Thursday, December 15, 2016

Ernest & Celestine (2012)

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what I love most about the 2012 French animated feature Ernest & Celestine. Be it the story, animation style, or voice acting this little gem of a film can match any Pixar, Disney, or DreamWorks corporate concoction blow for blow, all in less time and with less cloying sentimentality.
Inspired by the works of Belgian author and illustrator Gabrielle Vincent, the titular characters of the film are immediately painted as outsiders at the opening of the picture. The bear Ernest, a loud and hulking starving artist, shunned from the quaint village life that the middle class bears we see in the picture live in, all because he refused to continue to live in the bourgeoisie bliss that his forbearers had planned for him. While in similar circumstances the mouse Celestine, toils underfoot of prejudiced mice and bears, forced to collect the fallen teeth of spoiled little bear cubs to be used to repair the busted choppers of her mouse brethren. Their fates intertwine when Ernest’s hunger and Celestine’s fascination with the “Big Bad Bear” lead both to rob a middle class bear family of their sweets and their pearly white merchandise, an action which leads to them spending an entire winter together as they try and evade the cops.
Though the two meet by chance, it’s not such a leap of faith to believe that these two could be merely just accomplices. They are, to use an oft-used cliché, soul mates. Not in the romantic sense of the word though. Ernest and Celestine’s relationship is akin more to that of Marc Anthony and Pussyfoot in the classic Merrie Melodies short Feed the Kitty (1952), a closeness analogous to that of close siblings or longtime friends.
And as far as influences are concerned, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are stamped on every cell of this film. From the use of watercolors, lines that flow through the screen as light as air and at times burst into a starburst of colors, natural landscapes, and an evocative soundtrack. Ernest & Celestine, like the best Ghibli pictures, are all about mood and atmosphere and goes a long way to prove that animation is not just for kids.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Separation (2011)

Asghar Farhadi’s fifth feature, A Separation (2011), is a naturalistic drama that seeks to tie the microcosm of the family, the individual, and religious institutions with the macrocosm of society at large. This is established in the opening scene as bands of light, moving horizontally, illuminate the screen, making us privy to a montage of documents being xeroxed. From birth certificates to passports and other legal documents we get snippets of information that we can’t really process, but prepares us for what we will watch. For the tenets of commercial dramaturgy with its histrionics and contrived premises will not be humored in this film. Farhadi instead slices away at the veneer of Iranian society by way of a slice of life story.

Introducing our first main characters, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), in a bare room, framed in a medium two-shot, and facing the camera the director deftly co-opts the documentary aesthetic to tell the story. This adherence to reality provokes the viewer to be subsumed by the narrative in a way that belies commercial storytelling. And what’s even more remarkable about this scene is that the director positioned Simin and Nader to be both spatially equal so that an audience would not sub-consciously perceive either one as being more important than the other.
This visual motif of having characters face the camera and speak their lines continues throughout the picture, mainly during the interrogation scenes, and by doing this the audience takes on the role of not being just a passive viewer, but also a judge. Yet this role as judge does not mean that the story and characters exist just for us to praise or condemn. Having had a successful career in Iran as scriptwriter in both radio and television before stepping into directing, Farhadi has a strong background in dramatic storytelling, and “A Separation” showcases just how talented the man is in crafting not just a well-structured plotline, but also characters that could live and breathe outside of the picture’s 123-minute runtime.