How a Fish Bankrupted the Roman Aristocracy: a tale of a culinary craze in classical society

Dr Garrett Ryan, “How a Fish Bankrupted the Roman Aristocracy” (Told In Stone, 27 November 2021)

In this instalment in his Told In Stones series which explores culture and society in Classical Greece and Rome, historian Dr Garrett Ryan investigates fine dining amongst the aristocratic elites in Rome and the craze for red mullet that seized them during early imperial times. Ryan first describes the diet of ordinary Romans which was heavy on carbohydrates (in the form of bread or porridge), legumes and fruit, and cheese, and light on animal protein. Wealthy Romans on the other hand could afford a vast range of foods and especially meats: shellfish, snails, all kinds of poultry and game birds, and red meats … including the notorious predilection for stuffed dormice. Such foods were usually served at evening banquets consisting of several courses ending in desserts of fruit, nuts and honey. The Roman elites were especially fond of delicacies that modern Western palates would find odd or downright unpalatable, such as parts of the internal plumbing of sows or the working parts of songbirds. Many of these foods were doused in a sauce called garum, made from the fermented intestines of fish and used in ways similar to how fish sauce is currently used in Southeast Asian cuisines.

Pride of place in his talk is given to red mullet (actually two species of small fish) which was eaten both for its supposed aphrodisiac and (paradoxically) contraceptive properties. The high demand for red mullet among Roman elites coupled with the difficulty of domesticating the creature and farming it drove prices for the fish to such levels that a banquet featuring a dozen large mullets could rival a small villa in cost. Overfishing would have driven up prices for red mullet even further, fuelling the craze. The obsession with red mullet and the status attached to it, with all the signals of power and hierarchy attached to being able to host banquets featuring the fish in a number of dishes, apparently lasted some 200 years before fading away.

While the talk is very entertaining and funny, and as usual is illustrated with stunning visuals, it actually says nothing about how the demand for the fish “bankrupted” the Roman elites – if anything, the Roman elites were already bankrupt, thanks to the fixed power structures of Roman society in which the elites lived in a world parallel with, and dependent on, the rest of Roman society while having very little to do with it – or how this craze and similar crazes were symptoms reflecting the nature of a layer of society far removed and insulated from the concerns and stresses that belaboured ordinary Romans. If there is a silver lining in this particular cloud, it may be that the Roman elites were such a small class of people that their greed, traumatic though it may have been for the populations of the two red mullet species in the seas around the Italian peninsula, did not have a huge impact on a society in which the rudiments of the modern financial economy that would make speculative bubbles based on the demand for and supply of red mullet or tulips possible did not yet exist.

Watership Down: exploring political freedom in the form of a foundation myth

Martin Rosen, John Hubley, “Watership Down” (1978)

A vivid and beautifully presented tale, this British film portrays what might be a foundation myth of an imaginary community of rabbits living in Watership Down in southern England. The community is founded by a small group of bunnies that break away from a warren in Sandleford when one of their number, Fiver (who has the gift of foresight), foresees a terrible disaster that could wipe out their people. Fiver (Richard Briers) and his older brother Hazel (John Hurt) beg their leader to take them all to safety but the leader refuses to listen to them and orders his lieutenant, Captain Holly (John Bennett), to arrest them. Fiver, Hazel and their friend Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) lead a small breakaway group and flee through the woods to escape Captain Holly’s forces, on the way passing a sign (which they would not have been able to read, less understand) that a residential development by humans is being constructed in their area.

The group survives many ordeals but unfortunately the only doe among them is taken by a hawk. The young rabbits take shelter with another community of rabbits but Fiver learns that these rabbits are being fattened for food by humans. Leaving these other rabbits, the group continues its journey until the rabbits sight the hill known as Watership Down in the distance and Fiver recognises it as the place of salvation in his earlier visions. (In the meantime their original community at Sandleford has been destroyed by humans and only Captain Holly has been able to escape and reach them to tell the sorry story.) They all reach Watership Down where they meet an injured seagull, Kehaar (Zero Mostel), who agrees to help them find does so they can found a new community.

The rest of the film follows the new Watership Down community in finding young does: after one failed attempt to free some does from a farm, the rabbits are led by Kehaar to another warren community ruled by oppressive tyrant General Woundwort. Bigwig infiltrates the community and is made an officer by Woundwort; in this capacity, Bigwig persuades several does and a few bucks to join him and move to Watership Down. The escapees manage to flee to Watership Down with Kehaar’s help but Woundwort and his forces manage to track them down and besiege the Watership Down community. While Bigwig manages to hold Woundwort at bay, Hazel and a couple of escapees entice a dog from the farm where they had previously tried to free some does to follow them back to Watership Down to confront Woundwort (Harry Andrews).

The film moves briskly with some gaps in the narrative, including one at the very climax of the film from which one has to deduce that things work out well for Watership Down – especially as the film jumps a few years into the future to reveal Hazel in his old age. The leaps in plot are unfortunate as much information that could reveal something of the personalities of Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig and Kehaar is lost and viewers have to make quite major assumptions to make sense of the film. The plot is otherwise highly absorbing and intense with many layers of meaning, and young children who watch the film will learn quite a few lessons about loyalty and camaraderie, courage under tremendous stress and pressure, resilience and self-sacrifice. Creatures that are the very symbols of vulnerability and fragility demonstrate enormous bravery when they are most afraid, and lay down their lives and freedom not only to help their own but to help and heal outsiders like Kehaar and to rescue other animals suffering from enslavement.

In its presentation as a foundation myth, following a creation story explaining how rabbits came to be and why they have so many enemies, and concluding with the death of Hazel and his entry into the afterlife to join the Rabbit Creator God, “Watership Down” can be viewed as a survey of religion and society, and of how societies use stories and legends to create and sustain their own identities and pass on significant values and morals to their young. The film’s visuals are rich with detailed English rural backgrounds painted in watercolour though the main characters are rather roughly drawn and lack much individuality. The cast voicing the animals are perhaps rather too mature and younger 20-something actors would have been more appropriate.

Despite the film having originally received a rating from British censors suggesting that it is suitable for young viewers, it is perhaps better seen by older children and teenagers as it is actually a complex and layered film about politics and in particular about choosing between political freedom and material security.

Live and Let Die: as it says, live and let this film die

Guy Hamilton, “Live and Let Die” (1973)

Cashing in on the blaxploitation film genre that was popular in the early 1970s, this instalment in the James Bond film series has not aged well and abounds in racist and sexist stereotypes. “Live and Let Die” is the first of seven films to feature Roger Moore as the British super-spy and his portrayal is light-hearted and mild compared to predecessor Sean Connery. Unfortunately the shallow use of themes associated with blaxploitation films, crammed into the usual James Bond film formula emphasising gimmicky technology, prolonged chases and bizarre criminals, makes Moore’s debut film one of the more forgettable episodes in the JB movie series, notable mainly as a snapshot of pop culture trends in a particular decade of the 20th century.

Bond is sent to the US to investigate the mysterious deaths of three MI6 spies in New Orleans, New York and the tiny Caribbean nation San Monique in the space of 24 hours, all of whom were monitoring the activities of San Monique dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). Bond’s snooping leads him to Harlem mob boss Mr Big, who runs the Fillet of Soul chain of restaurants, and the boss’s assistant Solitaire (Jane Seymour), a tarot reader with the power of second sight. Mr Big tries to get Bond killed but Bond escapes and travels to San Monique where he meets with local CIA agent Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) there. After a few hair-raiding incidents, Bond suspects Carver of working for Kananga; Carver tries to escape but is killed by Kananga remotely. Bond later meets and seduces Solitaire but this means her clairvoyant abilities are lost along with her virginity. Her life now in danger from Kananga, Solitaire tags along after Bond. They escape to New Orleans but are captured by Mr Big who reveals himself as Kananga to Bond. The link between Mr Big and Kananga now becomes clear: Kananga is growing opium in poppy fields across San Monique, using voodoo to terrify his people and keep them poor and oppressed, and manufactures the opium into heroin which he then exports to the Fillet of Soul restaurants where it is given away for free to increase the number of addicts and at the same time run other heroin dealers and networks out of business. Once Kananga becomes the sole supplier of heroin, he will jack up prices to reap enormous profit at the expense of those he has enslaved to heroin.

From then on, the film dives into familiar JB territory of Bond narrowly escaping death from crocodiles by literally using the animals as stepping stones to freedom, a tedious speedboat chase through Louisiana’s bayous, Bond rescuing Solitaire from becoming a voodoo sacrifice and Bond’s final confrontation with Kananga in the dictator’s underground lair which results in Kananga’s outlandish demise. Along the way we meet a cast of odd characters, notably Kananga’s collection of henchmen like iron-fisted Tee Hee (Julius W Harris), Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) and Whisper (James Ellroy Brown) and Louisiana sheriff J W Pepper (Clifton James) who embodies the worst stereotypes about Deep South racist redneck white people. (Odd that the lower classes, whether white or black, are being exploited for giggles.)

The use of blaxploitation motifs in an uncritical way, mostly for laughs, makes the film appear racist even if such motifs were not intended to be racist but satirical: instead of being a megalomaniac intent on taking over the world, Kananga is more content with ensnaring people into the clutches of heroin and exploiting them that way. Granted, Kananga’s ambitions are more convincing and possibly grounded in reality – in those days, Haitian presidents François Duvalier (1957 – 1971) and his son Jean-Claude (1971 – 1986) governed their nation as absolute or near-absolute rulers and used voodoo to foster a personality cult – but the nature of Kananga’s villainy tends rather to reinforce 1970s stereotypes about African-American involvement in drug crime and to demonise voodoo as a primitive cult obsessed with death and sacrifice. Furthermore, why should Kananga be happy being just another exploitive global drug lord while his white counterparts in other James Bond films are hellbent on holding governments and central banks to ransom?

Action sequences are overlong and boring, Bond’s seduction of Solitaire is frankly creepy and manipulative, and the cast of characters is flat. The actors do what they can to inject life into their characters but they all deserved a much better script. Probably the only decent highlights of the film are Jane Seymour’s ethereal beauty and sweet nature as Solitaire, and Yaphet Kotto’s sinister and tense Kananga.

Becoming Bond: an affable light comedy biography of one-time James Bond actor

Josh Greenbaum, “Becoming Bond” (2017)

Part-fictional comedy re-enactment, part-biography, this is a very affable review of Australian actor George Lazenby’s early life up to and including the period when he played James Bond in the film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, one of the most beloved and esteemed films in the entire James Bond series of spy movies. It takes the structure of an extended interview with Lazenby himself in which he talks about his childhood, his relationships with girlfriends from early in his adolescence onwards, and his early career as a car salesman, paralleled by re-enactments of significant moments of his life when opportunities out of the blue fall into his lap and he seizes them because they seem like fun and promise adventure. The film moves leisurely – perhaps a bit too leisurely, because the main reason I imagine people would watch this film is to find out how a former car salesman manages to land the movie role of the century with no acting experience or qualifications, and what qualities he must have had to land such a role – with an air of bemused bedazzlement which one imagines Lazenby carried with him during those heady days in the 1960s when he moved to London in pursuit of a girlfriend, took up modelling and through sheer accident met a movie agent who put him in contact with the producer and director of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”.

Split into thirteen chapters, each one with a title that spoofs a James Bond film, the film rolls its way through Lazenby’s various escapades, all illustrated with Lazenby’s droll reminiscences which may be true or not. While the film doesn’t drill deep down into Lazenby’s psychology and motivations for doing the things he does, the impression that for Lazenby, life is a big adventure that you roll with is strong. Of course the big moment when Lazenby explains why he walked away from the Bond films after completing “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” eventually comes and Lazenby’s reason, which may be self-justification on his part, seems quite reasonable given the way his early life has unfolded so far: he’s a man who’ll try anything once but never more than once, a man who can’t and won’t be tied down to meeting others’ expectations. After a fitful acting career, Lazenby returns to Australia, becomes involved in real estate investment and goes through two marriages (the second of which was to famous US tennis player Pam Shriver) with two sets of children.

The hokey re-enactment of Lazenby’s early years in Australia and London, in which Australia in the 1940s-50s appears as romanticised kitsch and people in London drive cars with the steering wheel mounted on the left-hand side of the vehicle, is marred by awkward and inconsistent acting from Josh Lawson playing Lazenby. Jane Seymour as the movie agent is the stand-out of the cast in the re-enactment scenes.

The film might have worked better if the narrative were more streamlined and less meandering, at the cost perhaps of one of its themes: that of its protagonist’s life as a Great Australian Yarn of tall stories, opportunities that fall out of the sky into his lap and how, through all the adventures he has, he manages to remain a simple and basically well-meaning character with simple, down-to-earth values. Lazenby may not be particularly profound, his early ignorance can be jaw-dropping and his treatment of his girlfriends leaves much to be desired. Yet he appears to have intuited when people are trying to exploit him and own him, and to walk away from what could have been his ruin despite the fame and wealth that beckoned. Of course the reality was different: his agent convinced him that the Bond films had run their course and were becoming outdated.

The film works as light entertainment rather than as a straight biography or documentary and viewers must not expect to take it seriously.

Death of a Ladies’ Man: a tale of loss, addiction and redemption but not much character change

Matt Bissonnette, “Death of a Ladies’ Man” (2020)

Inspired by the poetry and songs of Canadian poet / novelist / singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, some of whose songs grace the film as its musical soundtrack, “Death of a Ladies’ Man” follows hard-drinking Montreal university professor Sam O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne) whose life starts on a series of strange and unexpected turns beginning with finding his second wife Linda in flagrante delicto with a boyfriend. Their marriage broken down and heading for divorce, O’Shea starts seeing strange things: his long-dead father Ben (Brian Gleeson) turns up for one-on-one chats, he meets Frankenstein’s monster in a bar and a tiger-headed waitress in a restaurant. Perhaps he is under stress or having alcoholic delusions; a visit to his GP reveals a terminal brain tumour and O’Shea realises there are dreams he had been putting off a long time and which now demand fulfilment. Shoving his undergraduate literature classes off onto a colleague, O’Shea contacts and tells his ex-wife Genevieve (Suzanne Clement) and estranged children Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon) and Josée (Karelle Tremblay) that he’s going back to Ireland to write his first novel. The children themselves need support – Layton has come out as gay and is in his first relationship with a man, and Josée is in a destructive relationship with a heroin junkie – but O’Shea flies off to Ireland and back to his childhood home in a small rural community where he almost promptly takes up with a young woman, Charlotte (Jessica Paré) and incurs the murderous wrath of a local man keen on her.

The giddy plot with its various sub-plots and their unexpected (if not quite plausible) resolutions works thanks in part to Byrne’s rumpled ease and charm as the otherwise self-absorbed and egotistical O’Shea as he leaves behind a trail of damaged relationships with consequences ranging from upset to anger to near murder. The film moves at a steady pace and the action is structured in three chapters that keep the various sub-plots separate so the plot appears more orderly than chaotic. Everything revolves around O’Shea, reflecting his self-absorption, and this means that some sub-plots go only so far and are never fully developed: the brain tumour part remains in the background and Layton’s sexuality and how this affects his relationship with O’Shea also stay dormant. How O’Shea’s family rallies around him and then how O’Shea manages to help Josée deal with her heroin addiction and come back to something resembling a normal life is not explored in much detail.

O’Shea’s chats with Dad reveal a childhood of trauma and loss that may underlie his womanising and alcohol addictions, leading to both his marriage breakdowns and his strained relationship with his children. The pattern of abandonment, trauma and loss has afflicted two generations in O’Shea’s family and threatens Josée’s health and life. Random incidents though work out to O’Shea’s benefit and eventually he is able to resolve most if not all his troubled conflicts and fulfil his ambitions of writing and publishing his first novel. Tying up loose pieces of his life brings reconciliation with his first family but also brings an unexpected sting.

The film labours under several themes: family trauma and loss that repeat through the generations; and the randomness of life and how it can derail order and cause crises but also lead perhaps to insight, purpose and eventually redemption. O’Shea eventually accepts and comes to terms with his delusions and the prospect of death itself. Things though tend to happen in such a way as to suggest that O’Shea is let off the hook for a great many serious occurrences and perhaps any lessons he might learn don’t penetrate very deeply into his consciousness. He may attend Alcoholics Anonymous sessions and swear off chasing pretty young women but the film’s general tenor as musical comedy / drama seems a bit too light-hearted to allow much character development and maturation in our hero. At the end of the film O’Shea still seems the same man he was at the beginning, with no great insights into his character and little understanding of how his childhood of abandonment and loss laid the foundation for his relationships with women and his children. He continually nags his ghost father about what happened to his mother and why she left the family even after his father admits he has no idea, and at no point during the film does O’Shea appear to acknowledge that whatever might have driven his mother to abandon him might be related to whatever drove him to leave Ireland: the lack of opportunity, the claustrophobic, even paranoiac nature of life in rural Ireland for those who didn’t conform to pre-1990s Irish social traditions.

The best part of the film is its scenery set in Montreal and rural Ireland which suggests a deeper social context to the dramas playing out in O’Shea’s life: urban Montreal, where comfortable middle-class people struggle to find purpose in dysfunctional lives in a deindustrialised environment and instead find only escapism in addiction, is a significant character in its own right, as is also rural Ireland which at first seems bracing and inviting but turns out to be restrictive and dysfunctional in its own way. That this aspect of the film is more felt than explored may be seen as a weakness but viewers cannot expect the all-too-human cast of characters, with what they already have to cope with, to be able to recognise what is oppressing them and do something about it.

Tora-chan no Makan Mushi: warning children to behave well at work

Kenzo Masaoka, “Tora-chan no Makan Mushi” (1950)

In the last cartoon to feature Tora-chan (Little Tiger) and his friend Miike-chan, the two kittens have grown up a bit and are now working on a cargo ship as a welder and painter respectively. The sailor in charge of them, a buffoon and the butt of many jokes in this cartoon, boards the ship with his monkey and loads his cargo of fireworks onto the ship’s deck. He carelessly tosses aside his cigar and Tora-chan needs at least four attempts (involving a lot of repetition) to tell the sailor that the cigar is about to blow up the fireworks. Sure enough it does and Tora-chan jumps into the sea to enlist the help of several octopuses to squirt ink at the ship to quench the pyrotechnics display.

The animation is much, much better and more detailed and realistic in its backgrounds. The ocean especially is rendered well in its waves and the light reflecting off them. Fish are drawn very well even if the octopus characters aren’t. The characters look a bit more refined in their technical details even if one of them is boorish in behaviour. The animation does well in portraying distance perspective and in characters moving forward from mid-distance in the background.

While there’s a lot of slapstick about and the film does end inconclusively, it at least carries a message about being disciplined at work, working well with one’s colleagues and the consequences of bad behaviour, poor personal habits and not listening to warnings. The sailor gets his comeuppance and presumably will have to spend much more time hauling cargo.

I confess to being quite disappointed in this film and the previous film “Tora-chan to Hanayome” after having seen “Suteneko Tora-chan” which has quite serious themes for a work aimed at families with young children.

Tora-chan to Hanayome: family friction in a crude slapstick cartoon

Kenzo Masaoka, “Tora-chan to Hanayome” (1948)

The last three animated films made by Kenzo Masaoka revolved around the adventures of the kitten Tora-chan (Little Tiger). The first one “Suteneko Tora-chan” addresses the issue of caring for abandoned war orphans in a post-war society ravaged by poverty and urges people to foster and adopt such children to preserve social values, maintain cultural continuity and ultimately strengthen Japanese society. Second film “Tora-chan to Hanayome”, made a year later, is a much more conventional animated film in which Tora-chan and sister Miike-chan are given the responsibility to run interference against Grandfather who has just charged into town to stop his elder grand-daughter (and big sister to Tora-chan and Miike-chan) from marrying. The parents quickly hustle off the big sister to the church leaving the kittens on their own at home. When Grandfather barges into the house, the kittens try all kinds of ruses to stop him from going into the bride’s room. When their efforts fail, Grandfather seizes the kittens and races off to the church to find the wedding party.

While the animation is good if not great, the plot drags on and overdoes the slapstick in a number of scenes. The donkey that is to take the wedding party to the church spends too long preening itself in front of a mirror. In order to keep Grandfather away from the stairs, Miike-chan starts posing a bit provocatively in ways that modern audiences might not condone today. Some characters are not drawn very well and the background scenery often looks crude and hastily done.

Even for a film aimed at children, the plot has large logic holes and its resolution looks unconvincing. We never learn why Grandfather opposed his grand-daughter’s wedding or (spoiler alert) why he changes his mind later. An opportunity for the film-makers to say something about how Japan must adapt to the modern world is lost. At least no-one is badly hurt, everyone is reconciled and Tora-chan and Miike-chan can go back to playing in the sunshine.

Tengu Taiji: a lively and comical animated folk tale from an early Japanese pioneer

Noburu Ofuji aka Fuyo Koyamano, “Tengu Taiji” (1934)

A very comical tale about a town besieged by tengu – dangerous goblin spirits with the characteristics of humans and birds of prey including beaks which in some spirits become unnaturally long noses – and how they are fought off by a lone swordsman and a watch-dog helper gets the cartoon treatment from Noburu Ofuji, one of the first Japanese animators to gain international recognition for his work. The watch-dog allows the tengu to invade the town and carry off one of the performing geisha. A samurai attempts to fight the tengu but they squash him flat on the ground with a door off its hinges. The dog takes the flattened samurai to another swordsman who promptly folds up the samurai into a headcloth, dons it and then (with the watch-dog in tow) hurries after the fleeing tengu. There follows a tremendous battle in which the swordsman eventually cuts down nearly all the tengu and the watch-dog tosses their heads into a quarry. The two race after two spirits carrying the geisha, they rescue her but are confronted by a giant tengu and a crab. The watch-dog rips off a claw and scissors off the tengu’s nose.

The humour is very violent and bawdy and armchair Freudian psychoanalysts will have the time of their lives dissecting the symbolism of the giant tengu’s long nose and the dog cutting it off. Ofuji’s style of animation shows clear influences from US animators Walt Disney and Max Fleischer but the backgrounds and scenery are very Japanese in their details. The characters in the film can clearly be seen as cutouts, part of Ofuji’s preferred animation method. The busy music soundtrack combines both Japanese traditional folk and contemporary Western music of the time.

The film has a very lively character and many visual puns that perhaps poke fun at Japanese social conventions and expectations. The watch-dog makes amends for his earlier fear and becomes a hero. The samurai is brave but ends up ignominiously as a scarf for a more lowly swordsman. For a nine-minute film, this animation packs in a lot of subversion of Japanese culture!

Pinki: a modern fairy-tale of self-discovery through memories of old technology

Hyunsuk Kim, “Pinki” (2018)

Initially looking like a Korean mash-up of Neil Blomkamp’s “District 9” and “Chappie” with The Transformers film series and Joonho Bong’s “The Host”, “Pinki” turns out to be a charming urban fairy-tale about the importance of memories in forming our identities and giving us motivation and purpose in structuring our lives. Korean salaryman Taehwan (Sungchun Han) is chased through the narrow streets of a city neighbourhood by a huge scrap-metal monster (Daekwang Lee) and is almost crushed until a mystery pink-haired girl (Serin Kim) comes between them. The girl and Taehwan manage to get away; in those moments where the junkyard horror is far away, the lass puts Taehwan into a trance that transports him back to his childhood and adolescence in which he is playing with his portable cassette player and later a portable CD player. When the monster catches with the pair and threatens to drag Taehwan’s new friend and saviour away, the businessman must try to figure out the girl’s name to save her from the monster’s clutches by delving back into his childhood memories.

The film is based on an old East Asian idea that items improperly disposed of and forgotten have a way of haunting their owners as ghosts. Only when properly acknowledged and respectfully let go – which may mean also honouring the role they played in their owners’ lives in the past – will these old items stop plaguing their owners. There are other themes present in “Pinki”: through rediscovering his precious pink cassette player, affectionately called Pinki, Taehwan rediscovers his youth, and all the feelings, motivations and ambitions he had then. Viewers may see the inklings of a transformation from everyday generic office-worker to an individual more fully in control of his life and his destiny, one who has rediscovered his childhood imagination with the objects of that childhood and the memories they evoke. There may also be a gentle reminder that precious items – and people, animals and plants as well – should be valued and not given up for trash when their immediate utility has passed.

The film is notable for good acting with very minimal dialogue. Characters establish themselves through their actions and the decisions they make. Initially Taehwan is a coward, an empty vessel, in abandoning the girl and running for his life from the monster; he later becomes a hero when he throws himself between the monster and the girl once he understand the girl’s importance to him. The other characters – the girl and the monster – are not so clear-cut and are one-dimensional but their roles turn out to be those of teachers and mentors to Taehwan, urging him to take control of his life by remembering where he came from. As with so many science fiction short films picked up by the DUST channel, there is a twist in the plot but for once it’s a twist with a happy ending.

Final Offer: implausible plot made enjoyable by great acting and fast minimal dialogue

Mark Slutsky, “Final Offer” (2018)

The premise is the height of implausibility but great acting from Aaron Abrams and Anna Hopkins as protagonist and antagonist lawyers make the film enjoyable to watch. Henry (Abrams), an alcoholic traffic ticket attorney, is picked up by mystery lady Olivia (Hopkins) at a bar; next thing he knows when he wakes up, he is in a windowless room with Olivia who presents him with the biggest deal in his life. He has been chosen to represent the human species to negotiate and sign away the Earth’s water resources to a giant space-fish species whom Olivia represents. Naturally Henry is horrified and refuses to sign anything but he has no choice: he has only a few minutes to agree and to sign the deal, and the document itself is the size of a legal textbook.

At least Abrams and Hopkins have good chemistry and they also have an advantage in having worked with Slutsky previously. Abrams deftly makes Henry quite plausible as a drunken and rather sleazy attorney down on his luck through the demon drink for much of the film, and then suddenly give his character a razor-sharp mind that finds the crucial flaw in the document that (spoiler alert) scuppers the whole deal. Olivia’s face falls and the space-fish client, seen through a window that opens up in a far wall, rumbles angrily.

The big surprise is that, having defeated Olivia and the alien, Abrams proposes a date with his attractive rival who may or may not be human. This opens up the possibility of a series of short films in which Abrams finds himself doing battle either at the negotiating table or in a courtroom with extraterrestrial judges, lawyers and their equally xenomorphic clients in situations where some aspect of the Earth or its solar system is up for grabs in dubious proposals. Maybe we should stay tuned.