Wednesday, February 14, 2018

BLACK PANTHER IS A SERIOUS SUPERHERO AND THE MOVIE IS SERIOUSLY ONE OF MARVEL’S BEST



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

CHILE'S “A FANTASTIC WOMAN” IS A POIGNANT AND MOVING CHARACTER STUDY

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

OSCAR’S 2018 LIVE ACTION SHORTS TACKLE ISSUES OF THE CLOSED MIND

Tarra Riggs in DEKALB ELEMENTARY
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.

DEKALB ELEMENTARY

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.


THE SILENT CHILD

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.


WATU WOTE: ALL OF US

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.


MY NEPHEW EMMETT

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.


THE ELEVEN O’CLOCK

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

THE 2018 OSCAR ANIMATED SHORTS TAKE ON BULLYING, DEATH, AND AGING

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.


LOU

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. 


DEAR BASKETBALL
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.


NEGATIVE SPACE

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.


 REVOLTING RHYMES

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.


GARDEN PARTY 

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.) 

Friday, January 19, 2018

THE NEW HORROR FILM “MOM AND DAD” ELICITS SO MANY LAUGHS, IT’S SCARY


One of the clich├ęs of parenting is the phrase “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it’ll hurt you.” It’s said by those who feel guilty about spanking their unruly tots. In the new movie MOM AND DAD, those words could be the motto of a pair of harried parents who want to kill their bratty kids. Only here, it’s not their parental guilt that will hurt them more, it is their offspring who shrewdly defend themselves better than anyone could have imagined. It’s all part of the outrageous new horror-comedy that just opened, an obvious antidote to the gooey holiday excesses of last month.  

Writer/director Brian Taylor knows how to go over-the-top. He did the CRANK action movies with star Jason Statham in 2006 and 2009, putting his star through a juggernaut of craziness as a professional assassin who is injected with a poison that will kill him if his heart rate drops. Taylor applies a lot of the same manic energy and stylized violence here, incorporating all kinds of off-kilter camera angles, kinetic edits, and grinding metal music to keep things pulsing with verve. It makes this the fastest-moving horror movie in many a moon. And it works as an imaginative counter to the most generic of middle-class neighborhoods that Taylor has set his story in. It’s a sleepy burg, with blocks of houses that all look the same, and everyone driving similar SUV's, but boy oh boy, is this sleepy suburb about to awaken to a new day. Before you can say, parent-teacher conference, the cadre of adults will be hunting down and butchering their offspring.  

No one in the story knows quite why this sudden burst of carnage happens in such an unexpected place. Is it some sort of virus, as the news asks, or perhaps some buried form of psychosis? Taylor doesn’t explain its cause, and it makes it all the more unsettling. Eventually, the horrors will hit the home of the Ryan family, the story's main characters. And their tract house will become an ersatz battlefield between parent and child. 

Carly (Anne Winters) is a surly teen who has little respect for anyone and brazenly steals money from her mother’s wallet. Her younger brother Joshua (Zackary Arthur) is no prize either. He’s loud and obnoxious, a careless brat who tends to leave his toys all over the place. Dad Brent (Nicolas Cage) is overworked, underappreciated, and frazzled. Meanwhile, mom Kendall (Selma Blair) is ignored by all of them. Such dynamics aren’t uncommon in many a family, only here these dynamics set up a powder keg about to blow.

After a tense morning together, all go their separate ways for the day. The kids head to school, Dad goes to work, and Mom attends an aerobics class. But then at school, news of parents murdering their children starts to spread through the school. Then, during the pick-up time at the end of the school day, parents go apeshit and start climbing over the gates to get at their children, chase them onto the football field and start pummeling them to death. 

Carly escapes and rushes home as she's worried about Joshua's chances as he is at home for the day. She doesn't know if her parents have gone bonkers yet, but she doesn't want to take any chances. And indeed, her parents are not having a good day, and each starts to get more pent up and ready to burst. 

Soon, these parents and their kids will meet at home and face off in a vicious fight to the finish. Here, Taylor satirizes family issues as well as "psycho in the house" tropes in the horror genre. And his visuals will become more and more savage and silly, as the fighting veers into the blackest of black comedy.

Characters will trip on toys, topple down the stairs,  be sliced, diced, burned, stabbed, and even poked through the cheek with wire hangers. The nuclear family unit explodes all too quickly in the Ryan home, devolving into a dysfunction that would make the Jose Menendez family look like THE WALTONS. Taylor slyly suggests that there was very little love in the Ryan home before things go to hell in a handbasket. He seems to be saying that the carnage is inevitable, the natural outcome of this family's hateful dynamics. Indeed, Taylor never makes it clear that this mom and dad were affected by any virus at all. Instead, he insinuates that this battle to the death was a long time coming organically.

Both Winters and Arthur play their kid roles straight and mean, without any pleas for sympathy. Their canniness in how the two war with their parents is one of the film’s better jokes, suggesting that these physical battles aren't that far off the daily skirmishes. Cage, who’s been known to go big and broad in his career, verges on self-parody here with his shrieking line readings and flailing body, but he is utterly hilarious. This is a dad who completely loses his shit and bays at the moon, and Cage excels at playing such a cartoonish nutjob.

The one performance you sympathize with is Selma Blair’s mom character.  Kendall is still concerned with her family’s welfare and tries desperately to connect with them. Unfortunately, their self-absorption only makes her feel more dehumanized.  It’s easy to see why she’d crack and you almost root for her to triumph in her murder scheme. Blair underplays the vengeance, giving the film’s best performance. 

In addition to satirizing the tension in families and how trying parenting can be, Taylor indicts casual racism as well. One of the secondary storylines is Dad's dislike of Carly’s black boyfriend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham), a smart and plucky kid who will turn out to be quite the ally to his girlfriend during the drama. Taylor also teases America’s war mentality and macho male posturing, as gruff Viet Nam vet Grandpa (Lance Henriksen) turns up late in the game ready to knife whatever opponent gets in his way. 

And even though Taylor keeps the adrenaline pumping throughout, the filmmaker cleverly breaks up a lot of the intensity with humorous flashbacks that explain the backstory of the family dynamics. It turns out that all the elements were there for such havoc, virus or not. I do wish that he wouldn't have relied so heavily on irritating metal music to underscore his violence though. It's plenty tense and energetic without such underlining. 

January tends to be a junkyard for new releases, as audiences concentrate on the recent Christmas releases from December, as well as all those films in the hunt for Oscars. Horror filmmakers have wisely realized for a few years now, however, that such a month is a great time to open films that go against the grain. Frights and fun are a fitting counter to the season, and a movie like MOM AND DAD excels vividly. It's mean, vicious and funny as hell. In fact, it contains so many belly laughs, it’s scary.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

DEAR MOTION PICTURE ACADEMY MEMBERS : BE BOLD AND NOMINATE THESE CHOICES


There are only a smattering of hours left for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to fill out their nomination ballots. Most every film critic, industry prognosticator, and movie blogger has made their picks, predictions, or hopes for the Oscars. And the frontrunners in each category seem more and more like inevitable choices at this stage. No matter, there are some underdogs still fighting to get on the list of five in each Oscar category and I want those who've not sent in their ballots to take some of those into consideration as they get out their pens. Be bold, procrastinators! Change the trajectory the season and choose these worthy contenders for nominations even if the odds are not exactly in their favor: 

BEST PICTURE
In 2009, in an attempt to find room for hit films on the Best Picture list, the Motion Picture Academy expanded  the number of possible nominees in the top category from five, up to ten. Since then, a number of tent poles and box office blockbusters have found their way onto the esteemed lists in their year. Audience favorites and genre films like UP, TOY STORY 3, DJANGO UNCHAINED, THE MARTIAN, and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD might not have made the Best Picture list if it weren’t for the Academy's expanded rules, but with the more comes the merrier. Thus, it should be easy for the Academy to recognize a similar type of crowd pleaser - WONDER WOMAN.

First of all, it's a terrific film, a favorite of so many this year, and a movie that continues to stand strong at a 92% certified fresh rating over at RottenTomatoes.com. Second, WONDER WOMAN was not only the third biggest money-maker of the year domestically with a $413 million gross, but it made $822 million worldwide. And third, in the year of all the women's protests, the calling out of Hollywood predators, as well as the #MeToo and "Time's Up" movements, this movie could not be any more timely. 

So, why is it considered a long shot for a Best Picture nomination? Quite simply, because it’s a comic book movie. The Academy generally gravitates towards Best Picture nominees with a more “serious art” feel to them. Perhaps this DC comic adaptation doesn’t seem to be, but it actually is. After all, no film has really captured the zeitgeist quite as wondrously, has it?  It's inspired audiences all over the world, particularly young girls desperate for portrayals of women on the big screen that they can look up to. And it's feminine sensibilities from director Patty Jenkins made it stand out in the world of macho, glib male superheroes that have permeated other comic book films for decades. The Academy will likely honor LADY BIRD, THE SHAPE OF WATER, or THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI with its actual award, and they all are great films about strong women this year, but WONDER WOMAN deserves a nomination for Best Picture alongside of them.


BEST DIRECTOR
The Chicago Independent Critics Circle gave our "Impact Award" this year to Patty Jenkins for her miraculous direction of WONDER WOMAN. Our reasoning? In a year where women everywhere found the courage to stand up for themselves, this director helmed a tentpole in a category dominated by men, saved DC’s tattered film reputation, changed the trajectory of DC superheroes which had been in decline on film for decades, and drew audiences en masse to her vision. Her artistry and sensitivity is evident in every frame, and never does Jenkin’s camera ogle the Wonder Woman character with up skirt shots like Zack Snyder employed in both BATMAN V. SUPERMAN and JUSTICE LEAGUE. She saw Diana as a hero, a woman and a humanist, not a sex object. And that made all the difference in the world. Thus, for excelling and changing the game of tentpoles and the world of superheroes, Jenkins should be on the shortlist of five.



BEST ACTRESS
Quite simply, there are too many extraordinary lead female performances this year to choose from for the top five Oscar nominees. That select list could easily accommodate ten worthy nominees, if not more. Those likely to fall short include Jessica Chastain for MOLLY’S GAME, Michelle Williams for ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, Judi Dench for VICTORIA & ABDUL, and Emma Stone for BATTLE OF THE SEXES, just to name four. Still, there’s one actress on the shortlist who arguably gave the most iconic performance this year and that’s Gal Gadot. The characterization of the superhero could’ve gone south in so many ways, but Gadot never faltered. She made every right choice to give us a three-dimensional hero that everyone could cheer. Gadot made earnestness enthralling, rendered sensitivity as WW's greatest strength, and cajoled us to laugh along with Diana as she struggled during her fish-out-of-water arc. The Academy screwed up 40 years ago by failing to nominate Christopher Reeve for his landmark performance as SUPERMAN, let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake this year with Gadot.


BEST ACTOR
Is Kamail Nanjiani not really in the running for Best Actor for THE BIG SICK because too many critics and pundits think he was merely playing himself? Indeed, he is, just as his script is his story, but such things shouldn’t be disqualifying. Thankfully, THE BIG SICK is a genuine contender in categories like Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Holly Hunter), but Nanjiani should be in the top five called for the Best Actor category too. It’s certainly a more nuanced and affecting performance than James Franco’s comedically accurate but shallow imitation of Tommy Wiseau in THE DISASTER ARTIST. It’s unbelievable how many critics groups have missed the opportunity to honor Nanjiani’s stellar lead work in their year end awards and nominations. Wouldn't it be the nicest surprise when the Oscar nominations are announced on the morning of January 23rd to hear Nanjiani's name called for Best Actor as well as Best Original Screenplay? 


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
He saved the picture. That’s why Christopher Plummer should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD. He was unequivocally brilliant in the role of J. Paul Getty too, making a multi-dimensional villain - charming, vile, and always, utterly captivating. You could barely look at anyone else in his scenes. But at the end of the day, Plummer saved the film from being dismissed due to Kevin Spacey's scandals. That’s how commanding a presence and force Plummer is as an actor. He deserves to be in the top five. (And frankly, IMHO, he deserves to win.)


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Tiffany Haddish in GIRLS TRIP was good enough for the New York Film Critics Circle to award her Best Supporting Actress, so why is she considered such a long shot for an Oscar nomination? Is it because she’s black, or in a dirty comedy, and because her most famous scene showcases her demonstration of a sex technique involving a banana and orange? Of course, all of the above. The hoity-toity Academy may not deign to honor her, but they should. Hers was the breakthrough performance of the year and she was hilarious. She was also sweet, sexy, and real. Too often the Academy misses acknowledging such breakthrough performances in raucous comedies. They ignored John Belushi in ANIMAL HOUSE, Eugene Levy in AMERICAN PIE, and Zach Galifianakis in THE HANGOVER, but they shouldn't overlook Haddish. The supporting race for actresses isn’t that deep this year and her sterling performance needs to be in the top five.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Why isn’t Clint Mansell’s moody and moving score for LOVING VINCENT getting any traction? It’s one of his best ever. And it perfectly captures the melancholy of the animated film's subject - Vincent van Gogh. Mansell's haunting score, once heard, will stay with you long after you've gotten over Hans Zimmer's monotonous ticking clock motif in DUNKIRK. Honor Mansell with a nomination, please. 


BEST COSTUME DESIGN
It sure would be nice if a contemporary film made the Oscar shortlist this year, but too often the category doesn’t make room for anything not period. Granted, I would award this year’s Costume Design Oscar to PHANTOM THREAD, which takes place in the 1950’s, but the Academy should at least nominate Jennifer Johnson’s more contemporary white trash renderings in I, TONYA. The last time an Oscar went to something considered contemporary was way back in 1994 when the gold went to THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT. It’s an uphill climb for I, TONYA here, but the film should be recognized for its marvelously trashy clothes that said so much about each character. 

Those are my last minute pleas. I hope that a few Academy members read this blog and if they haven't marked their ballots yet, they hoist their pens for these standouts that deserve to be on Oscar's shortlist.