Once upon a time animated shorts were simple amusements.  No longer…at least not if this year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts are any yardstick.
Here we have five brief films. A couple are charming. Cute, even.  You might get a chuckle or two.
But none of them are overtly comic, and in fact most deal with dead-serious issues. A common theme is familial relationships (parents and children, husbands and wives, siblings). Three of these movies have no dialogue at all; the remaining two are in foreign languages.  What this means is that viewers have to pay attention…no falling back on words to explain what’s going on.
But here’s the thing…on one level or another each of these nominees is an emotional workout.  You will cry.  I repeat: You WILL Cry.
You’ve been warned.

“HAIR LOVE” (USA, 7 minutes)  My rating: B+

Childlike yearning, parental concern and family crisis merge effortlessly in Matthew A. Cherry’s “Hair Love,” which finds a young African American girl coming to terms (well, sort of) with her unruly head of hair.

It starts out almost like a classic Disney cartoon with our little heroine interacting with her cat, a fussy creature who seems utterly disdainful of her mistress’ issues. But some sort of big day is approaching, and our girl is determined to look her best.  To that end she goes into the bathroom and —  armed with a sheet of photos of current Afro-centric hair styles, scissors, combs, brushes and unguents — attempts to do her ‘do.

It’s a disaster. When her father discovers what’s going on he intervenes. But let’s face it…dads are rarely great at their little girls’ hair, and this dad is combatting an unruly Afro that seems to engulf him in an explosion of ever-expanding follicle. After some comic confrontations, though, the father-and- daughter team get the job done, just in time for an emotional reunion.

“DCERA  (DAUGHTER)”   (Czech Republic, 15 minutes) My rating: B

“Daughter” opens with the beeping of a medical monitor; we find ourselves in a bedroom where a man lies dying. His adult daughter stands at the foot of his bed.

 Daria Kashcheeva’s film is rendered with what appears to be classic stop-action animation. The man and his daughter have been very roughly rendered — it’s almost as if their heads were carved from blocks of wood — and they move through a detailed environment.

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Bradley Whitford, Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins

“THREE CHRISTS”  My rating: C-

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The title “Three Christs” suggests the possibility of blasphemy.

If only.

Jon Avnet’s film — shot in 2017 and on ice since then — is an adaptation of psychiatrist Milton Rokeach’s The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, about his experiences working in a mental institution outside Detroit in the late 1950s.  The three Christs of the title are schizophrenics  suffering from the delusion that they are, well, Jesus.

Going in there’s reason for optimism.  Stone, the physician handling their cases, is played by Richard Gere, who in recent years has enjoyed a late-stage career resurgence (“Arbitrage,” “Norman,” “The Dinner”).

His three “holy” patients are played by heavy hitters Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins and Bradley Whitford.  Even the supporting cast has depth: Julianna Margulies, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Root, Jane Alexander.

So why does this feel like a waste of time?

Richard Gere

Neither Avnet nor his screenwriter, Eric Nazarian, seem to have a clue as to how to proceed with this yarn.  We get the basic setup — Dr. Stone attempts a revolutionary new therapy by putting his three “Christs” together in isolation; it’s an experiment to see if each can be cured of his delusion by observing his fellow’s delusions.

But what ensues doesn’t play like drama, comedy, or anything in between.

There are digressions into Stone’s personal life — the Missus (Margulies) is developing a drinking problem and he must  perennially steel himself against viewing his pretty young assistant (Charlotte Hope) as anything more than a professional colleague.

But the three Christs themselves remain ciphers. We should be feeling for these seemingly hopeless cases, but while the players are occasionally amusing, they never really engage our emotions.  The characters’ manias are too extreme to seem like anything but a sideshow. They are — I hate to say it — cardboard crazy men.

| Robert W. Butler

“63 UP”  My rating: A- (Playing Jan. 17, 19 and 20 at the Tivoli at the Nelson-Atkins)

125 minutes | No MPAA rating

When Brit director Michael Apted first launched his “7 Up” documentary series back in 1963, among its major themes were politics and class.

The project’s big idea was to take a bunch of 7-year-olds from various social backgrounds and study them over time, returning every seven years with an update of how they’re doing (“21 Up,” “35 Up,” “56 Up”).  Originally much was made of the differences between the privileged kids and those who were struggling in the lower levels of the British beehive.

More than a half century later the world’s longest-lasting cinematic experiment continues, but the emotional tenor of the piece has mellowed. At age 63 Apted’s subjects have been seasoned by the death of parents and friends and the expectations of their own demises (in fact, we learn that one woman subject died just a couple of years ago).

So now it’s not so much about Tories vs. Labour or even Brexit (though the subject does come up) as about figuring out what to do with the time you’ve got left.

Apted’s methodology remains unchanged. He approaches his still-participating 12 subjects one at a time, alternating past footage with current interviews. It’s weird watching someone age instantaneously before our eyes; in the dad guts and double chins and graying (or missing) hair we are forced to confront the forces working on our own bodies.

Tony, the once-aspiring jockey who became a London cabbie, now laments that Uber is putting him out of business. The self-described “Cheekie Chappie” augments his income with walk-on film roles and retains his working-class childhood belief that in class warfare “it’s us or them.”

Corporate lawyer Andrew at age 63 laments that he was so career driven he failed to make time for his family.

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Guy Pearce


90 minutes | MPAA rating:

Apparently Aussie star Guy Pearce is the newest member of the don’t-send-the-script-send-the-check club. That’s the only explanation for his presence in the laughably inept “Disturbing the Peace.”

In York Alec Shackleton’s unintentionally goofy actioner, Pearce plays Jim Dillon, who left the Texas Rangers after accidentally shooting and paralyzing his partner in a hostage standoff. Now he’s the law in the tiny burg of Horse Cave. Apparently the place has a very low crime rate, because Jim has for years refused to carry a gun.

This proves problematical when a gang of rogue motorcyclists invade the place, robbing the local bank and hanging around so that they can rip off an armored car bringing big bucks from a nearby casino.

With many of his fellow residents being held captive, Jim must use his wits (we’re talking MacGyver-style booby traps) to foil the baddies; it’s just a matter of time, though, before he picks up a firearm and gets down to serious business.

Chuck Hustmyre’s screenplay is a mashup of ideas from “High Noon” (a more-or-less real-time narrative), Brando’s “The Wild One” (bad boys on bikes) and “Die Hard” (with a small town instead of a high-rise office building).

Hustmyre’s bio claims he’s a retired federal agent who has written several crime books, yet there’s nothing even remotely authentic about “Disturbing the Peace.”  Its depiction of small town life and law enforcement plays like the work of someone whose entire world view has been shaped by watching straight-to-video crime thrillers in his mother’s basement.

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George MacKay

“1917”  My rating: B+

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Both epically sprawling and remarkably intimate, “1917” instantly establishes itself as one of the great war films.

Here’s the ugly truth of trench warfare during World War I: Rotting corpses, feasting rats, clouds of carrion-colonizing insects.

Yet along with these ghastly images, “1917” delivers a profoundly human story that taps into all sorts of emotions: terror, comradeship, compassion, bravery, hubris.

That the entire two-hour film is told entirely in what appears to be one uninterrupted shot makes it a technical tour de force (Roger Deakins is the d.p. and his work is jaw-dropping). But this is more than a cinematic gimmick. Without editing and alternating camera angles we’re forced to focus on the conflict in much the same way as its participants. There’s no way out.

The screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (reportedly inspired by wartime tales related by Mendes’ grandfather) is straightforward enough.

Two lance corporals in the British army in northern France — Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) — are sent on foot across nine miles of no man’s land to deliver a message. Another British unit  is planning an attack on “retreating” German troops.  But aerial surveillance shows that the enemy withdrawl is merely a strategic realignment, and that the Tommies are walking into a trap that could mean death for 1,600 of them.

So it’s a race against time that takes the two young soldiers through a shell-pocked landscape, into abandoned enemy trenches, through rubble-strewn farms and villages and down swollen rivers.

Though their journey is marked by growing suspense and flashes of real danger, there’s relatively little in the way of conventional combat here — just one incident with a German sniper. Mendes and Wilson-Cairns find plenty of moments of relative calm in which to explore their characters.

Blake, who was picked for the mission because his older brother is an officer in the target battalion (evidently the brass figure that a chance to save his sibling will prove motivational), is gung ho to get moving.  Schofield, several years older and much more combat savvy, wants to wait for nightfall. He’s overruled and bitter that his fate is in the hands of an amateur.

The two marvel at the complexity of German engineering (the Huns’ trench network is made of concrete with subterranean barracks outfitted with bunk beds; the Brits basically squat in the mire). They talk about duty and valor. The still-idealistic Blake is shocked to learn that Schofield has traded his combat medal to a French officer for a bottle of wine (“I was thirsty”).

They witness an aerial battle between British and German planes; from the ground it’s a weirdly peaceful, balletic experience…at least until fate drops one of the plummeting aircraft into their laps.

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Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx

“JUST MERCY”  My rating: C+

136 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

In “Just Mercy” an A-list cast does its best with movie-of-the-week execution; the results are simultaneously inspiring and off-putting.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film is based on the true story of attorney Bryan Stevenson and the founding in Alabama in the late 1980s of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization devoted to re-examining the cases of Death Row inmates.  These were condemned men  — most of them black — whose convictions may have been based on perjured testimony, suppressed evidence and inadequate defenses.

In addition to its truth-to-power narrative and the obvious dramatic power of men awaiting death at the hands of the state, the film boasts a lead performance by Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, a New Englander who came to the South to right wrongs.

Oscar winner Brie Larsen takes a supporting role as the local activist who becomes his assistant and guide to the workings of Southern justice.

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94 minutes | No MPAA rating

The cinema has always been dominated by its visual elements and the moving image…there’s a reason we refer to them as “the movies,” after all.

But as powerful as visual images may be, they can be enhanced immeasurably by the judicious and creative use of sound. Some filmmakers, in fact, argue that what we hear in the theater is as important — perhaps more important — than what we see.

Midge Costin’s documentary “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” — she’s a veteran sound and dialogue editor making her directing debut — is a little bit of everything: history, aesthetic exploration, technological geek out.

It is also, for the most part, a look at the careers of two of the still-living giants of movie sound: Walter Murch, whose sound designs have graced the films of Francis Coppola, and Ben Burtt, who brought his talents to George Lucas’ “Star Wars.”

The film opens with Murch, now 77, commenting on how even before birth we are accustomed to hearing our mother’s breathing and heartbeat, as well as voices and noises coming from outside her body. For that reason, Murch asserts, hearing is a much more profound experience than viewing.

The film picks out from cinema’s past special films that advanced movie sound. There’s “King Kong,” whose sound designer manipulated the roars of zoo animals.  There was the radio era, when entire worlds were fabricated from pure sound; artists like Orson Welles exploited the artistic possibilities of radio and then brought that some creativity to the soundtrack of his “Citizen Kane” (1941). Alfred Hitchcock was an advocate of pure sound, eschewing all music for his “The Birds” (1965) and relying heavily on electronically distorted avian noises.

But these adventurous souls were few and far between. Mostly the studios were run like an assembly line that avoided adventurous sound design; each studio had its own sound library of gunshots, trains, screeching tires, ricocheting bullets and other noises that were used over and over again.

Of course for most of the sound era — which began in the late ’20s — movie sound meant monaural sound, noises coming from one speaker directly behind the screen.  It wasn’t until Barbra Streisand demanded a full stereo presentation for her 1976 “A Star Is Born” that stereo soundtracks became the norm.

In films like “Nashville” Robert Altman got creative with dialogue, wiring up everyone in a crowded scene with their own microphones and recording each actor individually so that he could manipulate what his audience heard in the final print.

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