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Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

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Time has a way of changing the things we think we know to be true. Close friends can become complete strangers, traditions can become faded memories, and children can become parents to their own children. No one is immune to its effects, not even those like Maquia who live for hundreds of years while always maintaining their physical youth. What was once a peaceful existence with her people, the Iolph, is turned upside-down when she is both separated from her kind after an empire attacks their land and when she finds an orphaned baby, Ariel, that she takes under her care.

Under the first-time direction of prolific screenwriter Mari Okada and with the visual chops of animation studio P.A. Works, the story of Maquia and her odyssey into motherhood is both intimate and monumental. The sheer jaw-dropping finesse put into the animation, not to mention the consistently tear-jerking score by Kenji Kawai, shows Okada to be more than capable of bringing her own stories vibrantly to life. It carries all the bombast and grandeur of a high fantasy story, depicting warring empires and majestic battles between knights and dragons, but within the details of the story are scenarios that should sound most familiar. Learning what it means to be an adult, to be a parent, to be an individual person irrespective of one’s familial or cultural background, and whether any of those three are as easy to grasp as one might think, even for those with literal centuries of experience.

To say nothing of Okada’s writing, which employs a near-lyrical quality throughout to espouse on many questions usually evocative of a coming-of-age story. Using very little true exposition, we are shown living, breathing characters from the free-spirited Leilia to the protective and scared adult that young Ariel grows into; to the epitome of all things feminine, maternal and powerful that is Maquia herself. At the heart of this story, one that spans decades and shows the audience just how much can change in such a relatively short amount of time, is one of how the connections we make shape the tapestry that is our lives. And none more so than the bond between a parent and a child.

Being able to pass on one’s own knowledge and experiences to a younger generation is one of the larger signifiers of what makes a person an ‘adult’, and try as we might to give that generation a good head-start, there will always be that worry that we aren’t doing it right; that we aren’t doing enough to protect our young. That we should be the ones doing the protecting, not them. The story of Maquia and Ariel is one of the passage of time, the fears of growing up and outliving those around us, but more than anything else, it is a story about the strength that lies within the mother. The tapestry of time is powerful, and the woven threads within are strong. But the will of a mother to protect, nurture and raise her child is even stronger.

 
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Kodachrome

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In the age of digital technology, it can be easy to take said technology for granted. Photos that used to take the right mixture of chemicals and patience to process can now be taken and shared with millions with the press of a button. Music no longer requires a group of musicians working together; nowadays, anyone with a laptop and the right programs can do it on their own. Even film has become as easy as point, shoot and upload. But with all that data, all that clutter, all that ease of use, the reliability of tangible product can be lost.

This line of thinking, one most recently popularised by the retro-adoring hipsters, takes on a decidedly less pretentious tone in the hands of director Mark Raso and writer Jonathan Tropper (This Is Where I Leave You). Taking on a stranger-than-fiction story about the end of a once-dependable type of film stock as its bedrock, Kodachrome depicts the incredibly rocky relationship between struggling record executive Matt and his dying photographer father Ben, played by Jason Sudeikis and Ed Harris respectively.

Their comparable levels of surliness make for rather tense conversations, particularly with Sudeikis, who just oozes contempt for his deadbeat dad out of every syllable he utters.

Harris’ Hunter-S-Thompson-by-way-of-American-Recordings-era-Johnny-Cash demeanour shows a man who knows the way of the world, fully aware that he is an irritant within that world, and that he doesn’t have much time left in it. Add to this Elizabeth Olsen’s Zooey as the frequently ignored voice of reason, and you have a highly uncomfortable road trip… but in a good way.

Tropper’s dialogue has an effect akin to a sledgehammer to the stomach, as a lot of the conversations are peppered with moments where the bluntness and harshness makes for serious impact. Whether it’s showing how much the characters hate each other or how much they love each other, that impact almost takes on a physical sensation in how cold and heart-tugging it can get. It’s balanced out beautifully, meaning that when we get to the point of sheer pathos and we see why more antiquated methods are used in photography and music, it lands perfectly.

It’s all an ode to how connection to the physical, rather than ephemeral or even digital, is what truly matters. When you have to put in that much effort to get something done, like driving cross-country just to get to a single photo development shop, it makes you appreciate what that something holds. Like how food tastes better when you make it from scratch, rather than defrosting it; the effort makes the connection.

As both a dysfunctional family road trip film and a look into the way we preserve our memories and experiences, Kodachrome serves as a (forgive the pun) snapshot of why the older methods were as dependable as they were.

 
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So, You Want to be a Film Critic?

Currently screening on ABC, the brilliant series Employable Me features young people with a disability seeking employment. One of its subjects, Cain Noble-Davies, aspires to be a film critic, and we gave him an opportunity to intern with us, which he writes about here.  
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The Mercy

Review, Theatrical, This Week 3 Comments

Within moments of The Mercy’s gadget market beginnings, it becomes clear that there is a definite fascination with what we perceive as “truth”. As liberating as the truth can be, it is also a particularly cruel force. So cruel that many people will do anything they can to avoid facing it, preferring their own fantasies to placate that nagging worry in the backs of their minds. Many a filmmaker have made bank on the idea of the fantasy versus stone-cold reality, like the cinematic illusions of Christopher Nolan or the dreamwalking of David Lynch. Under the eye of director James Marsh (Man On Wire, The Theory Of Everything) and in the hands of writer Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, Side Effects), there is no such trickery. Whatever illusions or dreams they cast for the audience exist solely in the head of a man who thought he could do what no-one else had done before.

As lively as Colin Firth is in the main role, showing his aptitude for that oh-so-British stiff upper lip, his is not the role of the comedic foil. Instead, his role is one of soul-crushing tragedy. Where films like USSR’s Race Of The Century turned this real-life story into one of societal critique, this aims closer to the personal and hubristic to show someone in an increasingly impossible situation. A situation where our lead has no-one to truly blame but himself, failing to see just how far his ambitions had pushed him until almost everything he had depended on his success. It takes the familiar underdog tone of quite a few biopics of late and highlights a rather depressing truth: sometimes, the underdog never even gets past its leash.

Well, “failing to see” might be a bit harsh. Considering how much he puts of himself and his livelihood into this venture around the world, maybe he’s just looking for an escape. Maybe he’s just trying to make his mark in a world where every point on the map has already been plotted. Or maybe he’s just someone who got in way over his head and ended up having to pay the price for it. Whatever the ultimate reason, the film doesn’t cast aspersions on Donald Crowhurst.

Through Burns’ down-to-earth scripting, Marsh’s familiarity with bringing the real world to the big screen, Éric Gautier’s queasy camera work and anxious string sections courtesy of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario), we are given a door into the man’s head. One full of self-doubt, regret, increasing pressure and a reluctance to admit that everything has gone wrong. The reality behind every frame on the screen manifests as not only an uncompromising look at how our own expectations can spell our doom, but also a refreshingly honest diversion from the usual wispiness that hovers over a lot of modern biopics. It refrains from romanticising Crowhurst’s mission, instead showing an admission that the hopeless dreamer archetype that Hollywood loves to fetishise has a dark underbelly. The title is a lie; the truth has no mercy.

 
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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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Sam Rockwell: To The Moon and Back

With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri winning acclaim wherever it plays, seasoned character actor Sam Rockwell discusses what it takes to play a bad guy on screen, his upcoming projects and sharing his own fan theories about recent blockbusters.
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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

With nostalgia basically being its own industry nowadays, and the quest to find good video game movies proving less and less fruitful with each passing year, this film already feels like it’s climbing an uphill battle purely by existing. However, it seems that everyone involved was more than prepared for that challenge, and the results are genuinely surprising in a number of areas.

The acting is genuinely impressive. Our main four not only channel that sense of out-of-body wish fulfillment inherent to the premise, they actually come across like they are avatars controlled by teenagers. Whether it’s Dwayne Johnson marveling at how chiseled his own body is or a self-obsessed Valley Girl in the body of Jack Black, they all wield their status as fictional characters in-universe to great comedic effect. Same goes for Nick Jonas with a surprisingly solid performance, and Bobby Cannavale being genuinely intimidating as the main villain.

As an update to a kitschy ‘90s flick, the cavalcade of writers attached to this take an expected but highly effective route. Not only do they manage to explain the update from board game to video game in a quick but legible fashion, they also bring some real gamer knowledge to the proceedings. It maintains the basic framework of a video game, with levels, character abilities and objectives, and injects them into cinematic form in a remarkably smooth fashion. From the inclusion of cut scenes to puzzle-solving, even down to gags relating to the cast’s specific strengths and weaknesses, it feels like we’re watching a video game being played out… and yet, the urge to just leave the cinema and play the game for yourself never comes up.

This is because, along with effectively translating video game storytelling into a spectator-only medium, it also highlights what escapism is capable of. Escapist media (films, video games, novels, music, etc.) allows people to have experiences that would be near-impossible to have otherwise. It’s quite thrilling to watch action stars doing stunts while hanging off a helicopter, but most would be hesitant to try it for themselves. Things like character arcs and closure and growth aren’t things that likely to happen to someone over the course of only two hours. And yet, when you’re absorbed in a good piece of fiction, you get to have those experiences without risk of personal injury or embarrassment.

As our leads traverse through the jungle, we see how fantastical environments can be very effective teaching tools, allowing the characters the opportunity to bond and grow while acting out that fantasy. They are the audience, and we end up experiencing all the fun and drama and kitsch right alongside them.

This film manages to be insane amounts of fun and yet never feels like you need to switch off to enjoy it, boasting an incredible cast, a consistently funny script and very immersive visuals. Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle takes two difficult tasks (being a follow-up to a nostalgic ‘classic’ and a film set mainly within a video game) and pull them off so breezily that you start to wonder why so many others struggle with even one of them.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

 
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Paddington 2

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What makes a good family film? What are the ingredients necessary to make a picture that is fulfilling for both kids and adults? Well, whatever the specifics of the recipe, it seems that Paddington 2 has all of it in spades. Visually, director Paul King and director of photography Erik Wilson get terrifically creative, integrating illustrations, faux-pop-up books and of course reality-bending CGI work to craft the film’s world. The title character being generated through computers barely even registers – partly because the effects work is just that good, but also because a bear making sandwiches in a prison kitchen is nowhere near the most fanciful thing to be found here.

The cast, full of British talent that are either household names or rightly should be household names, imbue their characters with such vigour that everyone ends up leaving a pleasant impression by film’s end. Whether it’s Brendan Gleeson as a prison cook, Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley as a talent agent, or Hugh Grant giving the performance of a lifetime as a faded egotistical actor, everyone fits into the puzzle, to say nothing of Ben Whishaw as our favourite bear, giving his impossibly hopeful and optimistic character the right amount of sweetness and light to make this film’s ultimate purpose sink in.

Among many other things, the film medium is exceptionally good at imparting messages onto its audience. Everyone has at least one friend who is able to rattle off quotes from films and TV shows because that is how deeply ingrained media can become in people’s minds. The message that this particular film wants to impart is both incredibly simple and incredibly necessary: Be a good person. Throughout the film, between the hunt of lost treasure, the worries of losing loved ones and even time in jail, Paddington never lets the world get to him. Everywhere he goes, he spreads goodness and manners to everyone he meets, managing to brighten up even the cloudiest of mindsets. As the story carries on, we see that dedication to niceties returns to him tenfold, showing just how much impact being nice can have on others. It seems like such a simple thing and yet, with how fearful people are of difference, it’s apparent that we have managed to lose sight of it. But thankfully, Paddington is right here to give a warm and friendly reminder, with a marmalade sandwich in one hand and a toffee apple in the other.

A family film in the truest sense of the term, Paddington 2 contains so much joy, so much humour and so much sincere emotion that it is sure to delight all audiences. Not only that, it never betrays its own heart. Sweet without a hint of cynicism and silly without a drop of irony, it never tries to be more than it is. And because of that, it succeeds as a funny, emotional and altogether brilliant depiction of one of England’s most beloved childhood characters.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Paddington 2

 
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Goodbye Christopher Robin

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How is life affected by art? How is art affected by life? Should they be affected by each other and what could happen if they do? These are the questions at the forefront of My Week With Marilyn director Simon Curtis’ latest, Goodbye Christopher Robin.

As we see young Christopher Robin and his father playing in the woods, made into whimsical gold through Curtis and cinematographer Ben Smithard’s lens and Domhnall Gleeson and Will Tilston’s warm presences on screen, the audience is shown a world in a pit of despair. A world already ravaged by what was declared “The War To End All Wars”, and with its successor on the horizon, it needs levity. It needs hope. It needs to reconnect with that childhood sense of innocence, and through A. A. Milne’s writings about a young boy named Christopher Robin and his animal friends at play, the world gets exactly that. Those earlier questions are asked, rejected and brought back to show that while the adventures of Winnie The Pooh gave the world something special, it also took something even more precious from the people who made it possible.

The film is in a similar vein as 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, in that this is also about the wrenching real-world inspiration for what would become one of Disney’s most beloved stories. That balancing act between the crushing harshness of reality and the pleasantries of fiction to help people come to terms with that reality is a key component of this type of story. We see Milne struggle against his own memories of being on the front line, and we see the effect that being a child celebrity had on young C. R., but the film never feels too comfortable in facing that which is uncomfortable. Any time it feels like the film is cutting too close to the bone, it ends up pulling itself out of that spot through either jarring coldness (channelled through Margot Robbie, taking the phrase ‘stiff upper lip’ to a rather grating extreme) or moments where it’s honestly hard to tell whether it’s meant to be taken as funny.

In a film that juggles postpartum depression and shell shock, especially one aimed at familial audiences, precision of tone is critical and it’s too all-over-the-place for that to apply here.

But even through the tonal problems, the film’s main conceit rings true: appreciate the little things in life while you still have them. It sends the audience back into a younger mindset, where the world was less cold and even when it was, it was because we wanted it to be. Hard to throw snowballs in the summer, right? It may fumble in highlighting the story behind the story in all its unpleasantness, but as a tribute to a man and his son who gave the world joy, they are fumbles worth sitting through. In a time where it feels like we could also be on the brink of more conflict, we may desire to return to that sense of childlike wonder.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Goodbye Christopher Robin

 
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Atypical

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Created by sitcom veteran Robia Rashid, best known for her work on How I Met Your Mother, Atypical strives to offer an authentic portrayal of the autism spectrum. As shown through Sam (played superbly by Keir Gilchrist), we get a series of embarrassingly awkward social situations coupled with an all-too-familiar need for independence and love. His mannerisms, mainly his fixation on his favourite topics and his very to-the-point way of talking to others, ring true of my own experiences. I was diagnosed with autism at an early age, and through all the support groups and social gatherings I’ve been a part of, I’ve met more than a few people that would see something of the familiar in Sam. Consulting real professionals in the medical industry for reference, Rashid creates Sam as a depiction of autism that may come across as a caricature, but carries enough of his own character to make it fit. He’s unflinchingly honest, to the point of inducing cringe comedy with his matter-of-fact statements in almost every scene, but nevertheless, this rings true.

However, more so than the accuracy, it’s the fact that his condition informs his character, rather than solely being his character, that deserves praise. Representation of people with autism in the mainstream still has a long way to go in terms of proper acceptance, given how the mostly erroneous stereotypes attached to the term ‘autistic’ still exist, but it seems that Rashid’s intent has paid off.

If only the rest of the show was as finely-tuned. For a show literally called Atypical that has a tagline of ‘normal is overrated’, it is quite frustrating that this show feels as tired as it does. Outside of Sam, the rest of the cast is populated by stereotypes that have been regular staples in film and television for a very long time by this point. The overworked mother, the distant father, the abrasive and bratty sister, the best friend whose dialogue is 70% sexual innuendo, the high maintenance girlfriend; after a while, it becomes less a show about autism and more a standard sitcom that an autistic character just happened to wander into.

To make matters worse, the fact that such a frank and honest depiction of autism is sided with so many characters that rarely feel connected to the same level of reality induces cringe in the worst way possible. Any scene that doesn’t involve Sam’s sister (made into the most watchable character of the lot thanks to Brigette Lundy-Paine’s performance) ends up feeling like this is a show that wants to understand autism but apparently still hasn’t figured out basic human interaction itself yet. Then again, when your comedy reaches the point of comparing people with autism to meth addicts, chances are that human interaction wasn’t on the cards in the first place.

Atypical, for as faithful and (mostly) considerate that it is concerning autism, is swimming in too much of the same old junk to really stand out.