RETRO REVIEW: Big Movies Come in Small Reels: This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Short Films Are All Winners at the Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema

Posted on: Feb 8th, 2018 By:

by Claudia Dafrico
Contributing Writer

OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS 2018: ANIMATION & LIVE ACTION (2017);  Opens Friday, February 9 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema

With awards season in full swing, cinema-loving Atlantans may be wondering where they can have a more personal experience with this year’s nominees. While Atlanta is now rivaling Los Angeles in terms of film production, the bulk of movie premieres and award ceremonies continue to take place in Hollywood. If you’ve already bought your Oscar party decorations and filled out your personal ballot but you’re still wanting more Academy goodness, Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema has got you covered. Starting Friday February 9, OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS 2018: ANIMATION & LIVE ACTION will be screening there. With 10 shorts total (five live action and five animated) that range from heart-wrenching tragedies to whimsical reveries, there are sure to be some new favorites for everyone.

Dekalb Elementary

Many of the entries in this year’s short film categories are inspired by or direct retellings of true events. This is certainly the case with Reed Van Dyk’s Dekalb Elementary, which recounts an incident on August 20, 2013 in which an armed man holed himself in the front office of an Atlanta elementary school with violent intent. Tarra Riggs shines in her role as the secretary who has the fate of hundreds on her shoulders when she is forced to negotiate with the gunman. The film is filled with tense moments, none of which feel unrealistic or nerve-wracking for their own sake. While it is very easy to exploit real life trauma for cheap thrills, Dekalb Elementary does no such thing, and instead chooses to showcase the immense emotional capacity of the actors to convey the many nuances of such a terrifying situation.

The Silent Child

It is not uncommon to see young children struggle with the transition of leaving their mother at home to start school for the first time. For the protagonist of The Silent Child, that transition is made even more difficult due to her deafness. When Libby’s parents hire a sign language proficient nanny, played by Rachel Shenton, to aid her in communication, the child’s difficult situation starts to become less of a burden. But while Libby’s signing skills begin to improve and the bond between the two strengthens, outside forces begin to inhibit Libby’s opportunities for growth. The Silent Child raises many questions regarding how a parent should handle the education of a deaf child, and the consequences that can arise from those decisions.

The Eleven O’Clock

If the comedy in The Eleven o’Clock can be described in any one word, that word would be “maddening.” The film starts off innocently enough: a psychiatrist arrives at his office at the start of the work day, whereupon he finds out his regular secretary has been replaced by a temp for the day, who reminds him that his 11:00 AM client is soon to arrive. The client’s ailment? He thinks he is a psychiatrist—more specifically a psychiatrist that practices in the very same office, who also has an 11:00 appointment with a client who believes he is a psychiatrist. What follows is a “who’s on first” routine that manages to be both hilarious and unsettling. As the two men quarrel over who’s who, the audience begins to question their own identities and perceptions.

Mose (L.B. Wiliams) in “Emmett Till”

The tragic, short life of Emmett Till has been taught, or at the very least mentioned, in many schools when discussing the roots of the Civil Rights movement in America. But it is rare to have the chance to experience his story through a medium as immersive as cinema. Kevin Wilson Jr.’s My Nephew Emmett seeks to provide that immersion by following Till’s uncle, Mose, in his struggle to protect Emmett from the violent hate-mongers seeking mob justice over an altercation between Emmett and a white woman that is still disputed to this day. L.B. Williams’ portrayal of Mose is nuanced and heartbreaking, and stands out in a piece that breathe new life into a piece of history worth re-examining.

Watu Wote

News coverage of international conflicts, specifically disputes rooted in religious and/or ideological differences, often have a tendency to rely upon the violence and cruelty occurring between the disparaging groups, as opposed to the bond that can be found between common citizens swept up in the strife. Watu Wote (Katja Benrath) illuminates the power of this bond with the story of a Christian woman’s journey through Kenya during a particularly violent period in the county’s Muslim-Christian dispute. She is initially wary of her fellow travelers (Muslims), but comes to learn that human goodness can transcend animosity. Real life acts of heroism are not accompanied by fanfare, nor do they always have a strictly “happy” ending. This is a film that celebrates these oft-neglected heroes.

LOU (Pixar)

Try, for a moment, to imagine a piece of media created by Pixar that lacks charm. It’s harder than you would think. Their 19th original animated short, Lou, is no exception to this rule. The film opens on an elementary school playground, where the viewer meets LOU, an anthropomorphized pile of children’s belongings that have become separated from their owners and made their way into the lost and found the bin one way or another. A schoolyard bully finds new joy in keeping the lost belongings for himself, and LOU takes it upon itself to deal out justice (in the wholesome, whimsical Pixar style, of course).

Garden Party.

Animal lovers and those with a flair for the mysterious will get a kick out of Garden Party, Florian Babikian and Vincent Bayoux’s beautifully animated short that follows a gaggle of frogs and toads on an adventure through an elegant mansion with some cryptic secrets. There is no dialogue outside of the croaks of the amphibians, but the directors are able to create a setting so lush and compelling that it allows the audience to create their own narrative; one that can be fanciful, deadly, or even a mix of both.

Revolting Rhymes.

The works of British author Roald Dahl are no stranger to the big screen. Revolting Rhymes, directed by Ian Lachauer and Jakob Schuh, is another entry into this particular echelon. As a modern take on classic fairytales, Revolting Rhymes brings characters like Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and all of their companions and foes together in one very meta story. In classic Dahl fashion, the innocence of a fairy tale is interlaced with dry wit and some fairly dark undertones, as well as some refreshingly self-sufficient heroines. This is a perfect short for the fanciful yet wry young one in your life.

Many parents have special rituals that they share with their children. This could be something as common as a tuck-in at bedtime, or, in the case of Negative Space, it can be something less common, like packing a suitcase. Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter craft breathtaking visuals that accompany the exploration of a relationship between a father and son, all centered around the process of packing one’s suitcase. Negative Space reminds us to appreciate even the most seemingly inconsequential moments in life, and explore the depth of when we are able to share these moments with others.

Dear Basketball.

One does not have to be a basketball fan, or even a sports fan period, to enjoy Dear Basketball. As Kobe Bryant professes his love of the game through his expressive narration, it is clear even to those who don’t or have never kept up with basketball to understand his reverence for it. Accompanied by magnificent pencil animation, Bryant recounts his childhood dreams of becoming a famous athlete, and the years of hard work that accompanied the fulfillment of that dream. The short has brief runtime, yet manages to capture years of passion and success. As Bryant’s professional career nears its conclusion, Dear Basketball feels like the perfect bookend to a long and fulfilling relationship between a man and his passion.


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Retro Review: Fly Into the Past Aboard CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG at the historic Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Mar 29th, 2013 By:

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968); Dir. Ken Hughes; Starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howe, Gert Fröbe and Lionel Jeffries; Starts Friday, March 29 ; Plaza Atlanta; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett, Contributing Writer

The Plaza Theatre has a long, storied and—at times—notorious past. So leave it to them to revive one of the most frightening memories of my childhood by bringing CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG  back to the big screen.

As a tiny tot, my family would drive across town every weekend to have lunch at my grandparents’ house. And being a movie fiend at even that young age, I’d plop down to watch whatever was playing on the Sunday Afternoon TV Movie that week while everyone talked in the kitchen and prepped the meal. There was a certain rotation to the movies they’d schedule, and it seemed like every couple of months or so they’d show either the Beatles’ YELLOW SUBMARINE or—more likely—CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG. And I’d sit enraptured by the movie every time, even though I knew what was coming and that it would scare the pants off me.

Sure, most of the movie is harmless enough stuff. It’s set in the salad days of the 1910s, before the specter of World War I darkened the horizon. There’s Dick Van Dyke being his typical charming self as the perpetually failing inventor Caractacus Potts, but he could play charming in his sleep. There’s Sally Ann Howe in the Julie Andrewsas-Mary Poppins-eque role of Truly Scrumptious (Andrews herself was offered the role, but turned it down; it then went to Howe, who had replaced Andrews on Broadway in MY FAIR LADY). There are memorable songs from Disney’s celebrated in-house composers Richard and Robert Sherman. There are a couple of precious kids, a kindly grandfather and, best of all, a magical car named Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (after the sounds it makes while running). Despite the film’s meandering tone and frequent tangential detours, once we start seeing the car in action, it becomes something thrillingly charming.

The story has its roots in the children’s book by—strange as it may seem—Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. He was sidelined from writing the Bond novels due to protracted lawsuits surrounding THUNDERBALL. Constantly stressed about the case, Fleming suffered two major heart attacks. During his recuperation, he set out to write a book based on a bedtime story he’d concocted for his son Caspar. Fleming, sadly, did not live to see the book published. A mere two months before its publication, on Caspar’s 12th birthday, Ian Fleming succumbed to a third and fatal heart attack.

Fleming is not the only Bond connection to the film, though. It was produced by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, co-producer of the classic Bond films. It was directed by Ken Hughes, fresh off directing his segment of the Bond spoof CASINO ROYALE. The film co-stars Gert “Auric Goldfinger” Fröbe and Desmond “Q” Llewellyn. And, most importantly, it was adapted for the screen by the screenwriter of the previous year’s YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE: renowned children’s author and close friend of Fleming’s, Roald Dahl. And that’s where things get weird. And scary.

See, Dahl’s sensibilities were so black as to be nearly morbid. His CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, for example, has so many kids meeting their (non-fatal) ends that it’s practically THE HUNGER GAMES set in the candy manufacturing industry. So Dahl (along with director Hughes) took great liberty with the source material and created something nearly as traumatic as the boat ride in 1971’s WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY or the flying monkeys in 1939’s THE WIZARD OF OZ.

During the course of the movie’s ambling narrative, we learn that Baron Bomburst, the tyrannical leader of Vulgaria, wants to steal Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He sends two spies to kidnap Potts and force him to build a duplicate, but they kidnap Truly Scrumptious’ father and Grandpa Potts by mistake. Caractacus, Truly and the kids take off in Chitty to rescue the oldsters, and fly to the dreary country.

Why is the country so dreary, you might ask? Because there are no children on the streets of Vulgaria. And why not, you ask again? Because of…

The Child Catcher.


A character created entirely by Dahl for the film, Sir Robert Helpmann’s portrayal of the grotesque Child Catcher is one of the most frightening cinematic creations ever to be foisted upon unsuspecting movie-going children. The character is in the employ of the Baron and Baroness Bomburst, who hate children so much that the sight of them sends the couple into fits of fear and loathing. With his spindly legs, pasty face, black clothing, warped top hat and enormous nose (with which he can smell the very presence of the little rugrats: “This nose of mine has never failed me. And if there are children here, my friend, you will die.”), he tempts children out of hiding with promises of lollipops and treacle tarts and then takes them away in his carriage to be imprisoned.

And this is where I’d be sent into paroxysms of terror. Not even the presence of Benny Hill as a gentle toymaker could save me. No, this guy wormed his way into my consciousness and took root. He still freaks me out a little. And I’m not the only one. The character was voted in a 2005 BBC poll as “the scariest villain in books,” despite never appearing in the book. In 2009, a poll carried out by Penguin Books named him as the seventh scariest character of all time.

The Child Catcher even figures prominently as an avatar of childhood fright in the earlier, funnier work of Marilyn Manson. On the band’s debut album, PORTRAIT OF AN AMERICAN FAMILY, he is obliquely the subject of the song “Organ Grinder,” which features samples of the character calling out “Here we are children! Come and get your lollipops! Lollipops! Come along my little ones!” Manson’s second release, SMELLS LIKE CHILDREN, was even named in the character’s honor and featured Mr. Manson on the cover dressed in the Child Catcher’s garb.

So toss your cynicism aside and let the film take you back to a more innocent time. The journey may go all over the place, plot-wise, but it’s a scenic route. And the Plaza may not have a magical flying car, but taking a trip with CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG costs you only the price of a ticket. Come along, kiddie-winkies!

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at


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Kool Kat of the Week: Michael Shell Serves Up a Tantalizing Taste into Directing THE GOLDEN TICKET, The Atlanta Opera’s Latest Production Based on CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY

Posted on: Mar 1st, 2012 By:

Photo courtesy of Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

Oompa Loompa, Pudding and Pie! Most of us might think of opera as Really Retro, but fans of the blissfully tart children’s book CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl and its iconic cinematic interpretation with Gene Wilder as enigmatic chocolatier Willy Wonka are in for a real treat. The Atlanta Opera is dipping into the 20th century for its 2011-12 season-opener, THE GOLDEN TICKET, with performances March 3, 6, 9 and 11, 2012 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Commissioned by the American Lyric Theater and Dahl’s widow, Felicity Dahl, THE GOLDEN TICKET serves up all the scrumptious delights familiar from the book, including chocolate rivers, inflating blueberries and magic elevators.

The Atlanta Opera production will be the third for THE GOLDEN TICKET which premiered in June 2010 at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and was written by Donald Sturrock (libretto) and Peter Ash (music), who also composed a children’s opera of Dahl’s THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX. Many singers from the original Saint Louis cast will joing the Atlanta company to reprise their roles in Atlanta, including bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Willy Wonka/Mr. Know, tenor Andrew Drost as Augustus Gloop, and baritone David Kravitz as Lord Salt. In another treat, Composer Peter Ash will conduct. And don’t worry. You and the kids don’t need to brush up on your Italian, as the performers will sing in English with English supertitles projected above the stage.

ATLRetro recently caught up with the Atlanta Opera’s Michael Shell, who had the delicious opportunity to direct this opera of pure imagination, to find out more about how it will delight all ages.

ATLRetro: How did the Atlanta Opera come to perform THE GOLDEN TICKET?

Michael Shell: My understanding is that Dennis [Hanthorn, Zurich General Director of the Atlanta Opera] knew of the piece when he was in Milwaukee and wanted to produce it there. They never got to, and then when St. Louis decided to produce it, he came to see the production and wanted to bring it to Atlanta.

Photo courtesy of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

When the Tim Burton movie version of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY came out a few years ago, a lot was made about it being closer to the book than WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971) and having the blessing of Felicity Dahl; yet a lot of people love the Gene Wilder version as an iconic part of their childhood. What can you say about THE GOLDEN TICKET’s relationship to the book and those two movies?

I think it is more closely tied to the book. With a few additional characters, Peter and Donald have tried to stay close to the narrative in the story while making changes to aid in bringing it to life onstage. In particular, the role of Charlie. When reading the book, the reader essentially becomes the character of Charlie.  So in the opera, Peter and Donald, found a way to give Charlie a voice through his relationship with his grandparents. In his aria in Act I Charlie is observing his grandparents, all four sleeping in one bed because they can only afford one. He wonders what they must have felt like when they were young and if they also longed to, “escape far away into dreams…”

The physical production also took its inspiration from the book rather than the movies. There are words and letters hidden in the set.  The set unit that is Charlie’s home spells out the word “HOME.” There are letters all over the set that gives us a unity that is tied to the written word. I think the best use of it is in the gates of the factory and also when those gates open. It keeps the audience engaged the same way they are when reading the story. It doesn’t tell you exactly what the factory looks like but allows you to see what you imagine to be the factory.

Backstage at the Atlanta Opera production. Photo credit: Charles Wenzelberg.

How does directing THE GOLDEN TICKET compare to directing classic operas? 

Directing this piece is certainly one of the most exhilarating and terrifying things I have ever done. With shows that have a performance history, you can look at that history as a guide for what you want to do or what you don’t want in a production. With a new piece there is no blueprint.  All you have is the score and the imagination of your collaborators.  With this production having the composer as the conductor has given us amazing insight to meaning behind certain  musical and dramatic moments.  My approach though is the same regardless of the piece.  I want to understand what the story is about or the theme of the story and how that theme relates to the characters. With this answered I can then go further into why characters behave and make the choices they do throughout the course of the opera.

What’s the score like?

The score is lyrical, beautiful, inventive and complex. But even in its complexity, it has a simple accessible style that makes it perfect both avid opera-goers and new audiences alike. The lyrics so skillfully crafted by Donald Sturrock are perfectly musicalized by Peter Ash that you are thrust into the story and the journeys of the characters. There is also plenty of humor that is brought out in the music. The grandparents’ snoring quartet is a prime example. Here are four people coming in and out of dreams, snoring and talking in their sleep. But as you can imagine four older people in one bed, there are bound to be other noises that occur.  We have dubbed this quarter as the “gastric” quartet.  This is the only opera that I have ever directed that I have had to instruct someone how to “pass gas.”

Michael Shell oversees a scene in THE GOLDEN TICKET. Photo credit: Charles Wenzelberg.

The description reads that “THE GOLDEN TICKET is a poignant tale about wishes coming true.” But there’s also a cautionary tale and quite a bit of dark humor in Dahl’s story. How does the opera approach the contradictions in the character of Willy Wonka and balance those two aspects?

I think the darkness is there both in the music but also in the portrayal of Willy himself.  Daniel Okulitch is brilliantly cast in this role. His childlike curiosity mixed with his intelligence and depth of feeling make him the perfect Wonka.

Are there any particular scenes/segments that you think will particularly delight fans of the book and movie(s)?

I think our depiction of the oompa loompas will make fans of the movie happy.  They are a unique take on these characters.  Very unique to the opera is their attitude about life in the factory and life in general.  They are, for me, the heart of the factory.

Apparently Donald Sturrock and Peter Ash, who created the opera, had a lot of trouble getting funding because the opera community had a problem getting a grip around an opera that would appeal to children. How have ticket sales been so far and are you concerned at all that your regular opera audience won’t embrace it for that reason?  

I hope that people who are patrons of opera already come to this with an open mind.  Very often people are turned off to new opera because they are comparing it to their favorite Puccini opera or their favorite Verdi opera. This comparison cannot be made nor would we make on Verdi if he were still composing today.  As we evolve as a society, our expression in artistic endeavors will change. If we don’t begin to accept these new pieces on their own terms and evaluate them in terms of story telling etc rather than if they are as good as TOSCA, we will kill the future of new opera and potentially the art form in general.

Photo courtesy of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

Turning the question around, what do you say to people who love the book and movie(s) but are nervous that they won’t enjoy the story as opera?

Any story brought to life onstage is going to require changes to bring it to life for live theater. So I would ask these fans of the book and the movies to come with an open mind and to follow the words of Willy Wonka and “Imagine.”

I think this opera is perfect for both avid opera-goers and people who are new to opera And families. The complexity of the orchestration and score makes it interesting for a music lover. The accessibility of the music’s overall harmony makes it perfect for people who are new to modern opera.  The humor and heart of the story make it perfect for all types of audiences including children.

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