Ernest & Celestine – Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner (2014)

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Love is love. It’s a simple idea that so many people can’t grasp. Love is nothing to be afraid of. Black and white, boy and boy, girl and girl — or indeed, mouse and bear — it’s never anything to be afraid of. But it seems to only make sense to one inquisitive mouse, Celestine (Mackenzie Foy), and one hungry Bear, Ernest (Forest Whitaker), who meet quite by accident when Ernest saves Celestine’s life only to then try and eat her for a snack.

In the film’s world that is inhabited by animals like Art Speigelman’s Maus, the other mice are afraid though, and the other bears. Mice live in underground, bears above ground, and the two share very little with each other. When Ernest and Celestine find themselves on the wrong side of the law in both the bear and mice world that notion is challenged in startlingly emotional ways and the unlikely pair find each other to be perfect protectors for each other in different ways.

The animation, done in a sumptuous broken-line storybook-style watercolor, is outstanding. Despite the rumors of its demise, 2D hand-drawn animation isn’t dead, in fact it’s becoming vital again in Europe, and this is a brilliant example of what it could be again.

Up – Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14348

It must be freeing to know that you have an audience before you even compose your first thought for a project. It’s a luxury very few people enjoy in the movie business, but an audience is a fait accompli for anyone working with the Pixar logo at the head of their credits. Pixar has the kind of track record that renders bad reviews all but moot, but they don’t take their good standing for granted. They work harder, as individuals and as a company, with each new picture so as not to betray the quality of what came before just to make a cheap buck. It’s the mouse that sells the toys.

Pixar has not failed that legacy with Up, Pete Docter’s daydream follow-up to his nightmare awakening of Monsters, Inc. It follows the story of Carl Fredricksen, a former balloon salesman turned elderly curmudgeon who is slowly being squeezed out of his home, his comfort and his life by a great villain called time.

On the eve of being evicted and sent to a nursing home, Carl does what any rational person would do: He turns his house into a zeppelin with thousands of helium-filled balloons and steers it towards South America, hoping to land on Paradise Falls, a mythic-yet-real spot in Venezuela. It’s the spot that he and his childhood sweetheart, Ellie, had always planned to visit together, but they ran out of time before they could get there. He is joined – accidentally, as it were – by Russell, a young Wilderness Explorer who is looking for the “Assisting the Elderly” badge to fill out his sash.

With WALL-E last year and now Up, Pixar has, oddly enough, grown up a little. It’s not because of the elderly characters or the lack of inanimate objects with speaking parts (animals still talk here, though not of their own accord); there’s a new layer of depth and emotional resonance. That could have been assumed to be a fluke in WALL-E, but not only weren’t these themes a fluke, they’re expanded upon in Up. Now we arethe characters, instead of wishing there were some way that the characters could really exist.

The old yarn that Pixar doesn’t really make kids’ movies has never been more true with Up, yet it’s also their most innocent since Toy Story. Though exploring new depths, they’ve not left the old adventure hat on the rack – the film is all but dedicated to the spirit of adventure. It’s the reason behind Carl and Ellie’s sweet, youthful romance, Carl’s regret in old age and even Russell’s childish naivete. Carl and Ellie’s childhood heroes were adventurers. Even the out-of-place moments (doggie planes?) and blunt conceits (the too-literal “life’s-weight-on-his-shoulders” metaphor) can be forgiven, as they perform dutifully in service to the kind of thrilling movie adventures we regular folks can only dream of, but which the wizards at Pixar perform with ease.

Waltz With Bashir – Ari Folman (2009)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14112

When Israeli writer-director Ari Folman was 19, he enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces as part of a regiment that invaded southern Lebanon. Like all soldiers, he saw and did unspeakable things – the kind of things that would mark any man for life.

But then he forgot.

That’s where Waltz With Bashir opens: the forgetting. On a stormy night in Israel, two old friends, Ari and Boaz, get together for a drink to discuss Boaz’s recurring nightmares. Twenty-six dogs chase him through the streets on a nightly basis. It stems from a scarring incident during the war and when they begin to talk about it, Ari realizes he’s never dealt with any of his war demons in his films because he simply doesn’t remember them.

The lone memory that remains from the incursion into Lebanon is a stark image of Ari and two fellow soldiers bathing in the ocean as illumination flares gracefully drift to the earth, shedding light on bombed-out apartment buildings and all below them.

But it never happened. Not like that, anyway. And so, 24 years later, he sends himself off on a new mission: one to remember. What he discovers are different versions of the same horror story about the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila by the Christian Phalangists as revenge for Bashir Gemayel’s assassination.

Naturally, it’s impossible to disentangle politics and history from a film like this, no matter what conflict is at its heart, but that’s where we get lost as noncombatant viewers. To get heated about the real incident and whatever came before or followed is to miss an opportunity to heal the wounds.

It’s true that most modern war films are imbued with the lofty goal of showing us the folly of war – that even in the best of circumstances, war is an unbelievably useless endeavor. No film has yet succeeded, nor can they, but that’s no reason to give up on them.

Waltz invites you to make your own decision about the military brass, but shows a deep compassion for the rank and file, Palestinian and Israeli alike, proving at last that there is no such thing as a best circumstance in war. At first bloodshed, all sides are wrong.

The real unavoidable argument, for our purposes, regards the animation.

Because of that device, a certain poetic license is allowed. As much as the film is about war, it’s also about the mutability and self-distortion of memory, and that makes animation the ideal medium to paint battle as the surreal experience it is. Waltz never pulls punches on the hard stuff, either. The trembling hands and beads of sweat before the kill remain, an effect as beautiful as it is terrifying.

The titular (and literal) waltz itself is breathtaking in a way that someone aiming a camera could not have captured. But it’s unlikely that’s how it happened in real time. To put a filter of 20 years over a millisecond of a memory is to forge its authenticity. The animated rendering doesn’t quite say, “This is a dream,” but it nudges the idea that war may be remembered in soaring poetry and dime-novel prose alike.

“The Sweatbox” & Glen Keane: Disney Feature Animation at a Crossroads

http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/index.php/2012/03/the-sweatbox-glen-keane-disney-feature-animation-at-a-crossroads/

As you might expect, Disney is a bit of a love-hate obsession with this OW writer. Last week, some brave soul risked (financial and legal) life and limb to post The Sweatbox on YouTube. It’s since been removed, but that toothpaste isn’t going back into the tube.

If you’re asking yourself what the hell The Sweatbox is, there is a good reason you’ve never heard of it.

It’s a feature length documentary shot by Trudie Styler, wife of Sting, chronicling the six year process of Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios making what would eventually become The Emperor’s New Groove, which began life very differently as Kingdom of the Sun before the WDFA chiefs, Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider, made a few crew changes.

For years now, The Sweatbox, has been locked away in a Disney vault, becoming one of those holy grail-type films that people had kind of given up on ever seeing. Disney had honored the bare minimum of its contract for the film, showing it a handful of times at festivals and then stuck it away in the vault. The word was that it was not a very flattering look into the making of the sausage. In fairness, the making of most films is a battle of attrition, and The Sweatbox caught that in all of its bloody awkwardness, casually putting Disney’s storytelling and creative process on trial through the consternation of Sting and his furrowed, chess-playing, letter-writing brow.

It’s hardly a rare tale at all, especially in the animation industry, especially at Disney. It happened to varying degrees on The Lion King before they found the Hamletesque version of the story as well, and even at Pixar on Toy Story 2, Ratatouille and Wall-E. Live action is no different, especially in Classic Hollywood. The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, How Green Was My Valley, they all had major changes in casting, director and script. Casablanca and Jaws were being filmed during the day and written at night so they could film more the next day.

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The Illusionist – Sylvain Chomet (2010)

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(Cleaning out my old unpublished reviews folder.)

Anyone who has seen Sylvain Chomet’s last film, the Oscar Nominated animation The Triplets of Belleville, will know that the director is capable of conjuring pure magic out of the simple tools of ink and paint and music. In The Illusionist, an animated rendering of an unproduced Jacques Tati screenplay from the 1950s, Chomet conjures visual magic and creative controversy in equal measure.

The story centers on a traveling illusionist and showman in the 1950s as he goes from town to town, entertaining rapidly diminishing crowds with his tricks and sleight of hand. While performing in a pub in rural Scotland, he comes across a young girl, around 15, who becomes attached to him and his magic. She follows him toEdinburgh, where he becomes attached to her as well, but where work is an even harder grind.

The oncoming rush of Rock N’ Roll and television are largely responsible for the small crowds his kind of show can attract, eventually leading the illusionist to take odd jobs when he is not on stage to pay the added expenses of a young girl that he likes to dote on, buying her shoes and dresses, making them magically appear to her, an extension of his magic off of the stage.

The relationship between the girl and the illusionist is a suddenly deep one, built mostly upon a foundation of gestures and glances. It’s an automatic, easy trust, but not a cheap one. It starts out as a sleight of hand that they are both willing participants in, but does not stay that way for long as she matures and he comes to grip with the change in the wind.

Chomet and his team of animators have done an astounding job bringing this story to life, even if it is over the objections of Jacques Tati’s living relatives. I wish I could list every single animator here, because they all deserve recognition. It was no simple task to bring this to the screen, and the film relies almost entirely on the quality of the animation. Words don’t get in the way because they are few and far between. It doesn’t need words. It’s about the emotional faces and the measured motion, and the whimsical interplay of shadow and light is of particular beauty and note.

It’s an understandable thing that Tati’s family should have reservations about someone else completing his work. Tati was singular; he made Tati films and only Tati films. Chomet is singular as well, however. There is no mistaking this film for another director, not even Tati. But there is a good balance struck between the two worlds, and if Chomet has perhaps misunderstood some of Tati’s motives, it was clearly not out of disrespect. It’s a controversy that doesn’t need to exist in public. It’s something for Tati aficionados to squabble about, but not of material importance to what the film is any more than Krzysztof Kieślowski’s intentions were to Tom Tykwer filming Heaven after his death. Heaven was a brilliant film in and of itself, a part of Kieślowski, but a Tykwer film. So is The Illusionist, and that’s how it should be taken: by itself, as an exceptionally well made, heartbreaking film.