Category Archives: Social Satire

Freudian nightmare: Tunnel ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2016)

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Herbie Cook: The old man sure looked bad. Did you see his face?

Charles Tatum [thoughtfully]: Yeah.

Herbie Cook: Like the faces of those folks you see outside a coal mine with maybe 84 men trapped inside.

Charles Tatum: One man’s better than 84. Didn’t they teach you that?

Herbie Cook: Teach me what?

Charles Tatum: Human interest. You pick up the paper. You read about 84 men, or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn’t stay with you. One man’s different, you want to know all about him. That’s human interest.

-from Ace in the Hole (1951), screenplay by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman.

There’s a lot of that “human interest” in Kim Seong-hun’s Tunnel, a (no pun intended) cracking good disaster thriller from South Korea. Now, I should make it clear that this is not a Hollywood-style disaster thriller, a la Roland Emmerich. That said, it does have thrills, and spectacle, but not at the expense of its humanity. This, combined with emphasis on characterization, makes it the antithesis of formulaic big-budget disaster flicks that are typically agog with CGI yet bereft of IQ.

Said to be “based on true events” (which puzzlingly stumps Mr. Google) the story centers on harried Everyman Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo). Commuting home from his car salesman gig one fine sunny day, Jung-soo pulls into a service station. He asks for $30 worth of gas, but the elderly, hearing-impaired attendant gives him a nearly $100 fill-up instead. Jung-soo is a bit chagrined, but pays his bill and starts to pull away. The attendant runs after him and, by way of apology, insists that he accept two bottles of water. Jung-soo rolls his eyes, but acknowledges the gesture, tossing the bottles on the seat next to the boxed birthday cake he’s bringing home to his daughter.

And yes, it is the director’s intent that we make a special note of the bottled water, and the cake. As I am sure he wishes us to note the irony of the signage over the tunnel Jung-soo is headed for:

Hado Tunnel: Happy and Safe National Construction

As you may surmise (considering you know the premise of the film), Jung-soo’s passage through the Hado Tunnel on this particular fine sunny day will prove to be neither “happy”…nor “safe”.

To be honest, once the inevitable occurred (a harrowing sequence), I began to have doubts whether I could commit to the remaining 2 hours of the film; because I’m claustrophobic, and any story that involves physical entrapment freaks me out (as much as I admire Danny Boyle, I’ve yet to screw up the courage to sit through his 2010 thriller 127 Hours). And since that fear also precipitates white-knuckled parking in garages with low ceilings, driving across lower decks of double-decker bridges, and (wait for it) driving through tunnels…I was all set to just call it a day.

But thanks to Seong-hun’s substantive writing and direction and Jung-woo’s seriocomic performance (recalling Matt Damon’s turn in The Martian), I was absorbed enough by the story to allay my visceral concerns. And, akin to Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Seong-hun uses the “big carnival” allusions of the mise-en-scene outside the tunnel to commentate on how members of the media and the political establishment share an alchemist’s knack for turning calamity into capital.

Setting a bad example – Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 23, 2016)

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“The world has changed and strangely enough caught up with the Ab Fab women because in those days, it was shocking – women drinking too much, staying out, not caring, doing stuff like that. Social media didn’t exist. [ ] And now the world is much more sensitive. People take offence at the smallest things, which in those days were just funny. In the future, it’s going to be harder to write anything. “

– Joanna Lumley (from a Stylist interview)

While you may assume Ms. Lumley (above right), one of the stars of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is referring to the 1950s when she says “those days”, she is actually referring to the 1990s…which is when she originally assumed the character of “Patsy Stone” in the popular Britcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992-1996, later revived 2001-2004). The BBC series was the brainchild of brilliantly funny writer/actress Jennifer Saunders, casting herself as the other half of this fabulous duo, Edina Monsoon.

Edina is a PR agent, whose biggest client is Lulu (yes, that Lulu, who played herself to amusing effect in the TV series and reappears in the new film). Patsy is a magazine editor, and Edina’s BFF. While they both have “jobs” (in a manner of speaking), we rarely see them “working”, in the traditional sense. They expend most of their time cringingly attempting to ingratiate themselves with London’s hippest taste-makers, fashionistas, pop stars, and hottest actors/actresses du jour. For the most part, they’re snubbed (or ignored altogether). Yet they persevere, when not otherwise busy imbibing champagne and/or any drug they are within snorting distance of. Patsy, in particular, is always on the pull; usually for younger men (there’s a switch). Bad behavior all around.

Back to Lumley’s observations for a moment. I’m going to risk crucifixion here (won’t be the first time) and heartily concur with her point regarding the intersection of P.C. and Funny these days. Now, I’m a card-carryin’, tree-huggin’, NPR-listenin’ pinko lib’rul, and I fully understand the subjective nature of humor. But speaking as a lifelong comedy fan (and ex-standup performer myself), I remain a firm believer in the credo that in comedy, nothing is sacred. I don’t always agree with Bill Maher, but I’m with him 100% on his crusade to call out a new Bizarro World Hays Code from a portion of the Left that has even forced mainstream fixtures like Jerry Seinfeld to swear off playing college gigs.

In light of today’s techy climate for comedy, another principal character in Absolutely Fabulous, Edina’s daughter Saffron (played by Julia Sawalha, also reprising her original role in the film) almost seems a prescient creation on Saunders’ part. Saffron, who progressed from secondary school to university through the course of the original series, was really the only “adult” character in the household. Dour, disapproving, and very P.C. (long before the term became so de rigueur) she did her best to keep her mother in line (rarely succeeding, to her chagrin). So here you have the child lecturing the parent to get home at a decent hour, lay off the drugs, be more financially responsible, etc. Patsy, as Edina’s longtime chief enabler, views Saffron as a party-pooper (ergo her mortal enemy).

The show was not for all tastes; personally, I loved it. “Bad taste”, in the right hands, can make for some grand entertainment (John Waters’ oeuvre comes to mind). It was pretty outrageous, and very British; which is probably why we never saw an American remake (would never work anyway). In a roundabout way, it was also feminist-positive; in this respect the world has in fact “caught up with the Ab Fab women”, as evidenced by the success of HBO’s Girls, plus a recent slew of Comedy Central originals like Inside Amy Schumer, Another Period, and Broad City (the latter program comes closest to Ab Fab in attitude).

And so it is that the big screen adaptation (written by Saunders and directed by Mandie Fletcher), despite being at least 20 years tardy to cash in on its TV legs, surprisingly manages to retain its original ethos without really seeming that anachronistic. That is not to say that you should expect it to be much deeper than a sitcom episode. Which it isn’t.

The plot, of course, is completely ridiculous; Edina and Patsy get a hot tip that supermodel Kate Moss has dumped her PR person, so they weasel their way into a chic soiree (which they naturally would never be invited to attend), and somehow the overly-enthusiastic Edina knocks Kate over a railing into the murky depths of the Thames. Assuming (along with fellow attendees) that she has just sent one of the world’s most famous models to a watery grave, Edina and Patsy panic and flee to the South of France.

Does hilarity ensue? I wouldn’t rank it with Some Like it Hot (which is cleverly referenced in the final scene), but it is colorful, campy, over-the-top, and yes, politically incorrect…and quite amusing. Perhaps it does have something to say about social media feeding frenzies and mob mentality. You may forget what you watched by the time you get back to your car, but it sure is fun while it lasts. Sometimes, that’s all you need.

SIFF 2016: Home Care ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak. An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama and gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) make an endearing screen couple.

Masticating and gesticulating: An Italian Name ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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In my 2012 review of the French dramedy Little White Lies, I wrote:

In 1976, a Swiss ensemble piece called Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 unwittingly kick-started a Boomer-centric “midlife crisis” movie subgenre that I call The Group Therapy Weekend (similar to, but not to be conflated with, the venerable Dinner Party Gone Awry). The story usually centers on a coterie of long-time friends (some married with kids, others perennially single) who converge for a (reunion, wedding, funeral) at someone’s (beach house, villa, country spread) to catch up, reminisce, wine and dine, revel…and of course, re-open old wounds (always the most entertaining part).

 Not unlike Little White Lies, Francesca Archibugi’s An Italian Name (Il nome del figlio) nestles betwixt 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.

The dinner party of note is a cozy and casual late night get-together at the home of school teacher Betta (Valeria Golino) and professor hubby Sandro (Luigi Lo Cascio). There are only three guests; Betta’s brother Paolo (Alessandro Gassman, son of the late great actor Vittorio Gassman), his wife Simona (Michaela Ramazzotti), and childhood friend Claudio (Rocco Papaleo), a bachelor, musician, and…referee (once the fur begins to fly).

If there’s one thing longtime friends know how to do best, it’s how to push each other’s buttons. It’s apparent that these five have known each other a long time; and once Betta and Sandro have sent the kids to bed and cracked open a few bottles of wine, the evening begins to take its inevitable course. Paolo, whose preternatural good looks and easy charm have undoubtedly led to his success as a high-end real estate broker, is a bit of a prankster, who enjoys winding up brother-in-law Sandro. The lovely Simona, the best-selling author of a Jackie Collins-style novel, is pregnant. Paolo announces with a straight face that the couple have come up with a name for the baby (if it’s a boy)-Benito. Sandro, a pompous, left-leaning academe, takes the bait…and so the (verbal) bloodletting begins.

There are echoes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? throughout the evening’s proceedings, as dormant resentments resurface and new revelations come to the fore; the main difference here being that the overall tone isn’t as vitriolic. The smart, witty, rapid-fire repartee is executed with flair by the wonderful ensemble (in fact the dialog is so rapid-fire that I found it a challenge keeping up with the subtitles…and I’m a fast reader).

The breezy 94 minute film plays like a tight, one-act play; which apparently (as I learned after the fact) is what it was in its original incarnation. Director Archibugi and co-writer Francesco Piccolo adapted their script from a play by Alexandre de la Patelliere and Matthieu Delaporte. I was also blissfully unaware that de la Patelliere and Delaporte directed their own screen version of their play (released in France in 2012 as Le prenom), 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.

Mingling with the help: The Second Mother ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

-George Bernard Shaw

“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

 -George Burns

Let’s face it, even “typical” families are weird. I can’t imagine how much weirder it would be growing up in a family with an attendant “staff” lurking about. This dynamic has inspired myriad “upstairs/downstairs” narratives for novelists and screenwriters (it has certainly kept PBS afloat). That’s why I approached the latest film to use this timeworn trope, writer-director Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother, with trepidation.

The story centers on an upper middle class Brazilian family, living in Sao Paolo. Their live-in housekeeper Val (Regina Case) has been with the family for a number of years, long enough to have become a nurturing “second mother” to 17 year-old Fabinho (Michel Joelsas).While Fabinho’s parents (Lourenco Mutarelli and Karine Teles) occasionally get careless and let their classist slips show, they accept Val as a de facto member of the family. Despite their privileged lifestyle, the family appears fairly “normal” and unassuming; and the dynamic between Val and her employers comfortable and familiar.

However, family skeletons are about to dance for our viewing pleasure. Yes, it’s the incursion of The Free-Spirited Outsider; in this case, Val’s estranged daughter Jessica (Camila Mardila). Val has not seen her daughter, who is around the same age as Fabhino, in nearly a decade; she is coming to Sao Paolo to apply at an architectural college. Val is jazzed about seeing her daughter, but nervous when she asks her employers if it’s okay for Jessica to bunk with her in her cramped maid’s quarters. To Val’s horror, Jessica “puts on airs” from the moment she arrives, casually asking to stay in the spacious guest room. Not a problem, say the gracious hosts. But it’s about to turn into one (no spoilers).

There’s a part of me that wants to say that I have reviewed this film many times before. That being said, there are two compelling reasons why I still recommend it: Regina Case and Camila Mardila. Both women give wonderful performances, but Case in particular is a joy to behold. This is my first awareness of her; from what I understand she has been a popular actress and comedienne for some time in her native Brazil, working in film, television and the theater. Her characterization of Val is warm, compassionate, earthy, and 100% believable. Muylaert’s sensitive direction is also a plus. It may not get an “A” for originality, but still has something to say about love, family and class struggle.

Sit on this: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2015)

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the kind of film that critics elbow past each other in a desperate scramble to post the earliest time-stamped review that name checks Kierkegaard and Beckett. Just between you and me and the bird feeder, I find Kierkegaard unreadable, and once nodded off during a performance of Waiting for Godot. So rest assured, gentle reader, that you needn’t worry about suffering through smug references to long-dead existentialists and avant-garde playwrights…no siree, Bob.

You have to understand, I never went to college, or even film school. I’m just a simple farmer. I’m a person of the land; the common clay of the American West. You know…

A moron.

(Awkward silence). Give me a sec; I just need to come up with some clever angle now.

How do I summarize a film that is cited in its own press release as “…irreducible to advertising”? Given that Roy Andersson’s film is a construct of existential vignettes which share little in common save for the fact that they share little in common, I’ll pick one at random, in which a girl recites the following “original” poem in front of her class:

A pigeon sat on a branch, reflecting on existence                                                        It rested, and reflected on the fact                                                                                 That it had no money                                                                                                              It flew home

Now I may not know Schopenhauer from Fahrvergnugen, but I do know Douglas Adams:

The dead swans lay in the stagnant pool                                                                 They lay. They rotted. They turned around occasionally                                  Bits of flesh dropped off them from time to time                                                 And sank into the pool’s mire                                                                                       They also smelt a great deal.

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

Or should I tell you the one about the two traveling novelty item salesmen (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom, the titular “stars” of the film) who walk into a bar and begin their pitch, only to be rudely interrupted by a thirsty, horse-borne King Karl XII and his vast army (presumably on their way to Moscow), who have all somehow dropped in from the 18th Century? Oh, you’ve heard that one?

Then pretend I never said anything.

I could describe some of the other vignettes, some funny, some tragic, and mostly absurd…but I don’t see much point. Which I suppose is precisely the director’s point. There is no point in describing the pointlessness of it all. Therefore, he’s made his point.

So am I recommending it? You may remember this exchange from Play it Again, Sam:

Allan:  That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollack, isn’t it?

Museum Girl:  Yes, it is.    

Allan:  What does it say to you?    

Museum Girl:  It restates the negativeness of the Universe. The hideous, lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man, forced to live a barren, Godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless, bleak strait-jacket in a black absurd Cosmos.

Allan:  What are you doing Saturday night?

Museum Girl:  Committing suicide.

Allan:  What about Friday night?

Or you can look at it this way: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch made $8,119 last weekend. Minions made $115,718,405. What does it say to you? Oh, OK. What about Friday night?

SIFF 2015: Challat of Tunis ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

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While this qualifies as a “mockumentary”, there’s nothing “ha-ha” funny about it. That is, unless you consider sexual violence an amusing subject… which it decidedly is not, although (sadly) it is a global scourge that knows no borders. This is precisely the point that writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania is (bravely) making in her film, which is a scathing feminist sendup of the systemic sexism that permeates not only her native Tunisia, but Arab culture (and the Earth). The “Challat” refers to a motorbike-borne, self-anointed crusader who slashes the buttocks of women who dress “immodestly”. As the film opens, a decade has passed since this twisted customer has victimized anyone. An investigative journalist (played by the director) is trying to track him down, so she can get inside his head to see what makes such an odious individual tick. A young man comes forth, who may or may not be the elusive “Challat”. She calls his bluff, and things get interesting. Thought-provoking, yet also disheartening when you contemplate the distressing universality of the misogynist credo: “She was asking for it.”

SIFF 2015: The Price of Fame **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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Well, this one looked good on paper (I had anticipated something along the lines of Melvin and Howard), but after a promising start, writer-director Xavier Beauvois’ “true crime” dramedy about a pair of bumbling, would-be extortionists falls curiously flat, despite earnest performances from an affable cast. The story is based on a late ‘70s incident in Switzerland in which two down-on-their-luck pals (played in the film by Benoit Poelvoorde and Roschdy Zem) cooked up a bizarre and ill-advised plan to dig up the coffin of the recently interred Charlie Chaplin and then hit his family up for money to have the body returned.

The caper itself takes a relative backseat to the main thrust of the film, which is ostensibly a character study. Therein lies the crux of the problem; these aren’t particularly interesting characters (at least as written). And the third act is nearly destroyed by that most dreaded of movie archetypes: the Maudlin Circus Clown. Beauvois’ idea to use Chaplin’s compositions for the soundtrack is clever, but he overdoes it. Peter Coyote does add an interesting turn as Chaplin’s longtime assistant.

Die bummelant: A Coffee in Berlin ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  28, 2014)

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Have you heard the good word? There’s this trendy new food pyramid that apparently keeps you energetic and svelte: Vodka, cigarettes and chewing gum. This appears to be all that sustains Niko (Tom Schilling), the Millennial slacker hero of writer-director Jan Ole Gerster’s debut film, A Coffee in Berlin (known in Germany as Oh Boy). Oh, you are allowed to drink coffee…if you can get your hands on a cup. This is proving difficult for Niko, as we follow him around Berlin on (what we assume to be) a typical day in his life.

“I’m late…I’ve got a million things to do,” Niko tells his skeptical (and soon-to-be ex) girlfriend after she catches him giving her the early-morning slip (her Jean Seberg haircut is no accident; from this opening scene onward, Gerster’s camera movements, black and white photography and jazzy score leaves no doubt that his film is a paean to the French New Wave). Niko doesn’t seem to have much of anything going on, except maybe the rent. Even that is doubtful, after an ATM machine confiscates his debit card, much to his puzzlement.

In a Benjamin Braddock moment set at a posh country club, Niko gets an explanation, along with an admonishment from his father, who has figured out his deadbeat son has in fact not been spending his 1000 Euros a month stipend on law school for the past two years. Niko’s day has barely begun; many more such encounters await him, each more discombobulating than the last.

While you could say that the film is about “nothing”, it manages to be about everything. Perhaps it is the sheer breadth of the vignettes that make up Niko’s day; from the bathos to the pathos. From moments of silly slapstick, like Niko’s attempt to appear casual whilst dipping back into a homeless man’s hat to retrieve the change he had donated a few moments before his fateful encounter with the ATM machine, to an extraordinary monologue from an elderly barfly recounting a suppressed childhood memory of Kristallnacht, it collectively adds up to a summation of the human experience.

Visually, the film evokes Wim Wenders’ moody Wings of Desire; which has everything to do with the location photography. Berlin, like New York or Paris, is a metropolis that is most likely to reveal its true colors when viewed through a stark black and white lens. It’s tough to explain why such an episodic affair, wherein the dramatic tension derives from whether or not the protagonist will find an uninterrupted moment to enjoy a cup of coffee before credits roll, is one of the freshest films I’ve seen this year, but I believe I just did.

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.