Category Archives: Animated

A peek at Oscar’s shorts

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  January 30, 2016)

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At the risk of having my critic’s license revoked, I will freely admit this, right here in front of God and all six of my readers: I’ve only managed to catch 3 of the 8 films nominated for Best Picture of 2015. Then again, you can feel free to ask me if I care (the Academy and I rarely see eye-to-eye). Funny thing, though…I have managed to catch all of the (traditionally more elusive) Oscar nominees for Best Short Film-Animation and Best Short Film-Live Action. And the good news is you can, too. The five nominees in each sub-category are making the rounds as limited-engagement curated presentations; each collection runs approximately the length of a feature film, with separate admissions.

(Reads woodenly off teleprompter) And the nominees for Best Short Film-Animation are:

Bear Story (Chile) – A 3-D animation piece about a bear living a life of quiet desperation (no, seriously). Lonely and life-tired, he goes through his morning ablutions on auto-pilot, then world-wearily shuffles off to work. His job? Standing on a street corner with his custom-built mechanical diorama, offering a peek to passers-by for a nickel a pop. What his customers see is less than heartwarming. Sort of like Ingmar Bergman for kids.

Rating: ***

Prologue (UK) – Billed as “an incident in the Spartan-Athenian wars of 2,400 years ago”, this 6-minute vignette is handsomely executed, but a head-scratcher. A little girl watches in horror as four warriors engage in a gruesome death match. That’s it. I suppose it delivers on the title; it’s a prologue…but to what? More of an exercise than a narrative. Not suitable for kids; it’s last on the reel and a parental warning will be flashed on screen.

Rating: **

Sanjay’s Super Team (USA) – The inevitable (unavoidable?) Pixar nominee. I promise to be good here and put aside my general aversion to Pixar “product” (longtime readers understand…it’s probably just a chemical thing, can’t be helped). A first-generation Indian-American boy plants himself in front of the TV, whilst his dad quietly begins his Hindu prayers. Dad subtly steers his son away from the idiot box and into his devotionals. At first, the boy balks, but becomes entranced by the icon figures in his dad’s shrine, sparking a Sorcerer’s Apprentice-style fantasia. The usual Pixar overkill ensues. Still, the piece has its heart in the right place, and it delivers a positive message.

Rating: **½

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (Russia) – Two lifelong pals realize their boyhood dreams to become cosmonauts. It’s a lovely homage to the spirit and sacrifice of space explorers past and present, and to mankind’s quest for knowledge about what’s out there.

Rating: ***

World of Tomorrow (USA) – Don’t let the simple stick figures fool you…there’s a lot going on in this heady mixture of sci-fi whimsy and existential angst. A little girl is taken on a tour of her future, which is not the brightest (for Earth in general). Still, there are technical wonders to behold. But there is a catch; and unfortunately she’s not old enough to process her time-travelling guide’s buried lede (probably for the best that she stays happy for now). A clever mashup of Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen and Douglas Adams.

Rating: ****

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And the nominees for Best Short Film-Live Action are:

Ave Maria (Palestine/France/Germany) – Five nuns walk into a bar mitzvah. Actually, it’s the other way around…three Israeli settlers (an elderly woman, her son and his wife) walk into an isolated West Bank convent after accidently knocking over their Virgin Mary statue (oops). Their car has stalled out on them and they need to use a phone. The nuns have taken a vow of silence, and the Jewish gentleman can’t touch the phone because it’s Friday after sunset. Yes, it’s a fabulous setup for some wacky interfaith hijinks, which do ensue. It’s a clever comedy of mores that gives you hope for humanity.

Rating: ***½

Day One (USA) – A neo-realistic, one-act microcosm of our country’s Middle Eastern quagmire, parsed through a day in the life of a newly-deployed Afghan-American military interpreter. On her first mission, she accompanies a squad closing in on a bomb-maker. As the soldiers secure their prisoner, his pregnant wife is discovered in a back room, where she begins to go into labor. Very similar in theme to Ave Maria, but more somber in tone. Even in the midst of conflict, there’s always room for a little compassion.

Rating: ***

Everything Will Be OK (Germany/Austria) – A divorced father picks up his 8 year-old daughter for their weekend visitation. Everything appears normal…initially (any further synopsis constitutes a spoiler). A well-acted character study, with a suspenseful build-up.

Rating: ***

Shok (Kosovo) – War is hell for anybody involved, but it’s particularly distressing and heartbreaking when filtered through the eyes of innocents who are caught in the crossfire. Such is this short, sharp, shock to the system (based on true events) about two Albanian boys who are best friends in Kosovo during the Yugoslav wars. It’s intense and affecting.

Rating: ****

Stutterer (UK/Ireland) – A character study of a young man whose complex over his speech impediment keeps him socially isolated. His sole ray of light is an online texting relationship that he has developed with a young woman. When she proposes to take it to the next level and arrange a face-to-face visit, he short-circuits over the dilemma. Borderline precious (with a predictable “twist”) but it only takes 12 minutes of your time!

Rating: **½

I got yer top 10 right heah

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 26, 2015)

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‘Tis the season to offer up my picks for the best films that opened in 2015. I should qualify that. These are my picks for the “top ten” movies out of the 50+ first run features I’ve been able to cover since January. Since I am (literally) a “weekend movie critic”, I don’t have the time to screen every release (that pesky 9-5 gig keeps getting in the way). So here you go…alphabetically, not in order of preference:

Chappie– This is the third feature film from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp. In this outing, Blomkamp returns to his native Johannesburg (which provided the backdrop for his 2009 debut, District 9). And for the third time in a row, his story takes place in a dystopian near-future (call me Sherlock, but I’m sensing a theme). While there are echoes here of nearly every “AI-goes-awry” cautionary tale since Metropolis (plus a large orange soda), through their creation of the eponymous character, Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell nonetheless manage to put a fresh spin on a well-worn trope. Once you’ve cut through all the bombast and the obligatory action tropes in the narrative, “his” story resonates at its core with a universal, even timeless kind of resonance. [Full review]

Fassbinder: Love without Demands– By the time he died at age 37 in 1982, the iconoclastic German director-screenwriter-actor (and producer, editor, cameraman, composer, designer, etc.) Rainier Werner Fassbinder had churned out 40 feature films, a couple dozen stage plays, 2 major television film series, and an assortment of video productions, radio plays and short films. Mind you, this was over a 15-year period. Danish director Christian Braad Thomsen does an amazing job of tying together the prevalent themes in Fassbinder’s work with the personal and psychological motivations that fueled this indefatigable drive to create, to provoke, and to challenge the status quo. [Full review]

An Italian Name– If there’s one thing longtime friends know how to do best, it’s how to push each other’s buttons. Francesca Archibugi’s An Italian Name (Il nome del figlio) nestles betwixt two subgenres I have dubbed The Group Therapy Weekend and Dinner Party Gone Awry. And as in many Italian films, there’s a lot of eating, drinking, lively discourse…and hand gestures. This breezy 94 minute social satire plays like a tight, one-act play; which apparently (as I learned after the fact) is what it was in its original incarnation. I was also blissfully unaware that it was first adapted as a 2012 French film, so I’m in no position to say whether the Italian remake is better or worse. One thing that I can say for sure…An Italian Name is one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen this year. [Full review]

Liza, the Fox Fairy– If David Lynch had directed Amelie, it might be akin to this dark and whimsical romantic comedy from Hungary (inspired by a Japanese folk tale). Karoly Ujj-Meszaros saturates his film in a 70s palette of harvest gold, avocado green and sunflower orange. It’s off-the-wall; but it’s also droll, inventive, and surprisingly sweet. [Full review]

Love and Mercy– Paul Dano’s Oscar-worthy performance as the 1960s era Brian Wilson is a revelation, capturing the duality of a troubled genius/sweet man-child to a tee. If this were a conventional biopic, this would be “good enough” as is. But director Bill Pohlad (and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) make this one go to “11”, by interpolating Brian’s peak period with his bleak period…the Dr. Eugene Landy years (early 80s through the early 90s). This “version” of Brian is played by John Cusack, who has rarely been better; this is a real comeback performance for him. Actually, there are no bad performances in this film, down to the smallest parts. I usually try to avoid hyperbole, but I’ll say it: This is one of the best rock’ n’ roll biopics I’ve seen in years. [Full review]

A Pigeon sat on a Branch, Reflecting on Existence– Full disclosure…I initially gave this film an appraisal that was ambivalent at best. But as I have said in the past, I reserve the right to occasionally change my mind; and since I’ve had some time now to sit on my branch and reflect, I’ve decided it belongs on this list. That doesn’t mean that I’m any closer to understanding what the fuck this movie is “about” any more so than previous. How do I summarize a film cited in its own press release as “…irreducible to advertising”? Given that Roy Andersson’s film is a construct of existential vignettes sharing little in common save for the fact that they share little in common…why bother? [Full review]

Song of the Sea– Writer-director Tomm Moore has followed up his 2009 animated fantasy The Secret of Kells with another lovely animated take on Irish folklore, this one steeped in “selkie” mythology. Moore has fashioned a family-friendly entertainment that feels like an instant classic; imbued with a timeless quality and assured visual aesthetic on par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is discernable warmth in Moore’s skilled use of hand-drawn animation; a genuine sense of heart and soul sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” that gluts our multiplexes these days. [Full review]

Tangerines– This Estonian-Georgian production was written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, who  sets his drama in Georgia, against the backdrop of the politically byzantine Abkhazian War of the early 90s. While there are touchstones like La Grande Illusion and Hell in the Pacific, the film sneaks up on you as a work of true compassion. As the characters come to recognize their shared humanity; so do we. Beautifully written, directed and acted as the film is, I hope there comes a day in this fucked-up slaughterhouse of a world when no one feels the need to make another like it.  [Full review]

Trumbo– One could draw many historical parallels with the present from this fact-based drama by director Jay Roach, which recounts the McCarthy Era travails of Academy Award winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was on the Hollywood “blacklist” from the late 40s until 1960 (the year his name appeared in the credits for Exodus, ending a decade of writing scripts under pseudonyms). Bryan Cranston plays the outspoken Trumbo with aplomb; armed with a massive typewriter, piss-elegant cigarette holder and a barbed wit, he’s like an Eisenhower era Hunter S. Thompson. While not as emotionally resonant as the thematically similar 1976 film The Front, Trumbo happily shares a like purpose, by providing something we need right now…a Rocky for liberals. [Full review]

When Marnie Was There– Japan’s Studio Ghibli has consistently raised the bar on the (nearly) lost art of cel animation (don’t get me started on my Pixar rant). While it’s sad that the undisputed master of anime (and Ghibli’s star director), Hayao Miyazaki, has now retired, it is heartening to know that the Studio still “has it”, as evidenced in this breathtakingly beautiful anime film from writer-director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It’s gentle enough for children, but imbued with an intelligent, classical narrative compelling enough for adults. No dinosaurs, male strippers, killer androids, teddy bears with Tourette’s, explosions, car chases or blazing guns…just good old fashioned storytelling. [Full review]

# # #

And  these were my “top 10” picks for each of the years since I began writing film reviews over at Digby’s Hullabaloo (you may want to bookmark this post as a  handy quick reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

Beyond the uncanny valley of the dolls: The Quay Brothers on 35mm ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 10, 2015)

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In my 2010 review of the documentary, Marwencol, I opened with the following quote:

From whence it follows, that one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence, nor two things one beginning; it being impossible for two things of the same kind to be or exist in the same instant, in the very same place; or one or the same thing in different places.

 -John Locke, from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

 I’ve often wondered if twins were the possible exception to Locke’s rule. I’m sure we’ve all known twins (you might be one, for all I know). Likewise, we’ve observed those quirks unique to twins (like finishing each other’s sentences). But what about their minds, their consciousness? That’s when it gets into a weird area; which may offer some explanation for the weird and unique micro-universe that identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay have been able to create through their stop-motion animation short films.

Three of their films have been curated by director Christopher Nolan as part of a special touring package that includes the world premiere of Nolan’s own short, Quay. Unfortunately, a preview copy of Nolan’s film was not available for review, but I am familiar with the three Quay Brothers selections (In Absentia, The Comb, and Street of Crocodiles), which have now been bundled and re-titled as The Quay Brothers on 35mm.

It’s difficult to describe the Quay Brothers to the uninitiated. As I mentioned earlier, what they have created is literally their own micro-cosmos; their “sets” are meticulously detailed miniature constructs, and they use found objects, common household items (and occasional cameos from human actors) for perspective.

This attention to micro detail gives them something in common with the subject of the documentary I referred to earlier, which profiles photo-artist Mark Hogancamp, who found a unique way to deal with the physical and mental trauma he suffered from a near-fatal beating. As I wrote:

Now, the Mark Hogancamp, that is to say, the corporeal being we perceive as “Mark Hogancamp” may exist and “live” in Kingston, N.Y., but as far as Mark himself is concerned, he actually lives in “Marwencol”. And Marwencol actually does “exist”. That being said, you’re not going to find Marwencol on Google Earth, because the entire town is located within the confines of Mark’s back yard. It’s a stunningly realistic 1/6 scale WW 2-era town, populated by G.I. Joes and Barbies, constructed over a period of years. This is not a hobby; it is on-going therapy (a luxury that he could not afford). Every doll has a back story; many are alter-egos of his friends and neighbors (including himself).

Is this a thing? Did the Quay Brothers experience a childhood trauma? I wonder if it’s therapy for them (once you’ve seen their work, you may beg them to get therapy). At any rate, do not expect traditional narrative. Their films can be unsettling…but not for the reasons you might assume. There’s no inherent violence, nor are they trying to “scare” you. Their films are more like pieces of dreams, or perhaps a screen capture of that elusive nanosecond of Jungian twilight that exists between nodding off and disconcertingly jerking awake a moment later. Catch them on the big screen if you can.

The art of storytelling: When Marnie Was There ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2015)

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Japan’s Studio Ghibli has consistently raised the bar on the (nearly) lost art of cel animation (don’t get me started on my Pixar rant). While it’s sad that the undisputed master of anime (and Ghibli’s star director), Hayao Miyazaki, has now retired, it is heartening to know that the Studio still “has it”, as evidenced in this breathtakingly beautiful new anime film from writer-director Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

The story (adapted from a book by the late British author and illustrator Joan G. Robinson) centers on a 12 year-old girl named Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki in the subtitled Japanese version that this review is based upon). Anna, a budding artist, is an insular foster child whose health problems precipitate an extended visit to a seaside town, where she will stay with relatives while she mends. While exploring her new environs one day, she espies a rundown mansion at the edge of a marsh. She finds herself strangely drawn to the place, but doesn’t understand why. Unwittingly stranding herself there when the tide rises, she is rescued by a crusty (yet benign) fisherman. As night begins to fall, she thinks she sees lights in the windows of the abandoned structure. A mystery is afoot.

I don’t want to give anything away, as many twists and turns ensue, with a 4-handkerchief denouement that will leave only those with a heart of stone unmoved. It’s really a lovely story, with some of the most gorgeous animation I’ve seen from Ghibli. Gentle enough for children, but imbued with an intelligent, classical narrative compelling enough for adults. No dinosaurs, male strippers, killer androids, teddy bears with Tourette’s, explosions, car chases or blazing guns…just good old fashioned storytelling.

Fairies in the roundabout: Song of the Sea **** & four more for St. Patrick’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 14, 2015)

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Given that we’re all descended from tetrapods (sorry, creationists) it’s not surprising that a number of cultures have developed myths featuring sea creatures who transmogrify into humans (and vice-versa). In Irish folklore, it’s the “selkie”. Writer-director Tomm Moore has followed up his lovely 2009 animated fantasy The Secret of Kells (see below) with Song of the Sea, a tale steeped in selkie mythology. A 2014 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature, it’s currently in belated (and somewhat spotty) release around the U.S.

Moore’s film centers on a melancholic lighthouse keeper named Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), who is raising young son Ben (David Rawle) and daughter Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) on his own, following the tragic loss of his wife, who died in childbirth. Sullen Ben, several years older than his 6 year-old sister, is experiencing growing pains, exacerbated by the fact that he misses his mother terribly. He pines for the mesmerizing tales about magical creatures that mother would tell him at bedtime. He has difficulty relating to his somewhat odd little sister, who is a mute.

After Saoirse is nearly swept away after inexplicably deciding to wander into the nearby surf in the middle of the night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother (Fiona Flanagan) in the big city. The kids aren’t so crazy about this plan; after a few mentally stultifying days with grandma they make a run for it. However, before they can wend their way back home, they are waylaid by a band of characters that seem to have popped right out of one of those fairy tales that Conor’s mother used to regale him with.

I can say no more without risking spoilers, except that if you have a chance to catch this beautiful gem on a theater screen, don’t pass it by. Even though this is only his second outing, Moore has fashioned an entertainment that feels like an instant classic; a work imbued with a timeless quality and assured visual aesthetic that I would put on a par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is discernible warmth in Moore’s skilled use of traditional hand-drawn animation; a genuine sense of heart and soul sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” that gluts our multiplexes these days.

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 If Song of the Sea hasn’t opened in your neck of the woods, don’t despair. I have several other recommendations, should your heart be set on a St. Patrick’s Day film fest. In alphabetical order, here are 4 more tales of Celtic magic and myth from the Emerald Isle:

Darby O’Gill and the Little People –Albert Sharpe gives a delightful performance as lead character Darby O’Gill in this 1959 fantasy from director Robert Stevenson. Darby is a crusty yet benign b.s. artist who finds himself embroiled in the kind of tale no one would believe if he told them it were true-matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who has offered to play matchmaker between Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) and a strapping pre-James Bond Sean Connery. The special effects hold up surprisingly well, considering limitations of the time. The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are especially amusing (“Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”). Stevenson would later direct another “little people” movie, The Gnome-Mobile, in 1967.

Into the West– A gem from one of the more under-appreciated “all-purpose” directors working today, Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin). At first glance, it falls into the “magical family film” category, but it carries a subtly dark undercurrent with it throughout, which keeps it interesting for the adults in the room. Lovely performances, a magic horse, and one purty pair o’humans (Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne, real-life spouses at that time).

The Secret of Kells– A unique animated fantasy based on traditional Irish folk tales surrounding the origins of an illuminated manuscript from the 9th Century called The Book of Kells (an actual historical artifact, kept on permanent display at Dublin’s Trinity College). There are Tolkienesque touches (a diminutive hero, forest elves, marauding invaders), but this “quest” tale has a refreshing twist…the goal is not power or an attempt to take down a villain, but rather the preservation of knowledge and illumination. For the amazingly vivid look of their film, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, through some kind of “secret” alchemy of their own, seem to have taken some of those marvelous medieval era woodcuts and paintings you see in museums and art books and brought them to life.

The Secret of Roan Inish– John Sayles delivers an engaging live action fairy tale, which, like the aforementioned Song of the Sea, draws its inspiration from venerable Irish legends about the selkies. Wistful, haunting and beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the misty desolation of County Donegal’s rugged coastline in a way that recalls Michael Powell’s similarly effective utilization of Scotland’s Shetland Islands for his 1937 classic, The Edge of the World. The seals should have been nominated for a special Oscar for Best Performance by a Sea Mammal!

City mouse, country bear: Ernest and Celestine ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 29, 2014)

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The “odd couple” meme has become a staple narrative . The reason is obvious; something in our DNA that makes us root for the Mismatched Lovers or the Unlikely Friends to overcome the odds and find their bliss (especially when they’re defying the “rules” ). Who in their heart of hearts (sociopaths aside) wouldn’t want to see the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the goat, dogs and cats living together…or in the case of the animated film Ernest and Celestine, a street-busking bear adopting a ‘lil orphaned mouse?

Co-directed by Stephan Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner, and adapted by screenwriter Daniel Pennac from the children’s book by Gabrielle Vincent, the film is set in a fairy tale universe where anthropomorphic bears and mice live in segregated cities above and below ground, respectively.

Woe to the mouse that gets spotted above ground or to the bear caught wandering below. Fear of the “other” is systemically ingrained in the mice, as evidenced by the Grimm’s Fairy Tale-like opening scene, where young Celestine (Pauline Brunner ) and her fellow orphans have the hell scared out of them by their mean-spirited matron (Anne-Marie Loop).

She’s telling them a bedtime story about the “Big Bad Bear”, whom they should never, ever approach, because he has an appetite for anything that moves…especially young mice (“Alive and kicking, with their little coats and backpacks!” she exhorts). “How can you be sure he’s so bad?” ventures Celestine, who gets admonished for heresy.

The bears, on the other hand, assign the mice a more benign archetypal role in their bedtime tales, telling their kids it’s the “Mouse Fairy” who leaves the coins under the pillow whenever they lose a tooth. Of course, if they actually see a real mouse, their first impulse is to jump up on a chair or to grab a blunt object.

That’s what Celestine discovers one evening whilst tiptoeing around a bear family’s home, looking, in fact, to steal a young cub’s tooth from under his pillow (an assignment from her dentistry school instructor; whittled down bear’s teeth make perfect replacement molars for mice…who knew?).

Fleeing for her life, she ends up hiding in a garbage can, in which she becomes trapped overnight. In the morning, she’s discovered by a bear named Ernest (Lambert Wilson), a hungry street musician scrounging for food. The fast-thinking Celestine talks Ernest out of turning her into breakfast by giving him a hot tip about a place she knows where he can find some good eats-the storage cellar of a nearby candy store.

Ernest returns the favor by helping Celestine break into a bear dentist’s stash of teeth. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship,  about to be challenged by the fears and prejudices of their respective societies (and the “authorities”).

It’s a simplistic fable about tolerance and empathy, but beautifully told. The animation, with its hand-drawn aesthetic and comforting palette of soft pastels, recalls the illustrations of Ludwig Bemelmans (creator of the “Madeline” books I read as a kid). Funny, touching, and charming to a fault, the film, while primarily aimed at children, has wry, offbeat touches that adults should appreciate as well.

Interestingly, I was strongly reminded of Fred Coe’s 1965 dramedy, A Thousand Clowns. In that film, Jason Robards plays a happily unemployed free spirit named Murray (not unlike Ernest) who has likewise taken on a young ward (his nephew). Murray encourages his nephew to flout society’s conventions, especially when it comes to the concept of “finding a career” (Ernest encourages Celestine, an aspiring painter, to forget about dentistry and express herself through art).

However, Murray soon finds himself at odds with the Child Welfare Board, who challenges his competence as a guardian (Ernest and Celestine are each brought up before a judge, ostensibly for their “crimes”, but are really on trial for being non-conformists). On one level, Ernest and Celestine is a fairy tale for kids, but can also be seen as license to follow your bliss. And that is a good thing.

WW 2, the B-sides: The Wind Rises ***1/2 & Generation War **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 1, 2014)

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Jiro dreams of Zeros: The Wind Rises

If I understand Hayao Miyazaki’s take on the life of Jiro Horikoshi correctly, he was sort of the Temple Grandin of Japanese aviation; a photo-realistic visual thinker who lived, breathed, and even dreamed about elegant aircraft designs from childhood onward.

The fact that his most famous creation, the Zero, became one of the most indelible icons of Japanese aggression during WW2 is incidental. As I was hitherto blissfully unaware of Horikoshi prior to viewing the venerable director’s new (and purportedly, final) anime, The Wind Rises, I’m giving Miyazaki-san benefit of the doubt; though I also must assume that Miyazaki’s beautifully woven cinematic tapestry involved…a bit of creative license?

Those who have followed Miyazaki’s work over the past several decades may be surprised (perhaps even mildly disappointed) to learn that the director’s swan song is a relatively straightforward biopic, containing virtually none of the fantasy elements that have become the director’s stock-in-trade. Still, he makes his fans feel at home right out of the starting gate with a dream sequence…about flying (a signature theme that recurs throughout Miyazaki’s oeuvre).

The young Jiro has nightly dreams about meeting his hero, the Italian aircraft designer Caproni, who gives him tours of fantastical flying machines that spark his imagination and creativity. Too nearsighted to become a pilot himself, Jiro finds solace in his natural gifts for engineering and design. As he follows Jiro into adulthood, Miyazaki gives us a crash course in Japanese history between the wars. Also along the way, Jiro meets the love of his life, a young woman named Nahoko.

Miyazaki largely maintains an apolitical tone (and leapfrogs over the war years to go straight to the denouement), although there is some implied conflict of conscience in a scene where Jiro laments how the military just wants to subvert the aesthetics of his elegant designs into weapons of destruction (I suppose you could argue that one can’t fault Einstein for coming up with an elegant equation that was subverted into a mushroom cloud of death).

At the end of the day, The Wind Rises is an old-fashioned love story and elegiac look at prewar Japan. And there is no denying the sheer artistry on display (a recreation of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is the most epic and technically brilliant sequence I have ever seen in the realm of cel animation). Incidentally, Miyazaki has “retired” at least once before. I hope he doesn’t mean it…again.

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Dedicated followers of fascists: Generation War

German filmmakers step into a PC minefield whenever they tackle a WW2 narrative from the perspective of German characters; it’s a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum. If you present your protagonists in too much of a sympathetic light, you’re a revisionist, or (at worst) an apologist. If you go too much in the opposite direction, you’re feeding the stereotype that every German who was alive during Hitler’s regime was an evil Nazi. Okay, a lot of Germans were party members, and the Nazis were evil, but that’s beside the point. The politics of war are seldom black and white; there’s plenty of gray area for an astute dramatist to navigate.

The most well-known example of successfully navigating that gray area is Lewis Milestone’s 1930 WW1 drama, All Quiet on the Western Front, which follows a group of young Germans as they transform from fresh-faced, idealistic recruits into shell-shocked combat veterans with 1000-yard stares (well, those who survive). The humanistic approach gives the story a universal appeal; it’s a moot point that the protagonists happen to be “the enemy” (war is the great equalizer). While less-celebrated, I would rank Masaki Kobayashi’s 1959 epic The Human Condition as the greatest achievement in this arena (9 hours…but I’d still recommend it).

Falling somewhere in the middle (epic in length but somewhat tepid in narrative) is Generation War, a 5-hour German mini-series hit that has now been repackaged as a 2-part theatrical presentation. Directed by Philipp Kadelback and written by Stefan Kolditz, the film is sort of a German version of The Big Red One, with echoes of the Paul Verhoeven films Soldier of Orange and Black Book.

The film opens with five close friends enjoying a going-away party on the eve of Operation Barbarossa (which will change all their lives…forevah). Actually, only three of them are “going away”. Wilhelm (Volker Bruch), an officer in the Wehrmacht, and his younger brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) will be off to the Eastern Front, and Charlotte (Miriam Stein) hopes to lend her nursing skills to the Red Cross. Greta (Katherina Schuttler), an aspiring chanteuse and her verboten Jewish lover Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) will hold down the home front. After much drinking and dancing, there’s consensus that the war should wrap by Christmas.

Of course, the war doesn’t wrap up by Christmas (besides, as the audience, we’ve still got 4 ½ hours left on the meter at this point). Unfortunately, what ensues is more cliché than bullet-ridden, and the film itself becomes as much of an arduous slog as Wilhelm and Friedhelm’s 3-year trudge toward Moscow (with Wilhelm’s interstitial voice overs excerpting Deep Thoughts from his war journals to serve as the Greek Chorus). The five leads give it their best with commendable performances, but (with the exception of one or two scenes) are handed barely-above-soap opera level material to work with. Also, there is one too many “Of all the gin joints of all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” moments.

To give credit where credit is due, there is one eminently quotable epiphany, via one of Wilhelm’s journal entries. It arrives too late in the film to fully redeem the lulls in the preceding several hours, but it bears repeating: “To start with, on the battlefield, you fight for your country. Later, when doubt sets in, you fight for your  comrades…whom you can’t leave in the lurch. But when nobody else is left, when you’re alone, and the only one you can deceive is yourself? What do you fight for then?” Granted, that may just be a long-winded variation on  “War isn’t about who is right, but who is left”…but as far as rhetorical questions go? It’s a doozy.

SIFF 2014: Boy and the World **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 24, 2014)

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Brazilian artist Ale Abreu directs this animated fantasy about a little boy from the countryside making his first foray into the big city, to search for his father. Beginning with just a white screen, Abreu graduates to gentle pastels and simple line drawings, which morphs into an ever-more cacophonous mixed-media assault of sound, color and movement as our protagonist makes his way closer to the sprawling metropolis. In that regard, the film reminded me of Koyaanisqatsi (and seems to be making some of the same points about the price we pay for “progress”). While the film is definitely family-friendly, I have a feeling that it may ultimately prove too frustratingly slow and abstract for the younger kids (especially those who have been weaned on Pixar).

Blu-ray reissue: Princess Mononoke ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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Princess Mononoke – Disney Blu-Ray

I think it’s fair to say that anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have consistently raised the bar on the art form over the past several decades (that’s why I’m a little sad that Miazaki-san recently announced his retirement from directing). Disney studios have been s-l-o-w-l-y reissuing the Miyazaki catalog on Blu-ray. This 1997 Ghibli production is a welcome addition to high-def, as it is one of their most visually resplendent offerings. Perhaps not as “kid-friendly” as per usual, but most of the patented Miyazaki themes are present: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and pacifist angst in a ubiquitously violent world. The beautiful score is by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi.

Quick take: A Letter to Momo **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 6, 2014)

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Here’s something you don’t see every day…a family-friendly anime fantasy from Japan that isn’t produced by Studio Ghibli. That being said, Hiroyuki Okiyura’s film plays a bit like a medley of Studio Ghibli’s greatest hits; sort of a “Stars on 45” conundrum (sure sounds like the real thing, yet makes you yearn to hear the original).

It’s a simple tale about a teenage girl named Momo who moves to an isolated island village with her widowed mother. Insular and slow to make new friends, Momo spends her time daydreaming and flipping through a box full of strange, antique picture books (“From the Edo era,” her great aunt tells her after offering to let her to peruse the collection at her leisure). Well, I needn’t tell you what happens once you start flipping through strange antique picture books from the Edo era…next thing you know, you’ve got a trio of goblins in your attic. They’re creepy, but they’re kooky. More significantly, they may give Momo closure on an unresolved issue regarding her late father.

The hand-drawn animation is lovely, but the story meanders and the mood vacillates too frequently between family melodrama and silly slapstick to sustain any kind of consistent tone. Still, there are some  touching moments; and younger kids might be more forgiving.