Sep 19, 2010

Review: The Illusionist

Grade: A

When I first started grading films for myself back in ‘07, I made a rule to never give a film a perfect score upon first viewing. I believe films have to pass the test of time and find their real place under new cultural and social circumstances, so they can be considered perfect.

Every year though, one or two films come out that make me regret this self-imposed rule. They appear so flawless, so magical, that when the closing credits role, I already know it’s impossible for me to ever like them any less on repeat viewings. And 2010 being no exception, has produced one such film thus far: The Illusionist.

Sylvain Chomet’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2003 film, Triplets of Belleville, is based on an unproduced script by the French comic master, Jacques Tati and you can sense the presence of his vision all over the film.

This enchanting dark comedy tells the story of an old illusionist, struggling with his profession in the wake of the Rock ‘n Roll era. As his gigs lose their place with the public, he decides to move from Paris to the outskirts of Scotland to continue to put on shows.

Monsieur Tatischeff (named after Tati himself and the film does seem like a semi-autobiographical piece) starts a friendship with a Scottish girl who then follows him to Edinburgh. The film is the tale of Tatischeff’s dedication to his fading art form and to the girl who becomes sort of a daughter figure for him as he goes to any extreme to make sure of her comfort.

Needless to say, Chomet’s animation style is indispensable to the film. As good as the Pixar team may be, it’s hard to imagine this film in 3D animation. Chomet’s own dedication to 2D drawn cartoons is a great reflection of the story we see on the screen. What’s instrumental in the audience’s emotional attachment to the film is how Chomet delicately details the drawings in every frame and colourfully paints them. The story is tender and moving and so are the images that recount it; and these are especially important, because as you might expect from Tati and Chomet, the film contains virtually no dialogue.

The Illusionist is not just a personal father-daughter love story though; it is also one of the greatest films in critique of our modern society. The commentary doesn’t really have the form of in-your-face criticism though, it comes more in the shape of praise for traditional human relationships and true love. It shows us good and evil and it shows us how the modern world and its material pleasures leave us devoid of the human touch, devoid of the magic between the illusionist and the girl.

Sep 12, 2010

TIFF: Force of Nature, Never Let Me Go

TIFF opened on Friday for me this year, as I started the festival with a work shift and two films. First up was a documentary by Stella Gunnarsson called Force of Nature, about the life of famed Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki.

The film intercuts pieces of Suzuki’s “last lecture” with flashbacks to his early life and his prolific youth, leading all the way up to the lecture. As likeable as the man my be and as astonishing as the points he raises, the film doesn’t have much to offer cinematically. It’s a straightforward, simple and at time lifeless narrative, only about an interesting man who can add a bit of humor here and there.
After that, I was lucky enough to be able to watch a Press and Industry screening of Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek’s adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro book of the same name. Among the critics present at the screening was Roger Ebert. Considering his physical condition, it’s absolutely admirable to see his dedication and enthusiasm for cinema. The film itself however was a bit of a disappointment.
As a big fan of the book, I was thrown off by Romanek’s dull treatment of the material. The film, for the most part, is devoid of the emotional richness of the book, at least until Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) meet Tommy (Andrew Garfield) for the first time after Hailsham (which happens in the final chapters of the film).
What hurts the film the most in my opinion is how little time it spends with the central characters at Hailsham. Whereas the book’s narrational order provides so much insight into the heart of its characters through several flashbacks to their childhood, the film’s direct chronological order steers away too quickly from that period, and never really gives the audience the chance to find any emotional attachment to them.
Carey Mulligan, Keira Kinghtley and Andrew Garfield in Never Let Me Go
Having said all that, I’ll still recommend the film, specially to those who haven’t read the book before. If for nothing else, the film’s technical achievements are worth watching. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel has done a terrific job in capturing the mood of the book (and a few of the shot really have stayed with me vividly a couple of days later) and Rachel Portman’s sombre score, though not exactly my cup of tea, is very obviously (mybe too obviously) setting the mood as well. I suppose come awards season, these are two areas where we can expect some traction.
Speaking of awards, I shouldn’t forget to mention Keira Knightley, who finds a perfect balance in every step of Ruth’s character arc and a gives a fine-tuned performance. Not to say that Mulligan and Garfield are not good, but the screenplay, especially in the case of Kathy’s monotonic character, doesn’t provide as much for them as it does for Knightley. Still, I can’t imagine another actress can do a finer job than Mulligan with this material.
The truly standout performance of the film however, which will most likely go unnoticed, is Sally Hawkins’ short but unforgettable turn as Miss Lucy; and anyone who’s seen An Education surely knows what Hawkins can do to make a short performance unforgettable. (Anything I say about her performance will spoil the story for those who don’t know it, so I’ll leave it to you to see for yourself).
(Grade: B-)