Past, present and party balloons

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In the year of specs mania, it had to happen. Up, the latest digital animation hit from Disney/Pixar, is the Pixar team’s first purpose-crafted venture into 3D. (Disney, going it alone, got there just before with Bolt.) Don your glasses, grip your seat-arms, sail into the ether with 80-year-old Carl and his balloon-powered house. A crusty retired widower, voiced by Ed Asner and weirdly resembling John Major squashed into a wedge shape, Carl escapes commitment to a care home by tying multicoloured helium bubbles to his roof and flying off. Perhaps he will find the South American dream spot, “Paradise Falls”, he longed to visit with his late and much-loved Ellie.

Up has been hailed for its extension of family-fare digimation into three dimensions. For me, the greater feat lies in its conquest of four dimensions. Director/co-writer Pete Docter (formerly of Monsters, Inc) builds the story around an inspired leap across time. Early scenes sketch, with exquisite wit and economy, the young Carl’s romance with Ellie, a spike-haired gamine sharing his travel-lust and idolisation of celebrity explorer Charlie Muntz. This 1930s-set prelude is a montage worthy of Citizen Kane, collapsing years into minutes and tears (a lost child, a marriage cut short by mortality) into wordless, split-second tableaux.

Sixty years later Muntz, whose exploits were dinned out in sepia in the Movietone-style newsreel that opened the film, has become its devil ex machina. Carl and his stowaway companion, a puppy-plump boy scout called Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai and given a hint of Oriental features as if Disney wanted to firm up its lately trumpeted handshake with China), find landfall in South America. Muntz, a tyrant eyried in his airship and voiced with the showboat rasp of Christopher Plummer, runs the dog-terrorised realm the two must pass to find – just possibly – Paradise Falls.

Everything Up does with quiet, time-bestriding imagination is a triumph. Carl junior ages believably into Carl senior. Ellie’s ancient scrapbook, leafed through by the older Carl in poignant moments, has the patina of years breathtakingly crafted on every page, proving that computer imagery can now be Rembrandtian in its refinement.

But guess what. Quiet genius isn’t enough. As in Wall.E, an opening section perfect in its stealth artistry, followed by a time/space lift-off heady with promise, lead to main-action middle and final parts that throw the picture-book at us. Someone at Pixar, or parent company Disney, must have screamed: “Kids! We’re doing this for kids!” So Up ends up climbing the mayhem tree. There is a multicoloured big bird choreographed for lovable zaniness. There are knockabout frogs and madcap monkeys. Finally, as if to give the 3D goggle-wearers value for money and migraine, there are gravity-defying, wit-defying, sense-defying aerial fights between Team Muntz and Team Carl. Sound and fury take over from art and insight, signifying that a big fat cheque from Crédit Kiddyland is more important to some Hollywood studios than swooning critics hailing another example of laptop miracle-working.

Critics, mind you, can swoon at odd things. Bombarded weekly by high-colour drivel, we are pushovers for low-key intimism. But the raptures that greeted Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo at festivals last year are wholly deserved. This hypnotic character study from the North Carolina-born maker of Man Push Cart dwells on – and seems to dwell in – the faces of two outcasts in the land of happy Mammon. Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané), an immigrant from Senegal, is the cab driver prattling of unfulfillable dreams. William (Red West) is the aged loner he picks up one night, features engraved with despair, tobacco-harsh voice issuing terse monosyllables, who engages Solo to drive him – on a future date – to a remote bluff famed as a suicide spot.

The casting of unknowns is inspired. West is like a lump of ancient rock quarried from the American unconscious: we sense the striation of tragedy, hidden, primal, oddly elegiac. (Press notes reveal, intriguingly, that this bit-part actor was once Elvis Presley’s bodyguard.) Savané offers the babbling optimism of the chronically unachieving, though we will Solo on to realise his dream, the touchingly modest one of becoming a flight attendant.

The plot flings the two men together briefly in a seedy motel room, sharing its yellowing walls and nicotine-grungy curtains. Solo has taken a sabbatical from his wife; William is incubating some deep plan of demise, though he passes moments of brief, pained, mysterious chat with the boy manning the local cinema’s box office. No back-story is quite rounded out; no “lead” leads to full enlightenment, ours or theirs. Yet the character chemistry comes close to alchemy. Leaden lives turn to gold in the retorts of art. The film’s ending, in a bewitching location unvisited (so far as I know) by moviemaking, clinches its kinship, both in theme and achievement, with Kiarostami’s The Taste of Cherries.

From the sublime to the merrily ridiculous. Zombieland proves a long-held Andrews Theory. Zombie films are a living, or living-dead, version of the fairground coconut shy. Roll up; pump your arm; hit the target with as much exultant precision as possible. Zombicide has become that sporty, that giddily clinical: no wonder these films are now mostly comedies. Here Woody Harrelson, redneck ghoul-hunter, teams with Jesse Eisenberg, Adventureland’s lovably stammering dweeb, as they traverse a depopulated US, battling any new armies of the livid and lumbering. Two surplus-to-requirement girls join them (Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin). Bill Murray erupts for a brief, brilliant cameo. It is frothy and forgettable, and, like any black comedy, funny even, or especially, when it shouldn’t be.

Peter Strickland’s Katalin Varga is misery at 24 frames per second, directed in Romania by a Briton. One understands how Strickland may have acquired his gloomy world-view – he was born in Reading – but he could have given his title rape victim (Hilda Péter) a convincing history and humanity, not just a perfunctory plot-triggering flashback. And he could have led his story through denser, richer paths than the dour, single-focus slog across the flatlands of retribution.

“Is there honey still for tea?”, quoth Rupert Brook. Sorry, dear, it’s off due to Colony Collapse Disease. If bees keep disappearing worldwide, we are warned by documentarists George Langworthy and Maryam Henein in the worthy but laborious Vanishing of the Bees, so will most plants and vegetables. There will be almost nothing on our plates; even our animals reared for food depend on a pollinated world. The film points an accusing finger at the pesticide industry. But either the accusers are wrong or governments are deaf, since most once-busy hives, we learn, still end up resembling the Marie Celeste. Solution? We should all think of taking up beekeeping. The filmmakers seriously suggest this, winning points for lovable evangelism if not practicality.

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