TIFF 2012: Ernest and Celestine Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

Ernest and Celestine (2012)

Directed by Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier

Starring Lambert Wilson

The opening credits has it all, drawing out simple lines to introduce this animated movie’s titular characters Ernest, a bear, and Celestine, a young mouse. The movie’s animators and directors Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier show their fluent grasp of their visual language. I was charmed like a kid is charmed by magic or cake or talking animals. The rest of the sequences handle its light pastel colours and shapes like synesthetes, making us see these elements and their movements as if it were the first time.

“Celestine, what are you drawing,” harks one of the Madeleine-style roommates, all of them curiously crowding her and her notebook. I watch a lot of live action European films that use the vernacular, which is great if I want something ‘authentic.’ But the voice actors here use the French language beautifully, the way it is meant to be spoken. I know that the actors’ enunciation is for technical reasons, speaking clearly because the animated characters can’t compare to the kind of communication that live facial expressions can offer. But I like diction and this movie has it.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

The movie doesn’t have a plot as much as it has a well detailed back story and world view. Celestine is an intern at a dentistry’s office, since teeth are the building blocks of her underground rodent civilization. Her job as one of the office’s younglings, is to steal the teeth of the animals above ground – the scary bears. But she’s not as good at it. One of her teeth scavenging trips serendipitously leads her to Ernest (Wilson, more rambunctious in this role compared to his asexual rendering of his leader priest role in Of Gods and Men), a illegally busking bear. He wants to eat her in the beginning, as bedtime legends that older rats tell younger mice have warned her. Before I continue with the synopsis, I would like to say that the eating thing as well as other things that happen in the movie makes it as scary as the Disney movies we grew up with in the 90’s.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

Eventually they bond over the fact that they are both social outcasts. I’d assume some  would describe their relationship as one between a father and daughter, but I see it more as a platonic relationship. Celestine is a great character and is smarter than she looks, demanding to be treated by Ernest as an equal.

Ernest and Celestine are mirror images of each other, which is also the movie’s biggest flaw. After they meet the same things happen to them even when police of the bear and mice variety separate them. I would have liked a little variation of their plot arcs, even if the ones that we saw are loyal to their source material. Nonetheless, and as I would say this to the movie’s young target audience without talking down to them, this movie is a ride and it’s colourfully pretty and you’ll like it.

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Redline Review – Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011

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The 6th Annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival, 8 Nights of Horror, Sci-Fi, Action, and Cult Movies runs Oct 20-27, 2011 at the Toronto Underground Cinema. For complete festival info visit www.torontoafterdark.com.

Coming out of Redline I felt like I had potentially seen my ‘best of the fest’ at Toronto After Dark. I watch movies to be entertained, but ultimately I am seeking out those experiences that are unlike any other. The experiences in which I find myself looking around as the credits roll and remember, ‘right, I’m in a movie theatre’. Redline is an engrossing adrenaline rush that refuses to let up for 102 minutes.

Before Redline were a couple of interesting shorts, Paso Doble and Lost for Words. Paso Doble was a beautiful animated feature depicting a showdown between a bull and a dancer with an impossibly long red dress. Lost for Words was about a young boy who has run away from home and is now lost in a strange world, complete with bizarre creatures and single words scattered all over the ground. Both shorts were entertaining, looked great, and were nice changes of pace from the typically darker fare that the Toronto After Dark audience is already very familiar with.

Back to Redline.

The story is simple, intergalactic racing championship Redline is hottest sporting event in the galaxy. Every five years the best drivers from a variety of alien races assemble for one of the fastest and most dangerous races conceivable. There are no rules in Redline, drivers equip their rides with arsenals of weaponry in the hopes of edging out or blowing up their competition. For some reason human driver ‘Sweet JP’ drives a weaponless Trans Am, making his name quite fitting given the maniacal blood lust of the other competitors. Will JP be able to win Redline with such a glaring handicap? Maybe a few extra nitro boosts can level out the playing field.

Before even watching Redline I had a feeling that I was about to witness something special, mainly due to the two men attached to the film, writer Katsuhito Ishii and director Takeshi Koike.

Last month at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) I saw a strange film called Smuggler (Sumagurâ: Omae no mirai o erabe), which turned out to be one of the most difficult reviews I’ve had to write. Director Katsuhito Ishii put some of the strangest characters and imagery onscreen. His talent was undeniable, however, I felt like I was unable to fully appreciate Smuggler, the zaniness was a bit too much.

Much further back in time, about 16 years ago, when North Americans still referred to animation out of Japan as ‘Japanimation’, I was absolutely astounded by two VHS rentals that my high school friends and I stumbled upon, Wicked City and Ninja Scroll. These two films are classics depicting the mature content that anime is capable of, and have opened up the world of animation to countless adults and teenagers. Takeshi Koike was the lead animator on each project.

The collaboration of Katsuhito Ishii and Takeshi Koike on Redline has proved to be a hugely successful and complimentary one. The imagination of Katsuhito Ishii is evident in the bizarre cast of characters, the hilariously neurotic inhabitants of Roboworld (where the Redline race is being held), and the clever exchanges between bumbling Roboworld military officials. On the other hand, Takeshi Koike injects the film with completely over-the-top action, excitement and thrills.

The opening sequence in Redline is from a qualifying race called the Yellowline. The music is hypnotic, the fluidity of the animation is gorgeous, and the growl of the engines is deafening. When JP drops that first nitro capsule, I promise that most viewers will have grins beginning to grow, completely out of their control. I don’t even like cars, let alone racing, but Redline appealed to my inner speed junkie, who got some much needed catharsis.

Redline has easily garnered the Entertainment Maven Seal of Approval, and at that time on Saturday night it was easily my ‘best of the fest’ at Toronto After Dark (it has some competition now, more on that on a later post). I urge anyone with an interest in action or animation to go see this remarkable movie. With the DVD\Blu-ray release around the corner, it may be difficult to find a theatre playing Redline. In this case, make sure that you watch it on the biggest TV you can find, and crank the volume. This one wouldn’t be the same on a 32-inch TV, late at night while everyone is sleeping.

Congratulations to the TAD team for programming their first anime feature, and such a remarkable one at that.


A Letter to Momo (Momo e no tegami) Review (TIFF 2011) – An enchanting journey to Shio Island

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Adhering to the belief that there is something special about hand drawn animation that cannot be duplicated by computer animation, director Hiroyuki Okiura and Production I.G. have spent the past seven years making a magical masterpiece. A Letter to Momo rivals Studio Ghibli classics for pure imagination and charm, and is one of the most endearing, absorbing and comical adventures that I have ever seen.

The film follows a young girl named Momo and her mother, as they move from bustling Tokyo to the quaint island village of Shio. Early on it is made clear that the reason for their move is the death of Momo’s father in a research expedition at sea. Grasped in Momo’s hand is a blank piece of paper that she found in her Father’s desk. At least it is almost blank, save for two words, ‘Dear Momo’. Momo is having difficulty proceeding with life, without knowing what her father’s final communication would have been. However, a series of supernatural events on Shio island force Momo to engage life again and attempt to come to terms with the death of her father.

Hiroyuki Okiura wrote and directed A Letter to Momo, and in my opinion should write a book or teach a class on how to bring animated characters and worlds to life, if he hasn’t already. Okiura started his career working on Akira, and has been involved with major projects ever since (for example, Ghost in the shell, Innocence: Ghost in the shell and Paprika). His directorial debut was Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. A constant theme in Okiura’s work has been violence and mature themes, however, he felt it was time to create something that would be enjoyable to children and adults alike. A Letter to Momo is the perfect compromise between these two different audiences, as the comedy and fantasy elements appeal to both ages, while the central characters have layers of complexity and emotions, to a degree that most live action characters/actors fail to achieve.

The animation is top of the line. The fluidity and imagination of several action sequences would suggest that they must have taken months or years to perfect, while the panoramic views of forested Shio island are absolutely breathtaking. One of the most amazing aspects of the animation are the facial expressions of Momo, as they are almost unbelievably real. I can’t remember the last time that non-verbal language has been communicated so clearly in an animated film. Finally, the wonderfully varied score is a pleasure to listen to and greatly complements the images onscreen.

While watching A Letter to Momo I felt like I personally knew the characters and cared deeply about their fate. The magical and touching story of A Letter to Momo is something that no film fan should miss. Unfortunately, it may be a while before North American audiences get another chance to see it.

I have no doubt that it will be worth the wait.

From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara) Review (TIFF 2011)

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Today at TIFF I checked out the new Japanese anime film, From up on Poppy Hill. This film is part of the TIFF kids program, so I was very worried about a few things. Would the movie be dubbed? Gross. Would there be kids running around? Also a little gross. Would an anime nerd, elbow deep in Cheetos, sit beside me. Very gross. As you can see, going to this film was quite a risky move for me, but I survived The Raid, so I thought I would be fine. It turned out that the film was subtitled (yay!), and the audience consisted of respectable anime fans, as the Studio Ghibli logo received a round of applause. Film festival crowds make me want to cry tears of joy.

There is quite a bit going on behind the scenes of a film like this. The director, Goro Miyazaki, is the son of anime legend, Hayao Miyazaki, known for such classics as Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, all under the renowned Studio Ghibli. This is Goro’s second film, his first being Tales of Earthsea, which possessed many of the individual elements of a great Ghibli film, but it failed to come together as a whole. I’m happy to report that his second effort is a success. From up on Poppy Hill is a touching emotional story about the pains and joys of growing up, and importance of fighting for what you believe in.

The film is set during the 1960’s in a small town outside of Tokyo. The Olympics are coming to Tokyo and in order to prepare, many buildings are being built, while old ones are being torn down. One of the buildings set to be demolished is the clubhouse of the students at the local school. Upon hearing the news regarding the demolition of their clubhouse, the students band together in an attempt to save it. Caught in the middle of the action are two students, Umi and Shu, who harbour feelings for each other, but an emotionally devastating series of events may prevent them from ever being together.

The beginning of Poppy Hill starts off quite slowly, and for a time I was worried that Miyazaki may have missed the high benchmark of most Ghibli films, but I was quickly relieved after viewing a wonderful scene in which the students place banners on the clubhouse to protest the demolition, and the reckless Shu jumps off the roof of the clubhouse into a pool of water to express his disdain. Viewers will not find the usual Ghibli staples of the fantastic, supernatural or magical, but Miyazaki more than makes up for it, with charming characters and heart felt moments.

The characters are interesting and distinct, which makes them seem more like real people rather than animated characters. The animation style and music remind me of older Ghibli films, rather than more recent epics like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, but they suit the story’s setting and subject matter very well.

In the end, From up on Poppy Hill is a fine film and a worthy addition to the Studio Ghibli Filmography. There are plenty of smiles, laughs and touching moments to be experienced. I think that this is a great choice for a date night or a family movie, although it may be too mature, although not inappropriate, of a film for children.

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