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In Review: 'Gran Turismo,' 'Ernest and Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia'
A dressed-up ad for Sony and Nissan takes the form of a 'Top Gun' knock-off while, elsewhere, a bear and a mouse have a new adventure.
Dir. Neill Blomkamp
Major theater chains have drifted into an enervating bulk of pre-show advertisements, with TV-style commercials leading into six or seven trailers before the film even starts. The transition between that 15 minutes of ads and the opening of Gran Turismo is so seamless it takes another five minutes to realize that this exceedingly slick showreel for PlayStation and Nissan is, in fact, the movie. We start with an awed homage to Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator of the Gran Turismo video game, a racing simulator renowned for its attention to the particulars of car engineering, international racetrack design, and real-world physics. We continue with a presentation by a Nissan marketing executive who’s pitching a contest for top gamers to get an opportunity to sign a fat contract and bring their talents to an actual speedway.
What a cool game! What a cool contest! Thank you PlayStation and Nissan for making dreams come true!
Perhaps there’s no such thing as selling out anymore, but on the off-chance there still is, Gran Turismo is as plastered with sponsorships as, well, the average racing car. For director Neill Blomkamp, whose career has been more or less in freefall since his resourceful 2009 sci-fi/action movie District 9 put him on the map, there’s a yawning chasm between an apartheid allegory in the form of an alien invasion thriller and a Top Gun ripoff propagandizing brands instead of the U.S. military. Perhaps Blomkamp’s interest in effects drew him into an opportunity to fuse the physical and simulated worlds of movies and video games, like a peek into a future where the lines between them are blurred. But there’s no evident passion here. He seems more like a for-hire craftsman doing right by his clients.
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The pro forma feel of Gran Turismo is laid bare by the casting of Archie Madekwe as Jann Mardenborough, an ordinary bloke from Cardiff, Wales, whose passion for video games leads to opportunities his former footballer father (Djimon Hounsou), for one, believes are impossible. Jann isn’t a Type-A sort like Tom Cruise’s Maverick, but a sweet and self-effacing kid who listens to Kenny G and Enya in order to get in the right headspace for a race. But that character type proves deadly for a film that’s trying to plug into the woo-hoo fantasies of The Last Starfighter or Ready Player One, in which lonely joystick jockeys emerge triumphantly from Cheeto-dusted anonymity. Yet Madekwe, who’d acquitted himself well in Midsommar, comes off as a passive drip, leaving only literal engines to propel this movie forward.
Oddly enough, Orlando Bloom, an actor not exactly known for his energy, brings a huckster’s zeal to the role of Danny Moore, the Nissan motorsports exec who founded GT Academy, a camp for sim racers to train in real cars. Battling skepticism at every turn, Danny gets turned down by a long list of trainers before he settles on Jack Salter (David Harbour), a former professional racer who’s now a lowly mechanic for a snooty racing team he despises. Jack doesn’t believe that any of the contest winners have a chance to withstand a sport that puts world-class athletes to the test, but Jann’s dogged determination wins him over. The young man doesn’t say much, but he’s a grinder.
There’s no suspense over where Gran Turismo is headed, since we know up front that Jann will prove Jack wrong and Danny right and justify this experiment through the challenges of the world’s gnarliest tracks. (The film does include a love interest so perfunctory that she’s about 10 names deep on the cast list. Forget Kelly McGillis. The song “Take My Breath Away” has more screen time than Maeve Courtier-Lilley.) Harbour gives the film its sole flicker of human life in the Tom Skerritt role of a crusty old veteran with a past, which sustains the drama through camp and training sequences that have been montaged to death. But Blomkamp’s main interest is in the technical zip of the racing scenes that takes up the second half, when he can apply the graphics of a PlayStation sim to dogfights on the track. It turns out that video games can prepare you for real-life challenges, which will come in handy the next time a gorilla starts throwing barrels at you. — Scott Tobias
Gran Turismo is in theaters now.
Ernest and Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia
Dir. Julien Cheng and Jean-Christopher Roger
For all the problems with the Best Animated Feature Academy Award, including its near-unbroken record of honoring films from big American studios, it at least annually shines a spotlight on some animated gems from around the world. In 2012 that included Ernest and Celestine, a delightful French animated film adapted from a series of storybooks by Gabrielle Vincent. Using an animation style that resembles watercolors, the film tells the story of a bear named Ernest and a mouse named Celestine who overcome their socially ingrained distrust of one another to become best friends. Sweet, whimsical, and inventive, it lost the award to Frozen but won the hearts of all who saw it.
Ernest and Celestine’s story may not immediately have seemed like it needed further installments, but the film was successfully spun off into a French TV series. That, in turn, led to this big-screen sequel in which the two hit the road to Gibberitia, Ernest’s native land. It’s a voyage made of necessity. After Celestine accidentally breaks Ernest’s violin, their primary source of income, she insists they take it to Octavius, the only luthier who knows how to repair a Straidbearius. But a change has overtaken Gibberitia. Silence has fallen on a land where music used to fill the air due to a new law. Though that’s led to the creation of an underground musical resistance movement, rebellion seems unlikely in a place with the national motto “That’s just how it is.”
With its now-familiar world and a more straightforward approach to storytelling A Trip to Gibberitia may not have the original’s ability to surprise, but its lovely visuals and sweet characters remain as appealing as ever. It’s also—in the gentlest, most kid-friendly way—a political satire, sending up authoritarianism and those with a blinkered adherence to tradition. (That Gibberitia is not-so-subtly Russia-coded plays into this too.) There may never be any real doubt that Ernest and Celestine will make it out okay, but not before taking a (gentle) tour of a land that’s lost its way and is making its citizens suffer for it. It’s the kind of place where an unlikely friendship between a grumpy bear and a mouse who refuses to accept the status quo means even more than it does back home. —Keith Phipps
Ernest and Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia is in select theaters tomorrow in both subtitled and English dubbed versions. This review is based on a viewing of the subtitled version.