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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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Bad Moms 2

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With its terrible title and clichéd premise, 2016’s Bad Moms was funnier and more heartfelt than it had any right to be, simultaneously reminding us just how much our mothers do for us, and the potential for female driven comedies at the box office. This time round, with a festive theme and a much bigger cast, Bad Moms 2 might not be better, but still manages to hit the successful themes of the first.

Self-proclaimed bad mother Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) is sick and tired of stressing herself out over making Christmas perfect for her family; but just as she and best friends Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) decide to have a laidback Christmas this year, each of their own mothers – Amy’s mum Ruth (Christine Baranski), Kiki’s mum Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and Carla’s mum Isis (Susan Sarandon) – decide to spend Christmas with their daughters, creating chaotic shenanigans as morals and personalities clash.

Bad Moms 2 definitely doesn’t exceed its predecessor in terms of heart: the story, of which there is little, focuses mostly on our original bad mums coming to terms with their own mothers being bad mums themselves, rehashing emotional beats from the first. But what makes this work are the relationships between mother and daughter – Christine Baranski is a powerhouse, perfect for the belittling relationship she has with Mila Kunis’ Amy; Cheryl Hines’ neuroses match Kristen Bell’s; and Susan Sarandon goes all out, standing toe-to-toe with Kathryn Hahn’s signature balls to the wall comedic chops. Each actress is evenly matched, and what’s most interesting is watching them all work together to create these relationships.

Yet this sequel also isn’t as funny as the first, despite a few standout scenes and supporting performances. Wanda Sykes’ surprise return as a family counselor is well worth it, as was This Is Us’s Justin Hartley’s comedic turn as Carla’s stripper-love interest; he steals every scene he’s in. However, many of the bigger, Christmas-related gags and recurring jokes don’t land nearly as well as intended, with laugh-out-loud moments few and far between. Bad Moms 2 chugs along as entertainment and is quickly forgotten.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Bad Moms 2 

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Alias Grace

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Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), Alias Grace is the true story of Irish immigrant Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) and her 15-year imprisonment for the murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy (Anna Paquin) – yet she claims to have no memory of the murder, throwing into question whether she is even guilty.

The six-part miniseries directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol), and co-written by Atwood and actress turned filmmaker Sarah Polley, follows Grace as she shares her story with psychologist Dr Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft), who was enlisted by the committee for Grace’s freedom to clear her name, but as their sessions grow longer and Dr Jordan becomes more invested in her story, it grows more and more unclear as to whether Grace can be trusted with her own story.

This framing device allows the first half of the series to be dominated by Grace’s recollection of her story, punctuated only by brief scenes with Dr Jordan serving to remind us of the present. Yet this is in the series’ favour: Grace’s dramatic story of her immigration to Canada with her family, the close friendship she develops with fellow servant Mary (Rebecca Liddiard) at her first job in Toronto, and her hasty exit to work for Master Kinnear and Nancy in the country, is fascinating, layered with an enchanting voiceover from Grace as she tells her tale. And as her story becomes more twisted and blood-soaked, the viewer becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about Grace, just as Dr Jordan does: is she guilty? Is she mad? Is she both?

Sarah Gadon is absolutely captivating as Grace Marks, wide-eyed and seemingly innocent, yet with a hidden coldness and darkness to her that the audience can sense just under the surface, anticipating its reveal.

However, it is Dr Jordan’s side of the story, the present, which is Alias Grace’s downfall. The series’ reliance on Grace’s story leaves his character woefully underdeveloped, and his interactions with the committee and his odd sexual dreams surrounding Grace, the few pieces of character we discover about him, are so few and far between until the final episodes that they seem almost unnecessary to begin with. His character is simply there, as are most others, to facilitate Grace’s incredible story.

With such an intriguing first two episodes setting the stage, Alias Grace settles into its groove through the middle, but just as you think you know what you’re watching, the final episode goes off the rails with shock and surprise, leaving you wanting just one more episode to process what in the hell you just discovered. Whilst not entirely earned, the twist is worth it, especially for a series that leaves you in the dark for so long.

Certainly, a different way to end what starts off as such a straightforward period murder mystery, Alias Grace is an electric six episodes driven by the pursuit of truth and a hell of a main character, but which could’ve been more.

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Home Again

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In romantic comedy land, anything can happen. Two complete strangers from opposite sides of the world decide to swap houses for two weeks? Sure, that’s normal. A selfish businessman and hooker with a heart of gold fall in love? Happens all the time. Rival bookstore owners fall in love on an online chatroom? That’s just par for the course.

So, when in Home Again, the directorial debut of Hallie Meyers-Shyer (yes, the daughter of rom-com queen Nancy Meyers), a woman lets three young, strange men move into her house after a wild night out, don’t be surprised.

Reese Witherspoon is Alice, a 40 year-old, recently separated mother of two who, after a romantic evening with younger man Harry (Pico Alexander), lets he and his two filmmaker friends (Jon Rudnitsky and Nat Wolff) live at her house as they try to make a name for themselves in Hollywood. So, it’s just as crazy as every other romantic comedy.

But once you get past how ridiculous the premise is (this woman is willing to let strange young men live with her daughters? And basically, inducts them into her family after one night? Um, what?), Home Again throws so much charm and wit at you that you get lost in its relationships and utterly lovable characters.

Witherspoon is as watchable as ever as she forges new relationships with Harry, George and Teddy, and the chemistry between the four of them is light and sweet as they figure out their changing lives together, all the while parenting Alice’s precocious daughters Isabel and Rosie (Lola Flanery and Eden Grace Redfield). And then, of course, we’ve got to have a bad guy, and Michael Sheen’s estranged ex-husband Austen is the perfect fit, devilishly charming yet definitely bad news.

Though not much happens throughout the film after the boys move in, not much really needs to: while Alice struggles to get her new interior design business off the ground, and Harry, George and Teddy attempt to get their acclaimed short film adapted in the Hollywood system, the more interesting part of this film is its interactions, the kinds of unlikely friendships that the Meyers women are so good at creating.

It’s a small slice of life, no matter how unlikely, that reminds you that movies don’t have to be an epic, fast-paced fight-fest to be a delightful afternoon at the movies.

Click here for nationwide movie time for Home Again

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Chavela (Queer Screen Film Fest)

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Chavela Vargas was an icon in so many ways. She was a pioneering female artist in Mexican Ranchero music; a fierce lesbian who continues to empower the Mexican LGBT+ community; her 70+ year career survived turmoil and heartbreak, and she continued to perform well into her 90s, still selling out shows mere weeks before her death. She was a game-changer in every sense of the word, and though her legacy is enormous in Latin America and parts of Europe, directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi are determined to take her complex story to the world in the documentary Chavela.

Beginning with her move to Mexico as a young child from Costa Rica, Chavela chronicles the incredible loneliness of Chavela Vargas, her estrangement from her family and exclusion from public life, because while her sexuality was okay onstage, in Mexican society it was unacceptable. This led not only to her extreme alcoholism during the first half of her career, but also her endless romances and affairs; at one point in the film we discover that Chavela had seduced all of Mexico and half of Hollywood at the height of her career. As we meet some of the women who Chavela loved and lost, we discover how deeply she loved, and the tragedy of being loved by her fans, yet so alone.

Indeed, it is this loneliness that fueled her incredible music; with lyrics full of pain and sorrow, Chavela’s music is raw and soulful. Gund and Kyi weave together her stories and her songs all through the film, and the music paints the best picture of her life, one that you feel inside of you: despite all her heartache, she lived a full life that never slowed down. In fact, it only moved faster, with her triumphant comeback a reminder that Chavela was more than her addictions, and that just like her music, she would continue to inspire.

Throughout Chavela, many of her friends and lovers tell her tumultuous story, such as Jose Alfredo Jimenez Jr, son of Chavela’s legendary collaborator Jose Alfredo Jimenez, and Pedro Almodovar, the director who was instrumental in her comeback (she sang and appeared in The Flower of my Secret); yet the film’s most striking footage is of Chavela herself, in a group interview with fans. Frozen in time in this footage from 1990, her words give insight into the story unfolding around her, and also what was yet to come for her at the time of the interview.

Chavela’s lyrical journey through the emotional rollercoaster of Chavela’s life may take you to the lowest of lows of celebrity addiction and despair, but its redemptive arc is deeply satisfying as Chavela earns the career she always deserved.

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Girls Trip

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Once best friends in college, lifestyle guru Ryan (Regina Hall), gossip columnist Sasha (Queen Latifah), divorced and devoted mother of two Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) and loose cannon Dina (Tiffany Haddish) have slowly let their best-friendship decline over the years. But when Ryan is asked to be the keynote speaker at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, she and her Flossy Posse head down for a weekend of booze, guys, and trouble, reconnecting along the way.

 Girls Trip is a loud, sexy, over-the-top romp that grounds outrageous humour in the reality that, with four best friends, on one huge trip, anything can happen. It’s this relatability that guides us through the film’s biggest laughs – flashers, peeing on crowds, and hallucinations – but it’s also what makes the film funny throughout its whole runtime, peppering Girls Trip with one liners and throwaway quips that are belly-busters in themselves. And while Tiffany Haddish does much of the heavy lifting, the entire cast is hilarious: Hall’s career-obsessed Ryan is fed up, Queen Latifah’s Sasha is fun, and Haddish’s outlandish Dina gives Pinkett-Smith’s single mum Lisa the push she needs to get out of her comfort zone. Together they bring an enormous amount of chemistry not only to their comedy, but to the core friendship.

Girls Trip is also a heartfelt comedy, highlighting the strength and importance of female friendships and sisterhood as well as homing in on a lot of other issues facing modern women today. It tackles ideas like retaining your identity as a mother, and the true meaning of success as a woman, as well as the concept of women needing to “have it all”, without becoming too much of a “message movie”, and the overall idea that your friends will always support you is presented warmly and sincerely, something that is relatable for not only women, but men too.

But most of all, Girls Trip is memorable: not only does it land its scandalous humour, but many of the scenes are unforgettable, as are its characters – there are elements to Ryan, Dina, Sasha and Lisa that we can all relate to, yet they are fully formed, complex female characters dealing with real female friendships and issues, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a comedy since Bridesmaids. When Bridesmaids was released, it was hoped that it would usher in a new age of female comedies; hopefully, the success of Girls Trip will actually deliver on this promise, and we can see more women leading amazing comedies like this one.

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Salma Hayek: Double Trouble

The popular actress pops up in two movies in the coming month, as Samuel L. Jackson’s feisty wife in The Hitman’s Bodyguard and as a holistic masseuse and lead in Beatriz at Dinner.