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God of War

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In the year 1557, Japanese pirates have taken control of the Chinese coast. With the Chinese General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) failing to successfully repel the invaders, fellow General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) is offered command and sets about training his own local army to achieve the task that China’s general infantry cannot.

God of War is another in China’s long and growing list of medieval war films, replete with rival armies, sword fights, patriotic exclamations and an impressive quantity of impassioned shouting. It feels very much like its own genre with its own conventions and stereotypes, and to a large degree God of War fits very comfortably into that niche. While it does tend to drag a little in its first half, it more than makes up for it in its second before wrapping everything up into an excellent action-packed climax. Fans of genre have a lot to enjoy here. Indeed, the promise of a Sammo Hung pole fight and a soldier-versus-samurai finale should prove irresistible.

Fair warning: Sammo Hung, a popular veteran of Hong Kong action cinema, only appears during the film’s opening act. He does make a strong impression, however, and gets a couple of opportunities to showcase his immense martial arts talent. As the relatively ineffective General Yu, he is soon replaced by the innovative but awkward General Qi: an inspiration to those with whom he fights, but a relative embarrassment in the high-level environment of court politics. Vincent Zhao is likeable and earnest as Qi, but the screenplay does not afford him much depth or complexity. He is simply required to be inspiring and heroic, two qualities he ably displays.

Much more nuanced and interesting is Yasuaki Kurata as the Japanese commander Kumasawa. He is a samurai, appointed by a lord back in Japan, and commands a mixed army of samurai, ronin and straight-forward pirates. He cuts a supremely dignified figure, carefully planning strategy to defeat the Chinese forces and recognising their change under Qi’s inventive leadership. Where the script fails to illuminate his character, he subtly implies depth through stillness and a steely gaze. Kurata is more than fifty years into his screen career; his experience and presence make him God of War’s strongest asset by far.

As Qi finds, trains and leads his new army, and as Kumasawa begins to understand the renewed threat facing his pirate forces, the film moves closer and closer towards a fantastic one-on-one showdown. While that is absolutely the best sequence of the entire film, the lead-up is almost as great. The action splits between a desperate back-and-forth battle through the streets of a Chinese city, with Qi hunting down Kumasawa’s lead retinue, and a desperate siege of Qi’s own headquarters, which affords his wife (played excellently by Regina Wan) a chance to show off some martial arts skills of her own.

God of War takes a while to start moving, and stereotypes abound through its two hours, but once it picks up it runs with its China-versus-Japan premise to a fabulous conclusion. Genre fans will be in for a treat; other viewers might need a little patience to get to the good stuff.

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Maze Runner: The Death Cure

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The Maze Runner films exist in a rather strange section of the YA adaptation niche set up by the trailblazing Hunger Games series. A veritable turducken of post-apocalyptic story tropes (natural disasters, private governmental control, zombies, humanity-threatening epidemic), it started out as a surprisingly poignant parable on what it means to go from a child to an adult.

While this conclusion to that same story doesn’t carry the same deftness of theme, it also doesn’t carry the wonky juggling act that its follow-up The Scorch Trials was stuck with. Things are already looking up with how this wasn’t turned into yet another two-part finale like Harry Potter, Twilight and the now-stillborn Divergent series, and it only gets better from there.

Leading man Dylan O’Brien may fall into the background at times, but he’s bolstered by how everyone around him is on their A-game. From Ki Hong Lee selling the virtual hell he’s stuck in, to Thomas Brodie-Sangster giving the film incredibly dramatic moments, to Kaya Scodelario managing to salvage questionable character decisions from Scorch Trials and turning them into a product of complexity rather than idiocy.

Through them, the immediately tense action scenes hit that much harder, allowing the audience to bask in the chaos going on around them. Some of the bigger moments do hinge on extremely good luck on the part of the characters, with someone showing up just in the nick of time to make things work.

However, between the highly memorable and effective set pieces like the tunnel full of Cranks and the urban hellfire of a finale, along with the pleasantly smooth pacing, those contrivances don’t linger long enough to be a major drawback.

As a conclusion to the story of the Gladers and their fight against the evil corporation WCKD (World Catastrophe Killzone Department, a name that never stops being silly), it wraps up the franchise’s aspirations as thinly-veiled allegory for the responsibilities of adulthood.

But this is something more than that. This film is the final breath of life for an entire sub-genre, the last entry from the film franchises that spawned in the wake of Hunger Games back in 2012. Rather than preparing its audience for life post-adolescence, this seems to prepare us for life post-post-apocalyptic teenage fantasy.

While most of the world is officially burnt out on this latest wave of book adaptations, it seems like the main lessons of that wave concerning how the next generation must be the guardians of tomorrow have been listened to.

One of the bigger recurring trends of last year’s cinematic crop was how children/teenagers are often more adult than the actual adults (It, Jasper Jones, The Book Of Henry, The Glass Castle, etc.) With this film’s grounded but hopeful denouement, it looks like whatever may come next, we are more prepared for it than ever.

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A woman’s face is wreathed in flame.

In a charred and desolate room, a man (Javier Bardem) places a rough-cut white jewel on a golden stand. Magically, the room begins to heal itself, spreading out from the stone – smoke damage fades, cracked and peeling paint runs smooth, broken furniture becomes whole.

Alone on a double bed, a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) awakens. “Baby?” she calls.

How telling. So too is the next thing we hear her say, when her husband (Bardem) surprises her on the porch of their rambling and beautiful country home: “You frightened me.”

mother! (small m, exclamation point) begins enigmatically, as you might expect from the little we’ve been able to glean from the marketing materials thus far. It’s a mystery, we’ve been told. Allusions have been made to classic horror – Rosemary’s Baby in particular. The promotional posters are cryptic, bloody, and disturbing.

The grainy film stock and handheld camera work employed by cinematographer Matthew Libatique reinforce the notion that we might be looking at writer and director Darren Aronofsky’s ode to the highbrow horrors of the ’60s and ’70s, and our introduction to the scenario is infused with a subtle sense of menace and foreboding. Bardem’s character – no names are ever given –  is a poet, struggling with writer’s block. His much younger wife (Lawrence) is devoted to him and determined to fix up the beautiful but somewhat dilapidated house they share. Their relative contentment is broken by the appearance of a traveler (Ed Harris) and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The poet invites the pair to stay, but the woman is disturbed by the intrusion.

As it transpires, the interlopers have arrived under false pretenses – the man is a fan of the poet and, dying, wished to meet him before the end. His wife, a sensuous creature, blunt and fond of drink, inserts herself into the household as though she owns it. The poet is glad of the attention and determined to be a good host, but the woman grows more discomfited. Who are these people? Why is her husband so enamoured of their attention? Why are they so familiar with each other? Why does she feel so alienated?

When the penny drops will vary from viewer to viewer. For us, it’s when Harris’ character’s bickering sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) turn up, arguing over their inheritance, and one murders the other before fleeing. mother! is not a return to the psychological horrors of Black Swan, folks, but to the metaphysical ruminations of Noah! Aronofsky’s latest is nothing less than an allegorical retelling of all the better bits of the Old and New Testaments. And not the familiar, watered down King James version, but the crazy, apocrypha-riddled proto-Judaic stuff – how else could we get away with having Asherah, Yahweh’s consort, as our point of view character? The titular mother goddess, shoved aside by the patriarchal Abrahamic religions, is finally getting her due on the big screen. That’s sure to play well in the red states.

Yes, Aronofsky has cast Lawrence, his real-life girlfriend as the wife of God – which is an incredible and strangely admirable act of hubris, when you think about it. It’s a short leap to consider Bardem’s god-figure as a stand in for Aronofsky himself, obsessed with the act of creation, hopelessly susceptible to flattery and fawning, and more than a little dismissive of his husbandly duties. How could he not be? His house is soon thronging with people, friends and family of Adam and Eve (again never named, but we’re through the looking glass here) who have come for Abel’s wake, and who are all singing the poet’s praises, each in their own way.

A demand for passion ensues and is answered, and the woman is now pregnant. Her calling realised, her belly swells – surely this new life will heal the growing rift between them. Meanwhile, all this attention has gotten the poet’s creative juices flowing, and he’s begun to write again. Soon, more fans are arriving at the house, petitioning him for attention.

“I’ll get started on the apocalypse,” Lawrence’s character intones.

It all spins queasily, crazily out of control (and let us not forget that Aronofsky alluded to the possibility of early Middle Eastern monotheism being a mushroom cult in Noah) quite quickly, as the film stops pretending to pay lip service to narrative and psychological realism and cleaves only to its own systems of allegory and metaphor. Before long Stephen McHattie crops up as a raving zealot, and Kristen Wiig is – the Pharisees? The Catholic Church? At one point she’s executing people in the kitchen with a pistol, and by that stage we’re so steeped in spectacle, symbol, and oblique event after confounding, naggingly intriguing event, that it all becomes difficult to parse, at least on first taste. We do know where we’re going, though, as the gyre widens and mere anarchy is loosed upon the house. But are we pursuing an end or a new beginning?

It’s great.

It really is, and it’s great in a way that you know will divide audiences and send them barreling towards opposite ends of the opinion spectrum – it’s not a work that invites middling responses. Some will be angered by the irreducibly religious elements. Some will be scornful of Aronofsky’s pretension at mounting such a work (and make no mistake, art like this requires a certain level of pretension). Some will be annoyed at the seemingly countless unfathomable visual and narrative symbols and motifs (what’s the tonic that Lawrence’s character keeps taking for her pains? What’s with the toad? Is there a satan?). Some will claim they saw it all coming, and it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is (and frankly, screw those guys).

But some will love it. We certainly do. It’s a dense, delirious, playful and serious work of capital A art, and easily the most ambitious film to come out of a major studio since… well, let’s just say it: since Kubrick died. It’s the most interesting and intellectually rigorous religious film since The Last Temptation of Christ, and easily the best film of Aronofsky’s career. The closest analogues that come to mind are Jodorowsky’s earlier works, especially The Holy Mountain, but it’s going to take time and several viewings to figure out if that’s a worthy comparison – that it comes to mind at all speaks volumes, though.

No matter what you think, or think you might think, about mother!, it certainly demands and deserves your attention. Go and see it. You haven’t seen anything like it since… well, you just haven’t seen anything like it.

mother! is out on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital now.

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Faces Places

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Agnes Varda is indefatigable. It is a word that she would probably like and, after living 90 years and making over 50 documentaries, she has certainly earned it. She describes herself more simply as ‘down to earth’. In this charming little feature doco she teams up with a young photo-montagist calling himself JR. They met by accident and they keep that spirit of serendipity going as much as possible. The idea behind the film is deliberately simple but surprisingly satisfying. They hit the road together and make images of the faces of the people that they bump into. In particular, JR is a photographer who takes his photos and then blows them up to house-sized images. Then he (and some occasional helpers) pastes them on buildings usually to the delight of the ordinary folk that partake in the process.

Varda (Vagabond, The Gleaners and I) is an institution in French cinema (she was married to revered director Jacques Demy), but she doesn’t trade on that or like to hang out with famous types in Paris. Au contraire, she wants to get out and meet the men and women who are the ‘real’ France if you like. They might be waitresses or farmers or goat herders or church bell-ringers or factory workers. It doesn’t matter, what matters is that she can talk to them and, with her unpretentious charm and unfaked curiosity, connect with them and add them to her still-growing collection of memories and connections.

Of course, along the way this becomes a record of social change and of aspects of French life that may be fading irrevocably or morphing into something else. She is fully aware of that, but the general tone is not merely that of a lamentation or an accusation against modernity. Life goes on and that is how it should be. The artist can be a recorder of such things and, in doing so, can raise ‘journalism’ to the status of art.

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Star Trek: Discovery S1E11: “The Wolf Inside”

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The USS Discovery is trapped in a mirror universe in which a violent Terran Empire subjugates all other civilizations. While Saru (Doug Jones) and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) attempt to cure Lt Stamets (Anthony Rapp) of his spore-afflicted state, Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Tyler (Shazad Latif) masquerade onboard the mirror universe USS Shenzhou to gain the data needed to return home.

All due credit to writer Lisa Randolph: “The Wolf Inside” picks up an awful lot of tiresome and dramatically weak plot threads and weaves them into something that – for a week, at least – manages to be a genuinely entertaining hour of television. The core problems left from the previous episode do remain, but they feel somewhat mitigated. The mirror universe still feels a very worn-out Star Trek trope in which to place a story, but at least it leads to a solid moral dilemma: keep one’s cover by destroying an anti-Empire rebellion, or try to warn the rebels and risk losing any chance the Discovery getting back to its own reality. That feels authentically Trek in nature; to be honest, quite a lot of moments in this episode do.

Of course, Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) recommends staying undercover and murdering a bunch of aliens, thus re-confirming his status at Star Trek’s worst-ever captain. Isaacs is a fantastic actor, but he really does have to work hard to make Lorca even remotely believable given the way he is written. Much more convincing and enjoyable this week are Saru and Tilly. The latter gets another chance to show intelligence, ambition and drive – she works best when the writing moderates her gushy awkwardness – while Saru seems to act like a proper commanding officer in every scene he’s in. This really is the painful part of Discovery as an ongoing series: the characters are all great, but as a viewer one must roll the dice every week to find out what version of the character they’re going to get.

One long-teased plot development finally hits, likely to nobody’s surprise. It’s a little clumsily revealed and executed, but Randolph does pull it around in the end to a slightly unexpected and satisfying end point. There’s also an end-of-episode cliffhanger that again will likely surprise no one, but has a good chance of entertaining nearly everyone. It’s not the character return we likely wanted, but it’s a return many of us will be happy enough to take.

“The Wolf Inside” ends having ended one somewhat annoying plot thread, but there are still quite a few hanging out there. We’re still stuck in the mirror universe. Stamets is still in weird spore territory. Dr Culber is still in the same state that he was last week. What this episode commendably manages is to pass those problems along, and simply tell a dramatic and mostly enjoyable story around them. In the rollercoaster of quality that is Discovery, this is one of the fun bits of the ride.

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Beyond Skyline

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Seriously, who doesn’t want to see Frank Grillo (the better Purge movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) team up with Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (The Raid and, bizarrely, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) to fight an alien invasion? Cinema has clearly been building to this moment. Draw the curtains across every screen – we’re done.

But in case you need more: Beyond Skyline follows on from the little-loved 2010 sci-fi dud Skyline, but jettisons almost every possible element thereof except for the basic premise, instead building a whole new and much better story, which should make connoisseurs of imaginative and cheerfully cheap B-movies absolutely giddy.

In the shell of a nut, Earth is invaded by a fleet of alien ships that hypnotise the population by use of weird blue lights before sucking them up into the air for nefarious purposes. Hard-drinking LA cop Mark Corley (Grillo at his grizzled best) finds himself going toe to toe with the invaders, teaming up with a rag-tag group of survivors, including transit worker Audrey (Aussie Bojana Novakovic) and homeless veteran Sarge (Antonio Fargas – yes, Huggy Bear), whose blindness makes him immune to the aliens’ hypnosis beams.

Of course, a square jaw, a service sidearm and a drinking problem aren’t much against a full-scaled extraterrestrial incursion, and our plucky heroes soon find themselves in the bowels of an alien mother ship, where they bump into a couple of leftovers from the original film: Elaine (Samantha Jean, taking over from Scottie Thompson in the first film), who is about to give birth after the aliens have accelerated her pregnancy, and her boyfriend Jarrod, formerly played by Eric Balfour, and now a human brain implanted into a robotic alien combat drone.

That seems worth repeating: a human brain implanted into a robotic alien combat drone.

A few quick action and effects sequences later and the ship has crashed in the jungles of Laos, where Corley and Audrey team up with a motley band of former drug runners, including the aforementioned Uwais, Ruhian, and Aussie Callan Mulvey, who are preparing to launch a counter strike from a hidden base in an abandoned jungle temple. Can this unlikely band of heroes take the fight to the invaders? Will the newborn Rose (Elaine and Jarrod’s baby), her DNA mysteriously messed with by the aliens, prove, to be the key to the future? Will Iko and Yahan machete  hordes of aliens to death? Is Frank Grillo an underappreciated god of action cinema?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

Beyond Skyline is an almost mathematically perfect example of a great B movie. It never takes itself too seriously, yet it makes perfect sense within the confines of its own reality, cleaving to its internal logic and never fudging things for effect.

And frankly, it doesn’t need to: it’s designed to deliver maximum bang-for-buck. In a brisk 106 minutes you get an alien invasion, numerous gunfights, giant alien mecha wrecking stuff (yep, they just throw in some giant robots, and it makes perfect sense), Bojana Novakovic as a kind of K-Mart Sarah Connor (after she could do chin-ups), Frank Grillo murderlising dozens of aliens with a weird kind of talon-weapon he’s picked up along the way, and Uwais and Ruhian doing much the same with their blistering martial arts prowess.

It’s just so much fun, and done on a squillionth of the budget of comparable box office-busting fare – Thor: Ragnarok, perhaps? To be fair, Beyond Skyline lacks Marvel film’s self-deprecating wit, but the action scenes are certainly of comparable quality, with Skyline ahead on points in the vital Fighting Aliens with Penkat Silat category. Debut director Liam O’Donnell’s special effects background means he certainly knows how to get the most out of his obviously limited budget, and while you’re never in any doubt that you’re watching a cheap movie, you know that every single dollar is up there on the screen.

Beyond Skyline is skipping theatrical distribution in Australia and heading straight to home release, which is a shame – it’d be a hell of a film to watch with an engaged and enthusiastic audience on the big screen. Nonetheless, fans of fast and frenetic sci-fi action should definitely make the effort to get in front of it – it’s an instant classic of the genre.

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Australian, Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

They’re a familiar sight for most of us: the peloton of amateur cyclers gathering on early mornings and weekends, wending their way through the roads and highways of our home towns and cities. Lycra-clad cyclists racing together come rain, hail or shine in a somewhat atavistic display of warrior brotherhood. Of course, there are plenty of women who ride too, though the subjects of this homegrown documentary are predominantly male: Middle Aged Men In Lycra (MAMIL).

It’s not a term that has achieved common household use, but it’s been seized upon as the moniker of choice for these men, perhaps because it sounds almost derogatory in nature, the flippancy belying the individual stories of the pain of mid-life, the commonality of the bewildering existence of the career-person and the yearn for community and substantive connection with other humans.

The subjects are varied: Perth and Adelaide-based charity riders as well as a variety of cyclists and groups throughout Australia, the US and the UK. War stories are shared, describing the ongoing fracas between motorists and cyclists and some disturbingly life-threatening road injuries sustained in the pursuit of challenging oneself mentally and physically amidst ‘the group’. Several men describe their personal battles through periods of severe depression, one speaking candidly of his suicidal thoughts at one point in his life, another dealing with throat cancer treatment, both finding strength and solace in their cycling communities.

It’s engaging viewing, though it’s not really about cycling, is it? There is strong evidence to suggest that the reason the average human-monkey crumbles under the weight of the stresses of modern life is that we are simply not meant to exist in expansive groups of disconnected, fragmented individuals cramming into soulless metropolitan sprawls. For thousands of years, we lived in small communities, hunted food and shared stories in small groups, most importantly; we suffered together and shared our human experience, in small groups. These instincts are strong in us, they call to us amidst the overwhelming and rapid advance of our societal structures; under it all we’re all still cave dwellers.

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1987: When the Day Comes

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On 14 January 1987, student activist Park Jong-chul dies in police custody after being tortured over his suspected anti-government links. His murder sets off a chain of events involving a conscientious prison guard, a young first-year student, an alcoholic court prosecutor, and a dogged journalist – all of whom strive in their own way to bring the truth of Park’s death to the public.

Jang Joon-hwan’s historical drama 1987: When the Day Comes is a taut political thriller, one which focuses on the most critical six months of South Korea’s post-war history. For Korean audiences it is a vivid recreation of well-known and confronting history. For international audiences, who may understandably not be fully aware of President Chun Doo-hwan, the “June Struggle”, or the Korean democracy movement, it remains a staggeringly good and brilliantly staged film.

The film begins with South Korea in the grips of both a military-backed dictator-style Presidency, and an aggressively over-reaching anti-communist branch of the national police. These anti-communist officers, led by the calmly menacing Commissioner Park (Kim Yoon-seok), operate with impunity. They snatch people off the streets, then intimidate and torture them for intelligence. At the film’s outset this strategy has already misfired – Park Jong-chul is already dead – and it is team’s attempt to cremate the body without an autopsy that first raises suspicion.

Screenwriter Kim Kyung-chan does a superb job with an extremely difficult and complex subject matter. The film begins with a dead body in a small room. It ends with more than a million people taking to the streets of Seoul. As the story expands, so does its cast, and it is testament to the skills of both writer and director that 1987 never gets confusing and never becomes laboured under the weight of its constantly growing set of characters.

Part of that success comes from the pace. The film hits the ground running and never slows down for more than two hours. There is a constant sense of threat and tension. Rather than cut back and forth between characters and subplots, the film works more like a relay race. The plot gets handed from one character to another until the story progresses, and then it is either handed back or passed onto someone new. It flows logically and clearly. It would be easy to overlook what a superb job has been done in simply telling the story.

Technically the film is superb, boasting slick photography and editing, a moody score and across-the-board strong performances. Ha Jung-woo is a particular highlight as Choi Hwan, a laconic court prosecutor who sets the resistance in motion by refusing to sign off on a cremation without an autopsy. He is one of the film’s rare humorous characters, but still packs a dramatic punch when required. Also very strong is Kim Tae-ri, in a strong and vulnerable performance as a young student named Yeon-hee. I was very impressed with Kim’s work in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden back in 2016, and she does a similarly strong job here.

1987 immerses you in a specific time and place and allows you to engage with history in a profound and emotionally effective manner. Its characters engage you. Its story may enrage you. The film’s final moments hit like a punch to the guts. This is great cinema.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower

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While the name Studio Ghibli reigns supreme in the perception of Japanese animation in the Western world, we must remember that a studio is not one homogenous entity: it is made up of thousands of creatives, animators and writers, who each contribute their own little piece of themselves to each film. One such creative is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a prominent Studio Ghibli figure who has not only been an animator on some their most successful films since 1997’s Princess Mononoke, including Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, but also directed some of their more recent films Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. Now, Yonebayashi is breaking out, and creating his own film based on Mary Stewart’s The Little BroomstickMary and the Witch’s Flower.

The film sees a young girl named Mary (Hana Sugisaki in the Japanese version, Ruby Barnhill in the English) spending the summer at her Great-Aunt Charlotte’s (Shinobu Otake, Lynda Barron) house in the countryside, extremely bored and in need of a friend, until she comes across a mystical blue flower in the woods known as ‘fly-by-night’.Known as the Witch’s Flower, its petals imbue Mary with a mysterious magic, showing her a school of magic known as Endor College she never knew existed around her – but this new world, and its leaders, the powerful Madam Mumblechook (Yuki Amami, Kate Winslet) and the eccentric Doctor Dee (Fumiyo Kunihata, Jim Broadbent), is more twisted than she first realises.

Though immediately reminiscent of Harry Potter (not least with the inclusion of Jim Broadbent as a chemistry teacher), Mary and the Witch’s Flower is fascinating in its depiction of magic in an entirely new way. There is more science, yet less structure; Mary’s opportunities to learn magic at Endor College range from invisibility and flight to changing the fabric of the universe around her, creating a magical lore around the film that makes you want to learn so much more.

It’s a shame, however, that we learn very little – the film could easily have been longer, or even benefitted from being part of a larger series or even a television show (the former of which, after the film’s ending, is unlikely). Whilst we get plenty of setup involving Mary and her boredom at Great-Aunt Charlotte’s, we are in and out of Endor College faster than a broomstick ride, leaving much to be desired.

That said, in this time we learn much about Mary, a precocious, well-natured but self-involved child, as she bounds around the forest with adorable neighbourhood cats Tib and Gib, and through this we see the true beauty of Yonebayashi and his team’s animation. The depth of their secondary characters may not hit the heights of the Endor College imagery, with everyone from Great-Aunt Charlotte to Mary’s new friend Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki, Louis Ashborne Serkis) getting short shrift compared to Mary’s story.

Studio Ghibli is one of the rare animation studios that have near-mastered the art of telling stories for both children and adults. In stepping out on his own, Hiromasa Yonebayashi has made a wonderful children’s film full of fun magic and breathtaking imagination, but unfortunately his characters and pacing need work. With such promising seeds of storytelling in Mary and the Witch’s Flower, it will be fascinating to see what he comes up with next.

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Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

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This is based on the memoir of the same title by the Liverpool-born actor Peter Turner. Some of the facts are unusual enough to be fascinating, but unfortunately the screen treatment somehow manages to be both dull and overwrought.

The story basically alternates between London (Primrose Hill) in 1979 and Liverpool in ‘81, with fleeting side trips to California and New York City. It begins when 56-year-old Hollywood star and Oscar-winner Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) meets 27-year-old struggling actor Turner (Jamie Bell). An intense and supposedly unlikely affair ensues.

Jump two years, and Gloria is seriously ill. She contacts Peter, and asks if – while she recovers – she can stay with him and his parents and brother in their modest home in Liverpool. Why she wants to do this, rather than spend the time with any of her four children back in the States, is never adequately explained. Gloria is a complex, insecure and conflicted figure, and not entirely sympathetic.

Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool is a tearjerker which won’t necessarily jerk your tears. It’s uneven at best, and sometimes downright banal and corny. There’s a lot of awkwardness, not all of it intentional – as when the style veers between melodrama and actual drama. (Though in a film that’s so much about cinema and projected self-image, it’s hard to say fairly where one stops and the other begins.) Even the choice of soundtrack music is intermittently lazy: does every film with a scene in New York – no matter when it’s set – have to feature a snatch from a Velvet Underground song?