Sunday, February 18, 2018


Sometimes film scholars make for the most audacious filmmakers. Their knowledge of cinematic history, filmic styles, and yes, even the tricks of the moviemaking trade, lead them to create works of art that go far beyond basic onscreen narrative. Francois Truffaut was one such scholar who, when he started making movies of his own, toyed with audiences and their awareness of how film techniques are used to manipulate. DAY FOR NIGHT (1973) is a story about the production of a movie, but the film is as much a self-conscious exercise in how the medium uses various visual and aural tropes to blatantly steer an audience.

Many of the films by Peter Bogdanovich, another film critic and historian turned filmmaker, did the same. From 1971-1976, most of the movies he made were as much about movies and our awareness of them, as they were yarns about fictitious characters. There was little in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, PAPER MOON or WHAT’S UP, DOC? that wasn’t commenting or riffing about the world of movies. AT LONG LAST LOVE and NICKELODEON were almost straight-up parodies of all that audiences knew of Hollywood and their well-known clich├ęs, tropes, and sensibilities.

Michael Glover Smith is also a scholar and teacher of cinema, not to mention a working movie critic, and that's why his latest film MERCURY IN RETROGRADE is dually driven as well. His film may seem like a straightforward story about three couples vacationing together at a cabin in the Michigan woods, and it can be read as such, but the filmmaker uses techniques and tropes he's studied to enrich his character story with dimensions that most such films simply don't have. At times, it feels similar to a rich novel where what's being said between the lines resonates the loudest. Only here, it is often what his camera or framing is showcasing that adds so much more meaning to the mere words being volleyed about by the six main characters.  

As the film starts, Smith introduces us to the three pairs in his story. Each is at a different stage in a couple’s relationship. Jack and Golda (Jack C. Newell and Alana Arenas) have been together for over a decade and are at the age where if they’re going to have a baby, they need to get pregnant pronto. Richard and Isabelle (Kevin Wehby and Roxane Mesquida) are at the point in their relationship where the topic of marriage starts becoming a regular one, and sometimes a hostile one at that. Only Wyatt and Peggy (Shane Simmons and Najarra Townsend) still have a newbie sensibility to their coupling, as they seem flush with the discovery of what makes the other one tick.

The three men are friends, and they’ve orchestrated the weekend as a means of hanging out, eating “some good food and good wine” as Jack so plainly puts it, and exploring some male bonding time through Frisbee Golf and their book club. That’s the simple narrative set-up for this three-day holiday in Michigan, but what’s really going on is a whole hell of a lot more. Everyone harbors secrets and hidden agendas, and as the story progresses, you start to wonder whether any of these couples have a genuine sense of security.

For starters, Smith introduces all of them by having his Director of Photography Jason Chiu swirl his camera around them as they sit outside the cabin and listen to Peggy read everyone’s horoscope. (One is omitted, but more on that omission later.) The drifting camera cues us into the restlessness of these couples, who despite their shorts, sandals and beer bottles, are hardly relaxed. In a shrewdly choreographed scene, Chiu manages to capture enough side eyes, stilted hesitations, and awkward glances between everyone to suggest that this will not be a chillaxing weekend. Instead, it will often be an exceedingly chilly one.

Smith also employs an even more stylistic flourish in the opening pages of his screenplay as those horoscopes foreshadow what will happen to the characters throughout the weekend. Peggy points out that Mercury is in retrograde with each sampling, and while the scientific definition of such an occurrence refers to that planet moving in the opposite direction to Earth, what it means in the world of astrology is that people should proceed with caution. Just as the planets move in difficult ways so too do the paths for these players.  Indeed, the very title of this film is a harbinger of the pessimistic movements that will mar each of these couples over the getaway weekend.

The men don’t help things by announcing that the women must stay out of their little boys’ club for the core of Saturday. They decree that their ladies cannot partake in Frisbee Golf, nor the discussion of their book club selection “The Glass Key” by Dashiell Hammett.  The dismissal of their significant others has a vaguely bullying feel to it as if they’re Hal Roach’s “Little Rascals” forbidding Darla and Mary Ann from climbing up to their treehouse. Not that the women are missing much in such a ludicrous sport. The dried up and patchy Frisbee golf course looks less inviting than the Spahn Ranch did in 1969. But the men feel the need to claim the silly game as their own, and in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, that sort of selfishness couldn’t come off as any more sexist. Smith stings with his steady and timely aim here, ridiculing such male buffoonery.

But then, there is much to dislike in these men. Jack is a bit too blithe about everything, particularly his wife’s need to still feel attractive in the bedroom. Richard’s misplaced machismo gets the film’s biggest laughs as he prepares for the absurd version of golf like it’s the Olympic games. And Wyatt comes off as callow or clueless in most of his interactions. He not only didn’t read the assigned book, but he tries to bluff his way through the discussion of it. Even while the two others ride him mercilessly about his laziness in failing to finish “The Glass Key,” Wyatt continues to keep the con going.

Smith uses their dialogue in the book club discussion to tell us much about these three man-children, but he uses his filmmaking arsenal to paint an even more scathing portrait. During their conversation, the three men puff so much cigar smoke it’s almost cartoonish in its excess. At first, it seems the actors might have overplayed the scene, but then it becomes apparent that Smith had them overdo it to show their need to out-alpha each other. They also drink way too much, and Chiu’s camera notes every pour, gulp, and guzzle. A bit too blatantly, his camera starts to weave up and down and around the three, as if it’s drunk also, but at least Smith is making a clear point. What could've been a deepening of their friendship has turned into a frat house binge.

Instead of talking about how they feel about their relationships with each other or their women, they wax romantic about wanting to be the main character of Ned Beaumont from Hammett’s pulp. Wyatt, attempting to seem equal to the men who completed the book, even gets up periodically to do push-ups. It may be his attempt to appear manly, but it makes him look like an insecure boy. Incidentally, Wyatt is the one who’s horoscope Peggy doesn’t read in that opening scene, suggesting that his girlfriend just isn't that into him. Smith is also suggesting that Wyatt is not that worthy of our investment either in how his camera catches all of his foolishness during the book club discussion. 

The women fare much better throughout, suggesting that Smith is a feminist. He sympathizes greatly with their sides, even pitying the strident French minx Isabelle, arguably the villain of the piece. She may be portrayed as conniving, selfish, and willing to cheat, but Smith makes sure to linger over her angst in an affecting close-up after her joyless round of sex with Richard. And in Golda and Peggy, he’s written two strong female characters who are precisely that due to their willingness to appear vulnerable. During an extended conversation between the two at a local bar, both women confess their innermost fears. It is the best 10 minutes in the movie, and here, Smith mostly lets the camera rest on their faces. 

For good measure, however, the director bathes his actresses' impassioned deliveries in rich, red lighting from the bar to ensure the symbolism of the scene comes through. Perhaps it gilds the lily some, but a filmmaker who misses the chance to use the color of sex to accent a confession of lurid carnality, let alone another character's fear of not being able to conceive, is a filmmaker who just hasn't learned enough from the likes of Truffaut and Bogdanovich.

This film was shot on a shoe-string, and at times it struggles to overcome some of its financial limits. There is a distinct lacking in what is called coverage (close-ups shot of each individual character to give the editor more options in cutting a scene together), and occasionally the natural lighting loses characters’ faces in the dark.  Still, it's almost a miracle that Smith was able to shoot all of it on location in just under two weeks. Films with months of production look like a whole lot less. 

MERCURY IN RETROGRADE is an independent film with profound and vivid opinions about the sexes and the journey of self-discovery. It is also a moviegoing experience chock full of filmic cleverness due to Smith's shrewd use of cinematic techniques and symbolism. There’s something special about filmmakers who come from the scholarly world of film and share it with an audience. Be it Truffaut, Bogdanovich or Michael Glover Smith, they adore cinema, and their love becomes infectious to all of us.

(MERCURY IN RETROGRADE is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on Monday and Wednesday evenings at 7:45.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


Just when you thought the distinct air of comedy may have overtaken the Marvel comic world on film, what with the recent successes of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, DEADPOOL, and ANT-MAN, along comes BLACK PANTHER. It has an importance to it that makes all the glibness of IRON MAN’s Robert Downey, Jr. and his brethren seem almost trite by comparison. BLACK PANTHER restores some needed earnestness to the world of superheroes onscreen. (It's more in line with WONDER WOMAN in that regard, as well as its centuries-old backstory.) There are substantial stakes at the root of this story, and while it's great fun to watch, it's not fluff.

Its seriousness is evident in its elaborate plot right off the bat. It starts with a rich backstory, full of a dozen main characters that will all figure strongly in the film. The exposition tells of a time, centuries ago, when five African tribes went to war over a meteorite made of an alien metal called vibranium. One of the warriors ingests its heart-shaped herb and gains superhuman abilities. He becomes the first “Black Panther” and unites the tribes into the nation of Wakanda. Over the next centuries, the Wakandans use the vibranium to develop highly advanced technology which can generate electricity, incredible healing powers, and advanced weaponry that can devastate with a single blow. The Wakandans are aware of how fantastic yet dangerous their natural resource is, so they keep it from the rest of the world. They know and fear what ruthless governments would do with such an advantage.   

The story then flashes forward to 1992, where T’Chaka (John Kani), the current Black Panther and ruler of Wakanda, discovers that his brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) has brought a cache of vibranium to Oakland, CA, hoping to use it to help African-Americans fight their way out of the ghetto. T’Chaka ends up killing his brother to prevent the vibranium from getting out and exposing Wakanda as the advanced and superior country they are to the rest of a prejudiced world. (This film is very political and announces those intentions from its opening minutes.)

Then the story moves to the present day, following T’Chaka’s death and the ascent of his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to the throne. The only one of the five tribes willing to challenge his leadership is M’Baku (Winston Duke). He's the leader of the rival Jabari Tribe, but after hand-to-hand combat over a Wakanda waterfall leads to his defeat, there is nothing standing in T'Challa's way. The peace and harmony in Wakanda will be short-lived though, as a band of renegades steal some Wakanda artifacts from a museum in America and manage to get their hands on some of the precious vibranium. One is a South African thug named Klaue (Andy Serkis), working with a fake appendage armed with vibranium, and Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who is connected to the Oakland chapter of the origins story.

That’s a lot of plot, but director Ryan Coogler and his fellow screenwriter Joe Robert Cole take their time ensuring that their story is understandable and relatable. They also manage to successfully introduce three female leads that are vital members of T’Challa’s inner circle. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is his former lover, a spy, and a member of Wakanda’s all-female special forces who serve as T’Challa’s bodyguards. Dani Garira plays Okoye, the head of the guards, and if you think she is a tough cookie on THE WALKING DEAD slaying zombies with her staff, wait till you see her wield her warrior spear in this story. T’Challa’s 16-year-old sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the head of Wakanda technology. She’s a version of Q to T’Challa’s Bond, and while she may provide the comic relief in the film, the teenager is also presented as a fierce and competitive woman capable of fighting with great aplomb when needed.

Coogler ensures that these characters and their relationship to T’Challa, as well as each other, is mined as richly as that vibranium. He also directs the action cleanly and clearly, as expert as he did with his boxing scenes in CREED two years ago. The film's big set piece set in Korea is a car chase that is both thrilling and clean in how it's photographed. Even the hand-to-hand fight scenes between various combatants are edited just as crisply and concisely, showcasing extensive stunt training on the part of the star cast. Coogler doesn’t drag out the action scenes too long either. He knows that less is more, especially given that Black Panther wears a mask, and the hero's fight scenes are mostly done with CGI. We never lose our connection with him even when he's pixels.

The director cleverly has T'Challa remove his mask too during a lot of the action to keep us connected to Boseman and ensure that we believe it is he who is jumping, flipping, floating like a butterfly, and stinging like a bee. Wisely, Coogler uses the majority of his CGI budget to bring the world of Wakanda to life. The underground city is elegant and modern, lit by the energy of the vibranium and cast in a warm, purple haze. At times, it reminded me of Disney’s Space Mountain ride what with that rollercoaster rumbling in the dark and minimal lighting. (Disney owns Marvel so perhaps there will be a Wakanda rollercoaster ride sometime in the near future.)

Coogler doesn't skimp on the costuming either, with elaborate clothing created by the wondrous Ruth E. Carter.  Her work here should be up for an Oscar next year. The production design from Hannah Beachler should be a contender as well, not to mention Rachel Morrison’s crisp and bright cinematography. In some ways, Coogler has followed the example of T’Challa by surrounding himself with a bevy of incredibly strong female talent behind the scenes. Life imitates art, or is it the other way around?

Boseman has done excellent work on screen playing historical figures, but he’s never been as compelling as he is here. His hero is stalwart and masculine, yet sensitive and accessible too. He plays well off of everyone well and is especially strong in his scenes with Jordan. The star of FRUITVALE STATION and CREED shines once again, this time playing one of the most sympathetic antagonists ever to appear in a Marvel movie. However, Boseman’s best screen partner here is actually Wright. His scenes with her are highlights of the movie and bring out his sly and subtle comedic skills. 

Miraculously, the film even finds time to give players like Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman and Daniel Kaluuya (the Oscar-nominated star of GET OUT) plenty to do in their supporting turns. So many star players in such supporting roles would generally amount to glorified cameos, but not here. Each is given a ton to do and a lot of screen time. It’s just another way that Coogler brings incredible attention and detail to every single aspect of this film, as well as every role.

Filmmaker Ryan Coogler
Most importantly, Coogler ensures that his story never loses sight of its stakes. The motivations are weighty, from the personal to the societal, and Coogler never lets his fantasy stray too far from the themes of prejudice and economic injustice. Slavery is discussed quite candidly, not shrouded in metaphor, though the whole film is a metaphor in so many ways. Still, its editorial commentary never prevents this adventure from being rollicking entertainment.

Coogler clearly demonstrates once again that he is not only one of the best young filmmakers working today, he is simply one of the best. And he can work small (the indie FRUITVALE STATION), medium (the Rocky reboot CREED), and ginormous as with this one. BLACK PANTHER not only tells a vivid story of the black experience, but it showcases how completely universal such a story can be. T’Challa is the kind of leader and superhero we all should clamor for onscreen and off.

Friday, February 9, 2018


Original caricature by Jeff York of Daniela Vega in A FANTASTIC WOMAN. (copyright 2018)

It’s ironic that the new Chilean film A FANTASTIC WOMAN starts by focusing on the character of Orlando (Francis Reyes). We see him naked on a massage table. Is he treating himself to a rub-down or soothing away aching muscles? Probably a bit of both as he is in his mid-50’s. It’s all part of his preparation, “getting ready” if you will, for his date that evening. He is going out with his girlfriend, Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), and she is worth all the trouble. In movies, it is usually the woman that the filmmaker shows readying herself for a night out, but not here. We see Orlando’s movements as Sebastian Lelio’s new film wants us to see things from a different perspective.  

Marina, the girl of his dreams and the woman he’s in love with, is a nightclub singer, a fit and fashionable brunette, and easily 25 years Orlando’s junior. Yet, through his gaze, as he watches her sing, and enjoys a meal of Chinese food with her, and passionately makes love to her, such a gap is meaningless. Love is love is love is love.

Orlando sees her only as someone he respects and adores. And the film asks us in the audience to take this loving couple at face value too. They have a marvelous bond, and that should be enough for all the world to see as they look upon them. Soon, however, the couple’s happy existence together, living in an upper-class apartment, complete with adoring dog, will come to a shattering end. Orlando will wake up in the middle of the night short of breath and panicked. As they prepare to go to the hospital, he falls down some stairs and bloodies himself. A few minutes later, in the emergency room, Orlando succumbs to an aneurysm and dies. Now, the film’s focus shifts to Marina and the next days as she struggles with feelings of loss and her rights as Orlando’s girlfriend.

It should be a time for the beautiful, young woman to grieve, but it turns into something far worse. Because Marina is so much younger, and Orlando arrived at the hospital with a nasty gash on his forehead, suspicions are raised about the possibility of foul play. Complicating matters all the more is the fact that this gorgeous and confident young woman is transgender. Orlando was cisgender, and those differences stick in the craw of everyone from the hospital staff trying to identify his partner, to the police called in to investigate, to Orlando’s family whom clearly never accepted Marina.

What makes all of this even more dramatic, in the sensitively told and progressively political film, written by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, is that Marina is comfortable in her skin. Her choice is not one that she regrets or agonizes over. She is a woman. Even more remarkable is the fact that the film never doubts it for a moment either. Lelio never disparages her femininity, and there is not a single flashback showing Daniela’s former life living as a male or going through any procedure in a hospital. She is presented as a woman because she is a woman and a fantastic one at that.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees her that way. Orlando’s prickly and bitter ex Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) will barely look at her as they discuss Orlando’s funeral. She doesn’t want Marina anywhere near the church. Nor does Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra). He’s so hostile to Marina, he enters the apartment she shared with Orlando as he pleases, leaving pizza lying around and stealing her dog. Only Gabo (Luis Gnecco), Orlando’s easygoing older brother, shows her a modicum of courtesy and respect.

Throughout all this, Marina remains strong, if not perturbed. She insists on her rights as Orlando’s girlfriend and tries to persuade the bigoted family members with logic and sensitivity. Eventually, she will be pushed to be more strident with these nonbelievers, but Marina will always remain true to herself, as well as her love for Orlando and what they had together. She loved him, and she loves herself, even if his family hates her.

Lelio keeps us on Marina’s side through all of this and focuses his camera on her, mostly on her expressive face. Vega clues us into every subtly and nuance in Marina’s reactions to all the events swirling around her. Her dark eyes can turn from soulful to jubilant to worried to indignant on a dime. Vega gives a sublime performance, particularly in the scenes where she is virtually alone onscreen grieving the loss of her man and normalcy. The actress even gets the chance to sing operatically in the role, and her voice is as lovely as every other part of her.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of A FANTASTIC WOMAN is how it accepts Marina at face value, never ogling her and resisting showing any of her physical scars. At one point, to clear both her name and Orlando’s in any question of physical abuse, Marina must submit to a physical exam. She is asked to disrobe in front of a doctor with a camera and the investigator Adriana (Amparo Noguera) who has been breathing down her neck for days. Marina removes her top and is surprisingly flat-chested, suggesting that she chose not to enhance her bosom to feel womanly. Then she is forced to also show the bottom half of her body too. Director Lelio doesn’t show us a full-frontal shot there. He does not exploit the moment with a graphic edit, suggesting that everything is fine there regarding Marina’s sexuality. She is a woman, period.

At times, Lelio’s direction is reminiscent of Spain’s Pedro Almodovar, blending bits of fantasy and whimsy into a grounded story that’s photographed mostly with realism. At one point, Marina walks down a city street, and the wind builds up to the point where she stops and leans against the gusts of wind at a 120-degree angle. The metaphor is brazenly cheeky in Almodovarian fashion. Indeed, Marina is up against a lot, but she’s still standing, and there is no futile tilting at windmills on her part. (Incidentally, here’s hoping that Almodovar casts Vega in a film or two of his, and soon. It’s one of her dreams to work with him, and she would make for a perfect heroine in one of the legendary filmmaker’s opuses.)

There may be one too many symbolic shots of Marina’s reflection in mirrors throughout. The images show a woman who looks the same in the mirror, no matter from what angle. Marina knows herself, knows what she had with Orlando, and no societal prejudices will rob her of the worthiness of either. Sure, she may have to fight, but Marina's bullies will not defeat her. If anything, their vulgarities only compel this tenacious woman forward with an even more steadfast belief in her morals, character, and choices.

A FANTASTIC WOMAN is up for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars next month and is considered the heavy favorite to win. That’s not only encouraging for art, but also for the politics in the #MeToo year. This is a character study of a young woman that in many ways can stand right next to LADY BIRD as a testament to women who refuse to let the ups and downs of life keep them down. Through their smarts, wits, and guts, they’re showing us all how to live. Their coming of age should be ours too.

Monday, February 5, 2018


There is one recurring theme running through the five Academy Award nominees this year for Best Live Action Short Film - closed minds. And in each of the five superb shorts competing for Oscar gold, a brain that is unreceptive to new thoughts will determine the fate of their stories. One has a happy ending, the other four…not so much. And just try and get any of them out of your head.


All five shorts are strong contenders, but this one will pin you to your seat from its very first seconds. On a random day at DEKALB ELEMENTARY in Atlanta, GA, a downtrodden young man named Steve (Bo Mitchell) shambles into the grade school office. No one pays much attention to him, especially not Cassandra (Tarra Riggs), the office attendant who’s already busy with work. But then he pulls out an AK-47 and suddenly he’s got her full attention, as well as ours. For the next 19 minutes of this 20-minute short, filmmaker Reed Van Dyk creates unbearable tension and dread as the humble office worker attempts to talk the disturbed loner out of using his weapon.

The tight, confined space that these two people occupy in that tiny office turns into a claustrophobic nightmare. Steve keeps pacing about, mumbling to himself, and threatening to shoot at the police. Meanwhile, Cassandra must rise to the occasion and control what she can. Juggling instructions to the school to evacuate and serving as a conduit between the restless gunman and the circling police, the woman turns into a calm, steady, and caring hero right before our eyes. Can she persuade Steve that his options don't have to end in bloodshed? Both actors do incredible work here, but it is Riggs who has the star-making turn, and she runs with it.

DEKALB ELEMENTARY will leave you wiped out by the end. And I think the Academy will likely award it the top prize. Perhaps if members of the United States Congress saw this short, they’d finally get around to doing something about all the mass shootings occurring in the nation. The film is that powerful and persuasive.


If any film usurps DEKALB ELEMENTARY, it will likely be THE SILENT CHILD. Director Chris Overton’s 20-minute short from the UK tells the story of a social worker and her attempts to reach out to a young deaf girl whose family all but ignores her. Joanne (Rachel Shenton) is hired to help 4-year-old Libby (Maisie Sly) learn to communicate better and become more sociable, especially since she’s a year out from school and the local elementary isn’t equipped to handle such a “special needs” child. Libby has been getting by reading lips of those in her family, but none of them give the little girl much attention. The two teens are preoccupied with their own minutiae, and Libby’s middle-aged parents act as if she’s an irritating pet.

Mom Sue (Rachel Fielding) is especially brittle, and all but considers Libby hopeless. The optimistic Joanne, however, sees incredible potential. She correctly assesses that the girl is smarter than the family gives her credit for, and soon she’s not only teaching the tyke sign language, but she’s bonding with her in a way that no family member cares to even try. Joanne makes Herculean strides with Libby, yet Sue’s closed mind threatens to thwart all of their forward momenta. 

Written by star Shenton, THE SILENT CHILD is a nuanced examination of the disabled, family dynamics, and that stiff British upper lip that so often inhibits progress. Beautifully shot and wondrously acted, this short will warm your heart and break it too. It's so richly felt and exquisitely produced, you'll want more of it. THE SILENT CHILD deserves to be adapted as a feature-length film and perhaps all the attention it's getting will lead to just such a thing.


Trying to open up minds when it comes to religion may be the most laborious task of all in this divided and cynical world. How many wars and how much blood has been spilled over disagreements on God, in just the last 25 years? WATU WOTE: ALL OF US examines one of the greatest divides, that between Christians and Muslims. It is a tense and moving film, playing almost like a combination of the best of DEKALB ELEMENTARY and THE SILENT CHILD. 

Directed by Katja Benrath, and written by Julia Drache, Alexander Ikawah and Brian Munene, this 22-minute co-production of Germany and Kenya, relates the story of a young Christian woman named Jua. Played by the wonderfully expressive Adelyne Wairimi, Jua is traveling by bus across Kenya to visit her family. On the bus, she finds herself sitting next to a Muslim woman (Abdiwali Farrah) and her baby, and Jua regards them with disdain. Muslims killed Jua’s husband and child, so she finds no reason to open her mind.
As the bus treks over the desert, Jua is given many opportunities to connect with her fellow travelers, but because they’re Muslim, she resists their friendliness. A Muslim teacher (Barkhad Abdirahman) tries to establish a dialogue with her, but the stubborn Jua rejects his efforts. Meanwhile, the threat of Muslim terrorists with guns dot their path the whole way, and inevitably, the bus is stopped. What happens to Jua at that point is utterly incredible, rendered all the more so by the fact that this is a true story.


Many know the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman named Carolyn Bryant accused him of propositioning her. Till was brutally snatched from his uncle's home by Bryant’s husband and a half-brother in the middle of the night. They beat the youth, shot him in the head, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. Till posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, and the acquittal of his murderers finally woke up most of the nation to the atrocities taking place in the South.

This short, written and directed by Kevin Wilson, Jr., comes at the story from the angle of Till’s stoic uncle, Mose Wright (L.B. Williams). His nephew (Joshua Wright) is staying with him for the summer and Wright worries about the overly confident and guileless teen. The old man knows full well that Emmett's attributes are not considered assets for a black man to have in Mississippi, and thus, worries for his safety. Then Wright hears that his nephew was seen chatting with Bryant at a local shop in town and frets that doom may be on the horizon. Wilson does a masterful job of showcasing the sense of dread that infiltrates the uncle's world as it hinders his bath time, his sleep, and even his conversations with his stalwart wife Elizabeth (Jasmine Guy).

The second half of this 20-minute short deals with the horrifying break-in at Wright’s home when Emmett is held at gunpoint and forced to turn over his nephew. It’s harrowing, heartbreaking, and utterly infuriating, rendered all the more so by the fact that such treachery still exists today, even in the highest corridors of American power.

If there is any criticism to be made of this impeccably produced and sublimely acted drama, it is that the Till story deserves far more time onscreen. The cowardly court verdict that released his killers, the bravery of his mother who chose to display her son’s corpse in an open casket, the 60-plus years it took for Bryant to tell the truth -   these are all elements of the story demanding to be featured and given their due. Hopefully, Wilson can find the money to do the full Till story as a miniseries ensuring it the proper scope and length.


This 13-minute short from Australia is the sole comedy in this year’s finals, and what a hilarious piece it is. Directed by Derin Seale and written by Josh Lawsen, it concerns the delusional patient of a psychiatrist who believes that he is actually the psychiatrist. As the two encounter each other in the office for an 11 o’clock appointment, they each try to treat the other while defending their own position as the doctor in the room. Since this is near farce, their meeting quickly spirals out of control as both doctor and patient, whichever is which, lose their cool.

Lawsen wrote himself a wicked part as Terry Philips, the man who occupies the office as the short starts. Then, Nathan Klein (Damon Herriman) shows up late, and we're not sure he is who he says he is. Of course, it helps that the psychiatrist’s regular secretary is out sick so the proper doc cannot be identified. And the ditzy temp Daisy (Eliza Logan) adds no help whatsoever in the search for clarity. 

Of course, all of this could be solved if one checked whose name is contained on the two framed diplomas hanging on the wall, but that would ruin the hilarious mischief. Arguably though, the production design should’ve removed the props to avoid the issue altogether.

The best part of the short is the fractured wordplay of the two dignified and pigheaded men as they argue, misinterpret what the other is saying, and stand pompously on ceremony. It’s patter worthy of Abbott and Costello, with a “Who’s on First” quality to their bickering. You might see the ending coming a mile away, but it’s still a stitch. 

It would be great if THE ELEVEN O'CLOCK were shown smack dab in the middle of the Live Action Shorts' theatrical screenings to give audiences a break from the heavy drama of the other four. Still, it wouldn't be much of a breather as THE ELEVEN O’CLOCK will have you gasping for air as you guffaw with laughter.

(The Oscar Shorts open at the Landmark Theater in Chicago on Friday, February 9th, and at multiple screens across the nation.) 

Sunday, February 4, 2018


A scene from the animated short NEGATIVE SPACE.
It is always a pleasure to watch the Academy Awards animated short nominees. They are perennially a highlight of the awards season. Once again, Landmark Theaters are showing the shorts in the Animated, Documentary and Live Action categories starting February 9. The five finalists on the animated list this year are truly exceptional. Picking a favorite is difficult. Predicting the one that's likely to win come Oscar night on March 4th isn't as tough.

Thematically, the shorts this year are darker than in the past. Even the Pixar entry, while still accessible and delightful, is about the serious subject of bullying. Three of the other animated entries concern death and the fifth is about an aging athlete feeling the melancholy of nostalgia. All are very adult, despite their window dressing of cartoonishness.


Pixar’s latest is as masterful as ever, visually resplendent, and daring without one word of dialogue uttered during its seven-minute running time. The story takes place on a school playground and concerns a bully who loves to steal toys from the other children at play. This pint-sized villain is a neckless thug, dressed in dark colors, running around and swiping beloved toys without discretion. A little girl’s doll, a boy’s football, even a GameBoy – he’s filched them all. Watching him is “Lou,” the Lost and Found bin against the wall of the school. The objects inside the box – two baseballs, a jump rope, and a red hoodie, just to name a few – magically form a humanistic ‘guardian spirit’ and soon “Lou” becomes the bully’s adversary. The brat will get a taste of his own medicine as the anthropomorphic spirit ends up snagging his backpack. From there, the computer-generated short turns into one big game of Keep Away, with the bag battered back and forth, as the bully is taught a lesson in sharing and getting along with others.

Written and directed by Dave Mullins, LOU almost plays like pantomime, or a silent film short from the early days of cinema. There is a Harold Lloyd quality to the intricate choreography and physical danger present throughout the ‘cat & mouse’ on the playground. And because LOU is done wordlessly, though accompanied by acute sound effects editing and an energetically syncopated score by Christophe Beck, it has universal appeal and should rise to Oscar victory. 

If Pixar doesn’t prevail, a legendary animator from Disney just might. Glen Keane has done fantastic character work on such classic cartoons as THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN, POCAHONTAS, TARZAN, and TANGLED, yet he's never claimed an Oscar. The work he does in DEAR BASKETBALL is as sublime as anything he's ever done and could change all that. His animation here is dramatic and moving.  Just try and watch this five-minute short without choking up. 
DEAR BASKETBALL was written and narrated by another legend, Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant. His story is a love letter to the game that obsessed him as a child and took him from the neighborhood courts to the vaulted venues of the NBA. Keane’s animation tells the story of Bryant’s memories by blending one scene into another in a morphing magic act. Little Kobe’s rolled up tube sock that he used as a makeshift ball turns into a real basketball in the batting of an eye. The whole short is done this way, moving through Bryant's life and career, from college to The Forum in Inglewood to his championship celebrations. And at the end, Bryant faces up to his body betraying him as every athlete must when they are too old to play the game. It’s all done in a pencil portrait style against a yellowed paper background that gives it such bittersweet nostalgia.

A third legend associated with the project is veteran composer John Williams. What a coup it was to get the Oscar-winning composer of feature-length films to do a short, but this one is worthy of his talents. The film may very well win with such prestigious players attached to it, but could Bryant’s reputation hurt it too? In the season of #TimesUp, his past history of sexual transgressions could inhibit voters from breaking his way. It would be too ironic if those kinds of memories trumped the more lovely ones in his story onscreen.


This five-minute stop-motion short from France, written and directed by Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter, creates a memory play too as a man reminisces about his father’s propensity for neatness and order. It’s an adaptation of a Ron Koertge poem and to date, this short has won 52 prizes and played at 131 festivals. At the center of the tale is the man’s remembrance of bonding with his father over a properly-packed suitcase. You might not think that clothes magically folding on their own and socks rolling up would make for enthralling animation, but it does. (What is it with magical clothing this year in the shorts?) 

The directing team works in Baltimore, where their company Tiny Inventions has done dozens of commercials for products such as Ralph Lauren and Ben & Jerry’s, but their short feels almost European in style and manner. Their odd-looking characters are dwarfed by their imposing surroundings. The editing is subdued.  And the soundtrack lets as much quiet fill the time as underscoring. 

There's wonderful detail in every frame too that demands a second viewing. The lead character's pinkish nose seems inconsequential at first until you realize at the end that it's that way due to crying which the filmmakers do not show. It’s a quiet and quirky short, telling an intimate tale of childhood, as organized and precise as those perfectly packed suitcases.


Based on Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book of the same name, this animated joint effort by Magic Light Pictures and Triggerfish Animation is a dark and twisted computer-generated cartoon that blends classic fairy tales into a modern morality one. Dahl’s book spoofed six stories, but this 28-minute short concentrates on just three. Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs all share geography here, and it's a world full of the vengeance and violence. 

It all starts in a diner where a middle-aged nanny sits in a booth having a cup of tea before she'll venture across the street to babysit two children. A wolf then enters the restaurant, dressed in a trench coat out of film noir, and sits down to tell her his tale of woe. Flashbacks then illustrate how Little Red took out two in his family and how his grievances connect to Snow White and those pigs. Thrown into the mix are gambling dwarves, ruthless bankers, stolen mirrors, and hidden pistols in knickers. 

Directors Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer tell their story with a sly, droll edge that is veddy, veddy British. The voice work of Dominic West, Tamsin Greig, Bertie Carvel and Rob Brydon is understated perfection, with West being particularly impressive voicing the narrating wolf. The animation is full of visual wit, and the character designs have a sophistication to them that is definitely for adults, not children. 

The talents behind REVOLTING RHYMES went to the Oscars in 2011 with THE GRUFFALO and in 2013 with ROOM ON THE BROOM. They came home empty-handed, but this could be the year finally that finally changes their luck. Can they ride the #MeToo vibe? We shall see, but suffice it to say, Dahl’s Red White and Snow White kick significant ass here and the whole spook is a hoot and a half.


The newer voters who joined the Academy this year indeed moved the dial towards modernity by awarding Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy with 13 nominations. They also recognized Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiography and helped her established new records as a female filmmaker. And Jordan Peele’s horror tale netted him a hat-trick with nominations for producing, directing and writing. One might be inclined to think that such progressive thinking could also allow Oscar gold to go to GARDEN PARTY, the darkest of the lot. If so, the Academy would really be upping their derring-do as this is perhaps the most disturbing animated short in the history of the awards.

The story of GARDEN PARTY seems at first to merely be about a couple of frogs who wander into the estate of a wealthy man, taking advantage of all the splendor in their midst. At the beginning of this 7-minute entry from France, a bullfrog and a smaller frog check out the pool which is noticeably unattended. Windows and doors to the mansion are open too, so a couple of frogs venture inside and discover all sorts of marvels in the kitchen. But why is the house so empty?

These creatures are all rendered with a detail and vividness that one would expect from an HD documentary on Animal Planet. At times, you forget that you’re watching something that's animated, that’s how realistic everything is done here. Particularly impressive are the countless water scenes, one of the most difficult things to animate, yet here they look effortless. 

As the story continues, a sense of dread starts to seep in.  Why does that surveillance camera have a bullet hole in it? What made the bedroom such a mess? And why is there a constant buzzing of flies in the background? Was this establishment once a gangster’s paradise, emphasis on the gangster? Suffice it to say, the shocker of an ending to this short is anything but, ahem, garden-variety.  

Directed by Illogic Collective (six French 3-D artists) during their studies at the MoPA animation school in France, GARDEN PARTY served as their graduation film. It’s won a slew of awards already, and it may soon add an Oscar to the mantel. That is if the Academy can embrace such a dark and disturbing tale. Could 2018 be the year that THE SHAPE OF WATER prevails, along with a GARDEN PARTY pool full of unsavory shapes? We shall see in a few weeks.

(The Oscar Shorts open at the Landmark Theater in Chicago on Friday, February 9th, and at multiple screens across the nation.)