappointment through new perspectives. In comparison, the musical adaptation seemed to capitalize on the concept of ‘finding oneself’, or one’s purpose, and the overall process of growing up – as told through the perspective of a wide-eyed periwinkle-colored pigeon. Indeed, Willems’ writing even suggested that the Pigeon was undergoing an existential crisis, which would shed light on much of the erratic behavior exhibited by the main puppet. The Pigeon’s bumpy journey from under-appreciated bird to important bus-driver’s assistant is reminiscent of many cartoonish underdog characters who discover their purpose within the universe’s workings near the story’s resolution, like Rudolph, Wilbur the pig, or James and his giant peach. Because it is a universally ideal human experience, especially for children and confused adolescents, this approach comes across as heartfelt and fulfilling in ending.

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: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Theatre in the round? Kind of. But, like, more than that.

The University Musical Society brought this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Michigan Theatre as a National Theatre Live streaming on Sunday, November 24. 

Director Nicholas Hytner’s take on the classic is comical, enchanting, and the most entertaining Shakespeare I have seen performed. During an intermission interview Hytner stated he began work on the play with some very strong ideas. First was the use of silks and aerial performance, as well as modeling the world of Athens after that of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale to reinforce the contrast between the repressive culture of the city and the freedom of the forest. The most effective directorial decision made by Hytner was to switch many of Titania and Oberon’s lines, changing the usual plot so that Titania is the one to trick Oberon, instead of the other way around.

In addition to his role as director of this production Hytner is also the co-founder of Bridge Theatre, a new 900-seat performance venue in London designed with a high degree of adaptability. As director he takes great advantage of this unique space to create the magical world of the forest. Production designer Bunny Christie uses this canvas masterfully as platforms are raised, lowered, and shifted through a standing audience to create an immersive and magical world. Beds that signify actual sleeping quarters in Athens return festooned with moss, vines, and leaves to represent the trees and landscape of the forest. The fairies’ domain is made of flying aerial silks which the actors use to great effect, spinning, twisting, and posing to illustrate their prowess in magic and spellcasting. 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The lighting design of Bruno Poet and sound design of Paul Arditti both work with the scenic design to create a wonderful sense of atmosphere. While the lighting in Athens is stark and monochromatic, it shifts to deep greens and ethereal purples once the story shifts to the forest. Poet also does a great job of creating focus on specific areas. While holding Titania in a spotlight, a burst of light reveals Puck, having sprung up on the opposite platform. Arditti’s well-chosen sound combines with these lighting effects to create an almost tangible magic in the air, reinforcing the omnipresent nature of the mischievous fae. His atmospheric soundscape is near perfect. The best sound atmosphere is one that goes unnoticed. It is felt but never inserts itself into the scene. The low synth chords of Athens and the lilting strings of the forest do just that. They imbue the audience with a feeling that not only fits the words of the playwright but also justify the other design elements. 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Christina Cunningham’s designs also reinforce the director’s visions. The stark and simplistic grey dresses of the Helena and Hermia in the city, combined with their white head coverings produce a broadly dystopian impression. The plain black suits of Theseus, Egeus, Demetrius, and Lysander are a uniform of masculine power. It is in these elements that Hytner’s inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale is most evident. The Rude Mechanicals are costumed in jumpsuits, highly reminiscent of the party uniform of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, the most striking Athenian costume is Gwendoline Christie’s first as Hippolyta. Her black gown is beautiful in its simplicity and powerful in its monastic silhouette. She is striking, posed as a stark statue in a glass cage, placed there by Theseus. The costumes of the forest characters present a more fun, whimsical image. Puck flits in and out of scenes in patchwork jeans, graphic tank, and colorful armbands. The other fairies have faces painted with glitter and look more like acrobats or fashion models than beings of nature. Oberon, cast by Hytner as a frivolous playboy, is perfectly gorgeous for most of the play in long flowing gold silk robe, often shirtless underneath. 

The one pitfall in the costume design is Christie’s green gown as Titania. This dress is emerald green, silky, more than floor-length, and one-shouldered. The asymmetrical floral detail on the bust contributes to a hyper-feminine and soft picture. This picture directly contrasts the headstrong, vengeful Queen that arises with Hytner’s line arrangements. What would make sense in a traditional rendering of Midsummer just doesn’t work here. 

The sheer amount of talent, wit, comedy, and spectacle in this show had me thinking back to it constantly. It made me glad to have seen it and glad to be studying theatre. If there’s one major objection I have, it’s that there’s almost too many ideas in this production. The audience participation and reaction is a riot to watch, the aerial work is amazing, the acting top-notch, and the designs gorgeous. But I at times felt lost in the concept of it. While likening Athens to the theocracy of Gilead creates a striking stage picture, the extremely heavy real-world consequences of that dystopia doesn’t seem to fit in the comedic, self-aware romp of the rest of the production. The aerial acrobatics are well-integrated until Gwendoline Christie spends her time as Titania just sitting on a silk, buckled in, drawing attention to the fact that she is not an aerial artist. The comedy is refreshing until the Rude Mechanicals’ performance near the end is so drawn out that people are checking their watches. 

But don’t get me wrong- this is a fantastic production. I haven’t read Midsummer for years and my memory of the plot was fuzzy, so this was a refreshing dip back into the story. And there’s so much more I could write about. Before this my favorite Shakespeare play was Twelfth Night, but Puck may have just bewitched me into changing my mind.