The Illusionist is Pure magic

The Illusionist (2010)

Directed by Sylvain Chomet

Written by Jacques Tati and adapted by Sylvain Chomet

Belgian, 80 mins. PG

* * * * *

One of the best films of the year is Belgian, animated, and has no discernible dialogue, but trust me, The Illusionist is pure magic. It’s also touching, poignant, heart wrenching and thought provoking.

Director Sylvain Chomet also gave us the delightful Triplets of Bellevilles (2003). The story line of The Illusionist is thinner, but every bit as engaging. Chomet adapted a script written by legendary French film director and actor Jacques Tati, one given to him by Tati’s daughter Sophie back in 2000. The titular character is a cartoon version of Tati himself, right down to world-weary eye bags. Tati made six feature films between 1947 and his death in 1982. Most of them featured Tati as Monsieur Hulot, a comedic character as recognizable in France as Chaplin’s Tramp. The setup for Hulot comedies was often that of a man slightly out of time, one intrigued by modernity and its change, but constitutionally incapable of mastering new ideas and new technology. Tati was also one of the last of the great pantomime stars; most of his films had little or no dialogue.

This background will help you enjoy the intrinsically enjoyable The Illusionist even more, as will keeping Chaplin in mind. Once again we see a likable man out of synch with the calendar. In this case, our time period is the early 1960s and the illusionist is a skilled craftsman of a dying art form: vaudeville. He performs sleight of hand and acts of manual dexterity in seedy theaters before sparse audiences. Like his fellow troupers he is aging, tired, and desperate. He simply knows no other life, though he can see that his future is behind him every time he takes the stage after the rock band that empties out the auditorium before he does his first trick. In an effort to milk the theater for as many paychecks as he can, the illusionist travels to a play that modernity hasn’t quite penetrated: Scotland’s remote Hebridean islands. But when a publican screws in the first light bulb and it’s quickly followed by a juke box, the handwriting is on the wall. Only a young Scottish housemaid, Alice, still finds magic in the illusionist’s act, and she stows herself away amidst his gear when he heads to Edinburgh to seek whatever work he can.

This is not a love story. Alice is essentially a gamin to the illusionist’s tramp. It’s a Chaplinesque plot line of two poor and lonely people sharing what they don’t have. Except that Alice hits the big city and begins to dream of clothes, shoes, and respectability and our hero does what he can for as long as he can to make those dreams come true. These characters are cartoons, but there is more honest emotion in their travails and dilemmas than in most of the overwrought live-actor films that pass as “dramas” these days. The film is also absolutely gorgeous to watch. If you’ve ever been to Edinburgh you’ll marvel over how well Chomet renders it. There is no actual dialogue--just some occasional nonsense gibberish that occasionally hints at French or Scots Gaelic--but you don’t need words. Alice and the illusionist speak different languages, but Chomet allows them to exude universal emotions and plots the film in a way that allows you to fill in what was said. When more is needed, Chomet uses simple but deft illustration to draw out sentiment in graphic form.

There’s also a big question embedded in all of this and it’s the eternal one: how does one cope with the liminal period of one’s life when the world no longer wants what you once offered, but you’re not yet in the grave? What do you do when time passes you by? And here we see Chomet at his cleverest. He gives us a film within a film within a film within a film. It is mostly hand drawn at a time in which computer-aided design is the industry standard. He shows us a vaudeville star being put out to pasture by movies and has his character enter a theater in which a Jacques Tati film is playing. But, of course, we also know that Tati is passé, as is the skiffle-like early Beatles band that’s thrilling the kids. To throw in a final body punch, Chomet uses old-technology 2-D cartooning, but animates sequences with 3-D digital tricks.

By all means see this film. As you see the rabbit emerging from the hat what you’ll feel is your heart being pulled from your chest.


The Outside Track a Seriously Fine Band


Curious Things Given Wings

Mad River 1020

* * * * *

Here’s an album that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves. The Outside Track is Celtic collaboration at its best--an ensemble consisting of Vancouver’s Norah Rendell (vocals, flute), Cape Breton’s Mairi Rankin (fiddle), Scottish harper Aillie Robertson, Limerick-based accordionist Fiona Black, and Irish guitarist/composer Cillian Ó Dálaigh. They dust off some well known sea songs, Celtic ballads, and North American compositions, supplement them with sets of old and new tunes, and make everything sparkle like party lights on a moonless night. Rendell’s vocals are a revelation--pure, strong, and expressive. She can make a pirate song like “The Turkish Revery” sound so appealing that we have to remind ourselves that she’s singing a tragic tale. Hers is the sort of voice that is equally at home with wistful Irish songs such as “Blackbirds and Thrushes,” country-tinged North American material such as “Caroline of Edinburgh Town,” and the bouncy New Brunswick gender-reversal tale “Silvy Silvy.” The tunes are tight, joyous, and some times whimsical. “Swerving for Bunnies” is an example of the latter, a set that’s one-part light jazz swing and another swooping Irish-flavored fiddle delight. This album has a fresh contemporary feel to it many moods, the likes of which we’ve not heard since the demise of The New St. George. It’s hard to choose which impresses more, the topnotch musicianship or the album’s sheer exuberance.

Check out the band's promo video and then grab the new CD.


Go See Blue Valentine, but not on Valentine's Day


Directed by Derek Cianfrance

112 mins. R (though it could easily be NC-17)

* * * *

Go see Blue Valentine. Just don’t see it on Valentine’s Day if you’re with someone you care about. This one is billed as a romantic drama, but romantic tragedy would be more apt.

Blue Valentine is a character study built around a fairly slight and straightforward story. It traces the doomed romance of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) and it’s one of those stories that--in Phoenix’s words--makes it perfectly clear why they got together in the first place and why they can’t stay together. Cindy is a small-town Pennsylvania girl who everyone says has “potential” and should become a doctor. She goes off to college in New York, which, alas, is also where Bobby, her jerk of a high school boyfriend is going to school. Cindy will soon dump him, but not before he gets her pregnant. New York is also where she connects with Dean, who is everything Bobby isn’t: funny, quirky, talkative, and the sort who’d do anything for Cindy, including marrying her with a biscuit in the oven.

This is another in a recent spate of non-linear movie and it works very well. It rockets back and forth between the New York courtship days and four years into the future, when Dean is a chain-smoking, paint-splattered handyman with a paunch, a balding pate, and a bad set of glasses. He’s also a helluva dad, who dotes on Frankie (Faith Wladyka) with a love that goes beyond whose genes are coursing through her veins. The family is back in Cindy’s Pennsylvania hometown, where they live in a shoddy house that’s a half step removed from a house trailer. Cindy’s a nurse, not a doctor and she’s become one of those silently quaking people who is filled with regret and rage. Part of her rage comes from something she failed to see in Dean before they married: he never aspired to be anything other than what he is. Theirs is a descent into white trash despair.

It’s one heck of a ride. As a product of small-town Pennsylvania myself, I squirmed uncomfortably as a parade of familiar characters passed by--various forms of Cindy living lives of might-have-beens, pretending that’s just fine, but knowing it damned well isn’t. Every now and then they grab at a straw. There’s a scene in one of those schlocky Poconos resorts to which Dean and Cindy retreat that’s as surrealistic as anything Fellini ever imagined. Gosling is quickly establishing himself as a master in the role of the damaged male. He hits all the right notes as a guy who’d probably do the right thing, if only he was smart enough to figure out what it was. Alas, he’s not. Even though Cindy’s living a déclassé life, she’s still way out of Dean’s league. Michelle Williams is stunning as Cindy, and fearless. You’ll see quite a lot of her naked body in Blue Valentine, but the scenes are mostly anti-erotic ones in which Williams exudes equal parts vulnerability, desperation, and ennui. It’s a testament to her ability as an actress that one as gorgeous as she can use nudity to make the viewer feel sordid.

By now you’ve no doubt gotten the point that this is not a feel-good movie. Don’t be put off by this. It’s a downer, but Blue Valentine is also powerful, emotional, superbly acted, and feeds its audience something other than the saccharine-sweetened pap we’ve grown accustomed to seeing at the multiplex. Yep--it’s that rarest of things: a movie for grown-ups.