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Action/Adventure Comedy Foreign Language

Ernest & Celestine

I received some nice notes from parents who enjoyed watching my recommendation A Cat in Paris with their kids (as well as from some non-parents who enjoyed it just for themselves). So I return this week to the same terrain with another absolutely charming French-language animated film that was re-dubbed for American audiences: Ernest & CĂ©lestine (French/Belgian title Ernest et Celestine).

Based on the popular illustrated children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, the film relates the tale of two communities that fear and distrust each other. Above ground live the bears, who tell their little children about the mouse tooth fairy who will leave them a coin under their pillow in exchange for a lost tooth, but in their hearts loathe mice (except of course when they want to eat them). Below ground live the mice, who steal the bear teeth to compensate for the loss of their precious incisors. A soulful young mouse named Celestine rebels against a mandated career in dentistry, dreaming instead of becoming an artist. Meanwhile, a ne’er do well bear named Ernest is struggling to make ends meet. Fate brings this mis-matched pair together in a daring robbery spree that advances both of their goals, but also puts the police forces of both worlds on their track.

The film has multiple laugh out loud moments, but mainly it’s a sweet 79 minute smile fest. The joy of friendship and the thrill of rebelling against unfairness take center stage. The animation is marvelous, particularly the surge of color that erupts as Ernest and Celestine’s friendship grows concurrent with the coming of spring.

Although its heroes are a pair of robbers, the film is highly moral. Their victims are an avaricious married couple for whom we feel no sympathy (He sells little bears sugary candy and she sells them replacement teeth after their originals rot away). Even more importantly, the film sends a wonderful message about the power of friendship and understanding to overcome prejudice between groups.

As with a Cat in Paris, the dubbers of the American version did not spare expense in picking the voice actors: Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, Forest Whitaker and Jeffrey Wright all essay their parts with gusto. Also on hand is a rising 12-year old talent, namely a pre-Interstellar Mackenzie Foy, who voices our heroine. At the other end of life’s journey, with sadness I note that this was my beloved Bacall‘s last film.

This warm and entertaining movie deservedly carried off a boatload of awards. It’s superlative viewing for the whole family.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Romance

To Have and Have Not

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a good example of how recycling characters and plot from a wildly popular movie can led to tedious viewing. An infinitely more successful effort to rip-off a prior cinema classic is Howard Hawk’s To Have and Have Not.

Perhaps the greatest film ever produced via the old Hollywood studio system — Casablanca — was still playing in a few theaters when production began on To Have and Have Not. Although putatively based on a Hemingway novel, To Have and Have Not recycles Casablanca’s characters, plot, style and indeed some of its cast to tremendous effect. In the Ingrid Bergman role of a resourceful, beautiful woman with a past, the incomparable Lauren Bacall became an instant star as well as Bogart’s real-life bride.

The plot: Humphrey Bogart again plays an outwardly cynical man of the world who doesn’t want to get involved in World War II intrigue, despite the pleas of the idealists around him. But the better angels of his nature and an alluring stranger (Bacall) pull him into the fight on behalf of the Free French versus the hateful, corrupt Vichy regime that oversees the Island of Martinique. Nearly peerless entertainment ensues.

The movie has exciting moments of high tension as well as some laughs, but what positively sizzles here is the interaction between “Bogie and Baby”, who were soon to become an enduring Hollywood power couple beloved by millions. May-December romance in the movies can be unrealistic and even downright gross, but here it’s so deeply felt that it works. The two stars were in each other’s thrall, which puts spark and wit into their scenes together. Some immortal lines in the script (“You know how to whistle don’t you?”) enliven their exchanges, which is a credit to Jules Furthman and William Faulkner (Since the average Faulkner sentence runs about 50 pages, I lean towards crediting Furthman with the best one-liners).

The film also features one of Walter Brennan’s many memorable supporting actor turns, this time as Bogie’s alcoholic friend Eddie (See Carl Rollyson’s thoughtful take on Eddie here). Also on hand is the appealing actor-musician Hoagy Carmichael (for another fine Hoagy performance see my recommendation of Canyon Passage). He’s well-cast as the piano player at Rick’s Cafe, um, I mean, Frenchy’s bar. In one of the movie’s highlights, Hoagy and his band back up Bacall as she gives a sultry rendition of his song “How Little We Know”. The studio has originally planned to dub her, but she pulled off the musical number on her own.

I first saw To Have and Have Not as a teenager, and immediately fell in love with Lauren Bacall. I suppose it may reflect a lack of emotional development on my part that I am still just as enchanted by her four decades later…but what can you do?.

p.s. The film might have been the only high point in Lauren Bacall’s career if not for some luck and favorable Hollywood politics surrounding The Big Sleep.

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Blogs on Film Uncategorized

R.I.P. Lauren Bacall, the Star Who Almost Wasn’t

Lauren Bacall, Star of Hollywood and Broadway, Dies at 89 - ABC News

Of the notable Hollywood people who died in 2014, Lauren Bacall is the one I will miss the most. Most of the obituaries about her left out something quite important about the evolution of her career. The typical account noted that her triumphant debut film with Bogart, To Have and Have Not , was followed by glorious success the following year in The Big Sleep. But what happened is more complex than that.

The Big Sleep was completed on January 12, 1945 and was shown to troops on U.S. military bases. To Have and Have Not was released to American audiences a few weeks after that. Normally, the Big Sleep would have been released to U.S. audiences immediately after or even concurrently with the big hit debut film of a star. That would have dampened Bacall’s career because in the original version (a good but not great movie), she just doesn’t have the sass and zing on display in To Have and Have Not. Coupled with the poor reviews she received for Confidential Agent later that year, she could easily have ended up as a one hit wonder.

But the war of course was ending in 1945, and Warner Brothers realized it had to rush all its war-related films into theaters right away. As a result, The Big Sleep was set aside and American stateside audiences did not see it in 1945. Bacall’s agent, Charles Feldman, used his considerable muscle in the interim to have major rewrites and reshoots done on The Big Sleep. Some scenes without her were cut, some were redone to be sexier and more fun, and this entirely new scene was created. It works even better than it might otherwise have because the two stars were by then madly in love and newly married. Bacall here shows off the sultry persona that entranced countless men, including me. What a woman! She will be greatly missed.