Movie Review – Mary and the Witch’s Flower

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EXPECTATIONS: Something as magical as the Studio Ghibli entries.

REVIEW: It’s that fantastic time of the year again! We have another Studio Ghi–Wait a minute! This isn’t a Studio Ghibli film! It is in fact, a Studio Ponoc film. In case you don’t know, Studio Ponoc is an animation studio that was founded in 2015 by people who used to work in Studio Ghibli. One of these people is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the director of such Ghibli hits like The Secret Life of Arietty and When Marnie Was There.

Since the temporary halt in production in Studio Ghibli due to acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki‘s retirement back in 2014 (and later, his return), Studio Ponoc was born and Mary and the Witch’s Flower was declared as their first film project. Having been in production for two and a half years, the film was finally released, receiving acclaim from filmmakers like Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki.

And now we have the film up for release in English-speaking territories with an English dub, featuring voicework from Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent and others. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower live up to the high Ghibli standards or will it succumb to being a Ghibli wannabe?

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Mary Smith (Ruby Barnhill) is living with her great-aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) while her parents are on a business trip. It’s the last week of summer before school starts and Mary is bored because virtually all the local kids in the small British town of Redmanor are away on holiday. Desperate to do something to escape the boredom, she requests to do house chores but she fails at doing the simplest tasks and thinks low of her own self-worth.

One day, while eating lunch, she sees a black cat turn to a gray one, she readily follows it into the woods, where she finds a strange glowing blue flower. This, it turns out, is Fly-by-night, or the Witch’s Flower, an incredibly rare flower that blooms every seven years. When Mary takes a hold of the flower, it releases magical powers and leads her on a magical adventure that exceeds her wildest dreams.

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The synopsis is quite vague but it is best to watch this film with very little prior knowledge of it. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower live up to the standards of Studio Ghibli? It comes very close to it, but as a first entry for Studio Ponoc, it’s a huge success.

For a change of pace, let’s dwell with the negatives first, if you can call it that. The story is very familiar to casual audiences, since it is very reminiscent of the Harry Potter book, despite the fact the story is based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, a film that predates Harry Potter by about a quarter of a century. Where as the sci-fi angle of the film is quite reminiscent of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, with its terms of greed and lust for power and steampunk inspirations. Even the themes are reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki tropes, like environmental messages such as animal testing, the wide-eyed heroine, the same sense of wonder and others things.

Not only that, what can bother Ghibli fans is that the visuals and animation are very reminiscent of prior Ghibli films to the point that it sometimes looks recycled. One of the villains has roughly the same face as Kamaji, the boiler operator in Spirited Away, while a slimy creature in the film is reminiscent of No-Face in Spirited Away. And there’s also Mary’s climb up a scary cliff-side staircase and her visit to a house surrounded by water both closely evoke Spirited Away.

There are all sorts of familiar Ghibli images in Mary and the Witch’s Flower, from a character that resembles fire that recalls Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle to Mary’s broom-riding adventures and a black cat familiar, reminiscent of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Hell, there’s even a monster/vehicle that is eerily similar to the one in Laputa: Castle in the Sky. So if you’re expecting something new and out of the box from Studio Ponoc, chances are you’re going to be a bit disappointed.

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the motto for Mary and the Witch’s Flower but thankfully all of the parts add up to a magical and fun time. The animation, character designs and the playful musical score by Muramatsu Takatsugu (however familiar they are) are stunning to behold, perfectly bouncing from serenity, fantasy and whimsy with ease. The opening prologue, which involves a daring escape via broomstick from shape-shifting minions, is absolutely thrilling and electrifying and hints of the many great things to come.

The character of Mary is very well-developed as she discovers the self-confidence and independence she will need to rely on in adulthood, throughout the film. She starts off as doubtful, as she faces moments about starting at a new school and her frizzy red hair and in the middle of the film, she turns brash and cocky with her newfound powers but at the end, her change in character feels earned and satisfying, without an ounce of sentimentality or forced emotion. While I’ve never read the source material, I’m sure it the female empowerment element was instilled there and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and co-writer Riko Sakaguchi (who last co-wrote the Studio Ghibli film The Tale of Princess Kaguya) honoured it for the film.

The other characters like Great-Aunt Charlotte and Peter all compliment the film but the standout villains like Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee are both entertainingly menacing and yet, are realistically recognizable by their actions and ambitions driven by greed and lust for power. In fact, their actions are so recognizable, the film acknowledges both science and magic together, much like the collaborations of the characters, in a way that is quite refreshing.

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And let’s not forget the cast assembled for the English-language dub, which is very well done. Ruby Barnhill (who was great in Steven Spielberg‘s The BFG) is fantastic as Mary, as she expresses the growing confidence and inner turmoil of her character with ease, and even gets in on the Japanese mannerisms with aplomb. Kate Winslet does icy and posh really well as the villainess, Madam Mumblechook while Jim Broadbent is an over-the-top hoot as Doctor Dee, as he displays enthusiasm and liveliness that otherwise would’ve made a villain quite annoying.

Overall, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is basically a greatest hits album of Studio Ghibli tropes and elements, but it’s a very well-assembled one that proves if the formula ain’t broke, why bother fixing it? With astoundingly beautiful animation, a playful and lively musical score, an empowering heroine, fun and menacing villains and a fun story, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a great first entry for Studio Ponoc. Conjure up the next spell!

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic animation

The cast do great with their performances

Well-developed characters, particularly in the case of Mary

Retains the magic and spirit of Studio Ghibli entries

CONS

Similar to prior Ghibli entries the point of being derivative

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Lynda Baron, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Ewen Bremner
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Screenwriters: Riko Sakaguchi, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, based on the book “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart

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Movie Review – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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EXPECTATIONS: Something mediocre that I hope the cast will transcend from.

REVIEW: It’s quite amusing that films based on videogames like Assassin’s Creed, Max Payne, Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter are complete rubbish and yet films that revolve around videogames or reflect the videogame aesthetic are a different story.

With films like David Cronenberg‘s sci-fi body horror film eXistenZ (which is a spiritual followup to Videodrome), Edgar Wright‘s graphic novel film adaptation Scott Pilgrim VS The World, Nick Castle‘s sci-fi adventure The Last Starfighter and others, it is possible to make great films out of such thematic material due to the unlimited possibilities one can create.

As for the original Jumanji film, the film is not a classic as there are plenty of problems with it (the special effects were bad even at that time, the overwhelming sentimentality, the inconsistent production values and others). But at least it had a sense of fun and the performers played it sincere so that we care about their fates.

So now we have Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, or as I like to call it, Zoo-manji, and it will be referred to that way throughout the review. With nary a link to the original film, a comedically capable cast and a story that basically transplants the original source material within a videogame aesthetic, there’s a chance that the film might actually be good, despite the bad buzz it carried from the reception of the trailers. So does the film succeed in a fun time or is it time to throw away the dice?

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The film starts off with four high school kids (Alex Wolff, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain and Madison Iseman) being brought to detention due to their character traits (in other words, stereotypes). While they are cleaning the storeroom, they discover an old video game console, with the video cartridge named Jumanji.

As the four reluctantly play the game just to avoid boredom, they are drawn into the game’s jungle setting, literally becoming the adult avatars they chose (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black). In order to survive, they must follow the rules of the game and complete the quest assigned to them before the world of Jumanji is destroyed, along with their lives. Or something.

Does the film exceed my expectations by providing a fun time and keep up the trend that films revolving around the videogame aesthetic are good? Unfortunately, no, as Zoo-manji is another example of the rubbish blockbuster filled with desperate performances, a story that is parts from better films stitched up terribly and stereotypes that are both annoyingly self-aware and self-sufficient.

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Let’s begin with the problems. The first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film are insufferable to get through. We encounter the high school stereotypes that we’ve seen a thousand times before like the nerd, the jock, the princess and the loner and they are all annoyingly portrayed (No fault to the actors, just the crummy script) and it takes forever to get to the actual plot.

With films like Raw, Thelma and even Spider-Man: Homecoming, those films break stereotypes and show actual human beings or even likable characters, but in Zoo-manji, you just want to react like Milhouse from The Simpsons and cry out “When are they gonna get to the video game?!”

And then after the torturous set-up, we finally end up in the jungle, where we meet the avatars. First off, I like the four lead actors. I’ve enjoyed many of their works (Johnson in the Fast and Furious films; Hart in About Last Night and Captain Underpants; Gillan in Oculus and the Guardians of the Galaxy films and Black in The School of Rock and Bernie) and despite interviews saying that they’re playing against type, apart from Gillan, they are all doing their usual shtick to an insane level but unfortunately the script makes them sink.

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Dwayne Johnson has always played against type with his action persona. So much so, that he ends up circling back around again and it ends up being his type. Despite being affable and self-deprecating (especially when smoldering), he’s saddled with an annoying character that makes the most stupid decisions involving a sacrifice to accomplish a task where he could’ve easily done it himself. Not only that, it’s treated as a joke. But hey, The Rock don’t break, it’s the script.

Kevin Hart does his usual loud-mouth shtick that wears off in about five minutes, but here in Zoo-manji, he seems especially desperate to rekindle the chemistry he had with Johnson from Central Intelligence, which makes him so unbearably brash and abrasive (PTSD flashbacks of The Secret Life of Pets) that one would hope someone would push him off a cliff. But hey, I’m not the one that pushed him, it’s the script.

Jack Black does the best he can with the body-swapping character of a woman in a man’s body, but the material he’s given, again, makes him unfunny and annoying. The amount of dick jokes in the film is indicative of the quality of the script. When a film (A family-oriented film, no really.) does jokes that brings back memories to not Freaky Friday, but the Rob Schneider film, The Hot Chick, your film’s got problems. Or accurately, the script.

And last we have Karen Gillan. She displayed a convincingly tough side in the horror film Oculus and has displayed action chops in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, so I’m not surprised that she can handle the action scenes well. But her interactions with Black also happen to be the best parts of the film, as the two have a nice chemistry together and her physical comedy chops are quite amusing. But that damn script (I hate repeating myself) and the filmmaking let her down.

The scriptwriters go for the meta-approach in the way her avatar is portrayed, which is meant to be a Lara Croft-type. Instead of calling out the portrayal, the filmmakers leer on her so much (which includes a seductive dance known as dance fighting), that it becomes blatantly duplicitous. You think after Wonder Woman, we would get over this but after Zoo-manji and Justice League, apparently not. You can’t have the cake and eat it too!

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Speaking of cake, let’s get to the script itself. Apart from the terrible attempts of humour (which involves explosions due to cake consumption because God knows why), the film tries to be clever with the videogame aesthetics applied to a typical adventure plot, but these elements were far better explored in David Cronenberg‘s eXistenz, i.e non-player characters, extra lives and so on; and don’t add much of anything beyond lame attempts of humour. If anything, with that and the excessive CGI, it makes the film worse since it takes the tension and stakes away.

Say what you want about the original Jumanji film, but at least in there, it had actual stakes and the effects were practical (like the deadly plants and water sets), which makes it much easier to immerse the audience. But in the case of Zoo-manji, it all ends up being a bunch of flashes, bells and whistles that it gradually becomes tedious. It also does not help that some of the green-screen effects look really obvious, especially in the night scenes.

The script also becomes incredibly contrived, like how Johnson’s character has the ability of speed, but only uses it once as a joke. Or how moments in the film are brought up as lazy foreshadowing like the characters’ weaknesses. Or the fact that only one of the lead characters has ever played a video game before. Or the basic rules of time travel that tries to hark back to the original film for a cheap moment of sentimentality. Speaking of sentimentality and drama, there’s a tragic(?) moment in the film that was so badly handled (and foreshadowed in a way that’s stated above) that it got the biggest laugh out of me.

And on that note, let’s sum up, because I can’t be bothered to talk about the supporting cast like the amusing Rhys Darby, the non-entity Nick Jonas (thanks to the script) and the “I can’t wait to get on the next Scorsese project” Bobby Cannavale. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a lazy, unfunny and undernourished blockbuster that wastes its likable leads with a terrible script and sub-par filmmaking. The film tries to be Indiana Jones meets eXistenZ, but it ends up being Sahara meets Pixels. Game over.

Quickie Review

PROS

Likable leads

CONS

The humour is unfunny

Duplicitous portrayal of Gillan’s character

No stakes, tension or wit

Stereotypes still stick out like a sore thumb

Derivative and never even living up to those themes

SCORE: 4/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner
Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenwriters: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg

Movie Review – Paddington 2

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EXPECTATIONS: A sequel equal to the wonderful original.

REVIEW: I don’t know how the first Paddington film became as good as it is. Considering that the trailers made it look awful and the late cast changes in regards to who provides the voice of the titular bear, I was actually expecting the worst. But to everyone’s shock, it turned out to be one of the best family films of that year. Or even one of the best films of that year.

Full of charm, heart, British wit, visual invention and a refreshing lack of postmodernism and pop culture references, Paddington was a genuine and welcome surprise for all. So when there was news that a second film was going to be made, I was excited beyond belief. With all the cast and crew from the original returning (bar Nicole Kidman, of course) and with Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson and others playing new characters, will the film live up to the original?

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After the events of the original film, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) has nestled in nicely with the Brown family (consisting of Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin and Julie Walters) and has become a hit in the neighbourhood.

Still communicating to his Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) via letter, Paddington plans to get her a special birthday present in the form of a pop-up book. Realizing how expensive and valuable the book is, Paddington works as a window cleaner to earn the money.

And just as he is close to achieving his goal, a ragged thief steals the book from the antique store owned by Samuel Gruber (Jim Broadbent). Failing to catch the thief, Paddington ends up taking the fall for the crime and is sent to prison.

Will Paddington ever get to send Aunt Lucy the perfect birthday present? Will the Brown family ever catch the thief and clear Paddington‘s name? Will Paddington survive his time in prison?

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To get off track of this review a tiny morsel, over the course of my life, I’ve never tried marmalade before. But if I were to try it, it would have an immense lot to live up to in comparison to this wondrous film.

Everything that made the original such a joy is back in the sequel. The extravagantly colourful cinematography by Erik Wilson is more bold than ever to the point that this film has the most beautiful looking prison I’ve ever seen. Dario Marianelli (who replaces Nick Urata) unsurprisingly provides a magically stirring score that adds to the storybook vibe of the film.

And the script by director Paul King and Simon Farnaby (who reprises his small role as Barry) never forgets the lightness of tone and sweet humour and storytelling that made the previous film so successful. They give the characters ample screentime and moments that are all satisfying arcs that foreshadow a fantastic punchline or an emotional moment.

Even some of the more daring humour packs a punch i.e. when Mrs. Bird despises a particular occupation. And once again, the film thankfully does away with the modernities to keep its storybook vibe intact (i.e. no mobile phones) and keeps the classic elements like phone booths and steam trains. Speaking of steam trains, the action sequences are terrific in terms of thrills and visual humour that is reminiscent of Wes Anderson or even Harold Lloyd.

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But let’s not forget the wonderful cast. The regulars are all enjoyable to watch and they clearly haven’t lost a step. Ben Whishaw is again spot-on as Paddington, as he provides the perfect balance of sincerity, sweetness, heart and conviction. Sally Hawkins is a hoot as she conveys Mary’s unhinged thirst for adventure while Peter Capaldi is clearly making the most out of his screen-time as the lovably annoying neighbour Mr. Curry.

Even the supporting actors of various amounts of screen-time (including Jessica Hynes, Joanna Lumley, Sanjay Bhaskar and others) add much joy to the film. There’s one particular cameo which I will not spoil that had the audience laugh out loud when he showed up.

But the new actors coming in are the stand-outs here. Brendan Gleeson, who’s no slouch to comedy or family films (as In Bruges and the Harry Potter films clearly indicate) and he is an incredibly good sport as Nuckles McGinty, the prison cook. He clearly knows the material and adapts his performance to it perfectly, making a surprising companion (Or is he?) to Paddington.

And there’s of course, Hugh Grant. One of the most self-deprecating actors on the planet, in Paddington 2, he takes it up another step as washed-out theatre actor, Phoenix Buchanan (A true stage name, if there ever was one.). In the film, he basically plays multiple roles (ranging from a ragged hobo to a nun of all people) and he relishes every single one of them. Whether he is equipped with small throwaway gags (like missing a cravat) or dressing up in silly costumes (like a dog costume), Grant nails the part with gusto.

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As for its flaws, I honestly can’t really think of any. Apart from some gags I missed out because I was laughing so much and some of the CGI/green-screen effects in the action scenes being quite noticeable, those barely even qualify as nitpicks.

Overall, Paddington 2 is a wonderful sequel that the whole family will enjoy and it will certainly bring a smile to one’s face. Now I’m off to go and try marmalade for the first time before Paddington gives me the hard stare. Just kidding!

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic cast

Vibrant storybook score

Colorful cinematography

Retains sense of humour that made the first film successful

Great new characters

CONS

Gags may be missed due to massive amounts of laughter

Some iffy CGI/green-screen effects

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Samuel Joslin, Madeleine Harris, Peter Capaldi, Tom Conti, Joanna Lumley, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Eileen Atkins
Director: Paul King
Screenwriters: Paul King, Simon Farnaby, based on characters created by Michael Bond

Movie Review – Kung Fu Yoga

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EXPECTATIONS: An insufferable experience from the once-great Jackie Chan.

REVIEW: Before I get into this review, let’s get the b-word out of the way. I am a fan of Jackie Chan. Ever since I saw one of his films on SBS, I became a huge fan of his due to his incredible dexterity, his creative fight choreography, his amazing stuntwork and his likable aw-shucks persona.

But like every action hero, the thing that defeats them is age, but Chan has always compensated with more creative fight choreography, a sharper focus on acting and and branching out from his likable persona.

But ever since 2009, he’s hit a major snag that has rendered his reputation from being extremely likable to something a lot more polarizing i.e. he became a supporter of Communist China.

Since then, the quality of his films have dropped massively, with very little effort involved from everyone including fight choreography, ill-disciplined use of the high budget and the incredibly childish sense of humour that seems to be present to pander to the China market.

And last but not least, the jingoism and xenophobia is incredibly blatant that it is quite easy to be thrown out of the film. Cases in point: Skiptrace, Shinjuku Incident, Chinese Zodiac, Dragon Blade, Railroad Tigers; the list goes on.

And now, we have Kung Fu Yoga, an action/adventure that seems to be a throwback to the Armour of God films, with all the globetrotting and action you would expect. But can this film break the negative trend or will it sink into it?

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Jackie Chan plays Jack (who else?), a world-renowned archaeology professor, and his team are on a grand quest to locate a lost ancient Indian treasure when they are ambushed by a team of mercenaries and left for dead. Using his vast knowledge of history and kung fu (what else?), Jack leads his team on a race around the world to beat the mercenaries to the treasure and save an ancient culture.

Now that is a simple enough plot that is easy to follow. But boy, is it terribly told. The introduction to the film is incredibly emblematic of this flaw. It involves a five-minute backstory all told in terribly rendered CGI that could have only come from a PS2 game but what is bewildering is that it has absolutely no effect or relevance to the plot whatsoever!

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But hey, who cares about the plot in a Jackie Chan film? All we want is the action! Is the action good in Kung Fu Yoga? Nope, not at all. The choreography looks sloppy, uninspired and worst of all, boring. The stunts obviously look wire-assisted, the CGI implemented looks absolutely atrocious and the sets look incredibly cheap. Nothing in the action scenes thrill or amuse and it just ends up being tedious. When a major highlight in an action scene involves a horrific looking CGI lion in a car, believe me, you’re in trouble.

So, when you have terrible action scenes in a Jackie Chan film, all you have is, well, a whiff of something you’re sure not to like. There’s the xenophobia and jingoism present throughout i.e. how there are no Indians that can find an Indian artifact in India, and can solve the puzzle inscribed on the artifact. In Indian. Or how the film actually has the guts to provide a ham-fisted moral lesson from the Chinese to Indians, about something they read from an Indian artifact! And the character actually says “Stop teaching me about my own country!”

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And there’s also the blatant plagiarism that the film steals from eg. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Fast and the Furious films, Tomb Raider and the James Bond films. And there are many details that took me off guard. Like, why is there the use of bells in a university? How do you distract wolves with kung fu stances and snowball throwing? Why is it that a gunshot does not echo throughout the ice cave to signal that someone is in the cave? How is it that the ice cave, which is believed to be in the middle of nowhere, have two people come out of the cave through a staircase? With handrails?

Asking all of these, and many other questions, just made me realize that the film didn’t entertain or distract me from any of those flaws. The actors are no great shakes in their performances and most of them were clearly hired for market appeal rather than thespian chops. Or even charisma.

Even for those who are talented, like Eric Tsang, they disappear faster than Jackie Chan’s reputation in Hong Kong. And the tone is all over the place; the film is clearly aiming for family-friendly (or so it says) humour, and yet there are instances of adult language and violence involving deadly animals.

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Now the end credits is actually the best part of the film. And not because it meant the film was over. I personally hated the way they remixed the original song, but the dance number looked very nice and is well choreographed, by Farah Khan no less.

Kung Fu Yoga is a massive disappointment for fans of Jackie Chan, fans of cinema, Indian fans, Indian people in general and is just a complete embarrassment for all involved. Even the Indians didn’t like the film when the film was released there. That tells you what you need to know.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Okay dance number in the end

Eric Tsang in a very small role

CONS

Everything else

SCORE: 2/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Jackie Chan, Disha Patani, Aarif Lee Rahman, Sonu Sood, Lay Zhang, Mu Qimiya, Zhang Guoli, Eric Tsang, Amyra Dastur, Coco Jiang
Director: Stanley Tong
Screenwriter: Stanley Tong

Movie Review – Kubo and the Two Strings

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EXPECTATIONS: A beautifully realized fantasy adventure from Laika.

REVIEW: Laika Studios is an animation studio that I am not fully familiar with. Now put your pitchforks away, it’s not due to bad expectations. I honestly don’t know why I am not more into their work although without knowing, I have enjoyed their first studio film, Coraline, immensely. And reading about their other works like The Boxtrolls and Paranorman, I was interested of what they have cooked up for their latest film. An Asian-influenced fantasy film with the use of stop-motion that adapts the art of origami? And it also stars Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey as a monkey and a beetle samurai? This honestly sounds like a film I would have loved to have seen when I was a kid. Hell, it sounds incredibly appealing at my current age. So does the film live up to its studio’s sterling reputation or will it rank alongside mediocre animated films like The Angry Birds Movie and the latest Ice age sequel?

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In Ancient Japan, a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) cares for his sick mother in a village. A spirit from the past known as The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) turns Kubo’s life upside down by re-igniting an age-old vendetta. This causes all sorts of havoc as gods and monsters chase Kubo. In order to survive, Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor once worn by his late father, Hanzo a legendary Samurai warrior. On his journey, he also gains some allies in a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and he realizes he also has more demons on his way, like his twin aunts, whom are also phantoms (both played by Rooney Mara).

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As you can see by the pictures (or the trailer), the animation is absolutely spectacular. The sheer commitment to the animation is just mind-blowing to the point that everything you question on-screen about whether it is CGI or practical effects, trust me, it is all practical. Even the water! And the character designs are all distinct while retaining the Asian influence. I especially loved the character design of the twin aunts, particularly when the first appear in the night. It was reminiscent of ghost stories in Japan i.e Kwaidan stories. And the stop-motion animation of the monsters are endearingly reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen films, which will please adults as much as children.

Speaking of pleasing adults, the story is surprisingly thematic and mature. Venturing towards themes such as death and autonomously determining your fate with minimal sugar-coating or being patronizing to children, it fits into the story in terms of its character development like a glove, which helps the audience relate to Kubo. Even if the themes go over the minds of children, the film still provides a rollicking fantasy adventure. The action scenes are thrilling to watch, particularly the martial arts scenes. Planning and executing them had to be a pain to do, but it pays off really well, particularly in a scene where Monkey fights one of the twins on the ship out in the ocean.

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And what would it be without the characters? With such a strange Hollywood cast chosen for these fantasy characters, it’s a wonder that they work as well as they should. Art Parkinson (known for his appearances in Game of Thrones) is endearing and convincingly conflicted as Kubo, as he not only has to deal with this quest involving family conflict, but he is also going through adolescence and owning up to his destiny, and Parkinson portrays that well. Matthew McConaughey is a hoot as Beetle, a former samurai who worked under Hanzo yet his memory isn’t quite what it used to be, leading to some very funny situations.

Ralph Feinnes can play the villainous role in his sleep and with his small role as the Moon King, he suffices. Rooney Mara seems to be relishing playing the twin villains, as she seems to be quite animated (not a pun) and delightfully acidic, when you compare it to her other live-action performances. But the big standout is Charlize Theron as Monkey. Authoritative, strong and paternal to an amusing degree, she steals every scene she is in and the chemistry between her and McConaughey is surprisingly sweet despite the two never working together in the same vicinity. And it was great to hear veteran actress Brenda Vaccaro again, who delights in her small role as Kameyo.

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As for its flaws, the story may be a little bit too simple for some and the motivation for some of the villains are not really clear, hindering the ending a little bit. Also, although the character of Beetle is very funny, his comic relief antics can intrude with the dramatic through-line at times.

But overall, Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best films of the year and I highly recommend it. With its spectacular animation, thrilling action scenes, likable characters and a great message, Laika Studios has gotten me interested to watch their other work.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular animation

Likable characters

Resonant themes

Fantastic action scenes

CONS

Motivations of villains a bit unclear

Intrusive comic relief

Overly simplistic story

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey.
Director: Travis Knight
Screenwriter: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, Shannon Tindle

Movie Review – Finding Dory

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EXPECTATIONS: A Pixar sequel not as underwhelming as Cars 2, but along the lines of Monsters University.

REVIEW: Pixar Studios has been long regarded as one of the best animation studios in the world today, alongside Studio Ghibli, which my denial says that it still exists. But ever since the release of Cars 2, an incredibly disappointing sequel (to a film that wasn’t that good to begin with) that seems more like a product than an actual film, the seemingly infallible quality of Pixar has fallen. With other films like Brave, Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur, it seems to go towards that theory, but a creative upward surge happened with the release of Inside Out, a wonderfully exuberant and creative film. And now we have Finding Dory, the long-awaited sequel to the 2003 hit, Finding Nemo. Will the film be worth the 13 year wait, or will it end up being disappointing like Cars 2?

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Approximately one year after the events of the first film, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) is now living with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son, Nemo (Hayden Rolence, replacing Alexander Gould). Having memories gradually coming back involving her family, Dory sets out to find her family, much to the worry of Marlin. Remembering something about “the jewel of Morro Bay, California”, the three end up at the Monterey Marine Life Institute. The three unfortunately get split up and they have to find each other as well as Dory’s parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy) with a bunch of new friends like Bailey (Ty Burrell), a white beluga whale; Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a whale shark; and Hank (Ed O’Neill), an octopus, who becomes her guide.

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Was this film worth the 13 year wait? Yes and no. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not truly criticizing the film in any major way, but sequels with long time gaps are usually made to cash in on the nostalgia value rather than being made for valid creative reasons. But seeing this film, the reason for this film to exist makes perfect sense and fits the Disney/Pixar formula to a T. What also bothered me was the decision to make Dory the main character of the film. Considering what happened with Cars 2, which made the disastrous decision to make Mater the main character (much to the annoyance of many, including myself), I was fearful that Finding Dory would also end up being an annoyance. Thankfully, that never happened and it is all thanks to Ellen DeGeneres‘ performance.

Having perfect comic timing and seamlessly going into drama, DeGeneres is still fantastic as the lovable Dory, who is more than just comic relief. The characters of Marlin and Nemo are merely passengers for The Dory Show Finding Dory, but Albert Brooks and Hayden Rolence still play off well as father and son. Marlin’s bird call still makes me laugh even when I’m writing this review. The supporting cast are great with their roles, with standouts like Ty Burrell as Bailey, a neurotic beluga whale who can’t seem to perform the act of echolocation (amusingly referred as the world’s best pair of glasses); Kaitlin Olson as Destiny, a near-sighted whale shark and childhood friend of Dory’s; and Ed O’Neill as Hank, a grumpy octopus who yearns to be confined in an aquarium and is jokingly referred as a “septopus” due to his lost tentacle.

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The Pixar formula is still running with Finding Dory, as it tries to balance laughs and emotion, but it has gotten a little bit rusty, making this film a bit inferior to Finding Nemo. The attempts of tugging the heartstrings of the audience has gotten a bit more manipulative, especially with more reliance on music cues. Plus, it does not really help that the plot of Finding Dory is still a retread of the first film. Fortunately, for what it lacks in emotional investment, it makes up for with laughs and charm. The many visual gags evoke plenty of guffaws like Hank’s camouflage and the character of Becky, a strange looking bird. But the final act of the film has one of the funniest climaxes that Pixar has ever done. Involving echolocation, car traffic, land animals and a well-placed song, it had me gleefully choking at my popcorn at one point. Plus the cuteness levels are off the charts when you see the young version of Dory and the plentiful otters. And do not get me started on the surprise celebrity voice cameo played by a fantastic actress, whom actually figures into the plot, that made me laugh so much whenever she was being referred to.

Does this film stand up to the original? Sort of. It does not make a mockery to the Pixar name like Cars 2 did, and it is better than unnecessary films like Monsters University, but it falls short of the fantastic quality Pixar films like Inside Out, the Toy Story films and Up, or even this year’s Disney animated film, Zootopia. But it is still great fun for the whole family, has a simple but important message and it shows that Pixar is far from being over.

P.S – Stay after the end credits for a delightful surprise.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Ellen DeGeneres is fantastic as Dory

The Pixar formula still charms and delights

Supporting characters are great

Hilarious gags, whether visual or vocal (the celebrity guest cameo had me grinning and laughing out loud)

CONS

Emotionally manipulative at times

Plot is a retread of the original film

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Andrew Stanton
Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse, original story by Andrew Stanton

Movie Review – The BFG (Sydney Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: A entertaining yet slight film from director Steven Spielberg.

REVIEW: Like many people in the world, Roald Dahl has been one of my favourite authors during my childhood. His twisted sense of humour, his unique whimsical touch and its warm-hearted tone have delighted kids as well as adults all around the world and even the film adaptations of his works have all been well-regarded by critics as well as audiences. So when you have critically-acclaimed director Steven Spielberg who has been involved in such children’s classics like E.T – The Extra Terrestrial, Gremlins, The Goonies and others; working alongside Melissa Mathison (R.I.P) who was the screenwriter for E.T, you can understand that I was hyped to see this movie. Does it stand alongside the best Roald Dahl film adaptations like Fantastic Mr Fox and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or will end up being a disappointment?

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Ruby Barnhill plays Sophie, a steadfast orphan who suffers from insomnia and stays up every night at 3am to see the wondrous occurrences outside her window. She then sees an elderly giant and it suddenly kidnaps her and takes her to Giant Country. The two start off in amusing conflicts and then slowly befriend each other to the point where Sophie names the giant as The BFG (Mark Rylance). When Sophie finds out that The BFG is a victim of bullying among his own kind as well as their evil intent, Sophie and The BFG set out on a magical and thrilling adventure to capture the evil, man-eating giants who have been invading the human world.

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The first thing that struck me about this film was how old-fashioned it feels. The pacing, the character interactions, the whimsy and the warm tone; it all adds up to a film that stands out among other family films, which these days are incredibly fast-paced and visually jarring at times. It is refreshing to see a film like this these days and that is thanks to the talented cast and crew. Spielberg and Mathison perfect their storytelling chops with many great visuals and with very little exposition while composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky adds their magic touch with a beautiful score and cinematography, accentuating the magical wonder of the settings, especially when you see Dream Country. The film is also surprisingly faithful to the source material, from the third act involving the Queen of England to whole lines of dialogue straight from the book; Roald Dahl fans will certainly cherish how the cast and crew take the story to heart.

The cast also certainly help make the world more immersive, with Ruby Barnhill being an absolute joy as Sophie. Convincingly brave and in awe of what she sees, it is a great debut performance that I hope would reward her with greater parts. Mark Rylance is a perfect choice for The BFG, as he seems to have the time of his life, playing the joyful and dramatic sides of his character to a T. He even sells his admittedly ridiculous lines of dialogue and makes all of them amusing. The two have a great chemistry together, whether they are bickering about how to pronounce words or bonding over their hopes and dreams. While the rest of the supporting cast are fine in their parts (with Jermaine Clement and Penelope Wilton as stand-outs), it is Barnhill and Rylance that the audience will remember fondly.

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As for flaws, the running time of the film is too long, especially when you know the source material is not particularly a novel-size story. Scenes tend to go on for too long and it can bore some. Also, since the story is really faithful to the book, adults may think the story can be a bit too infantile, especially when it reaches the gloriously ridiculous third act. But what slightly bothered me was that I did not feel that emotionally invested into the story as much as I could have been. The villains of the film (involving Jermaine Clement, Bill Hader and others) don’t really feel like much of a threat beyond their stereotypical bullying roles, and it does take some of its dramatic thrust out the film. And that also includes the lack of character insight of Sophie herself, when we do not really see how the orphanage life has affected her, leaving her arc a little ill-defined.

But overall, The BFG is an entertaining and magical film that will certainly delight children of all ages as well as Roald Dahl fanatics such as myself. Does anyone have a bottle of frobscottle, because I want to propose a toast to the cast and crew of The BFG!

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic production values add magic and wonder

Spielberg’s and Mathison’s refreshingly old-fashioned storytelling chops

Barnhill and Rylance give wonderful performances and have a great chemistry

A wonderfully ridiculous third act

CONS

Overlong running time

Slow pace may bore some

Not much of an emotional investment to the story

Thin villain portrayals

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Screenwriter: Melissa Mathison, based on the book of the same name by Roald Dahl

Movie Review – Love and Peace (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: Absolutely no idea. Which is what every Sion Sono film should elicit. Feelings of obliviousness and curiosity.

REVIEW: Believe it or not, this is apparently one of SIX films Sion Sono has planned for release this year alone. And one of them is still not disclosed yet. And I’ve only seen two of them! I remember viewing my first Sion Sono film (Suicide Club) and it was one hell of an experience. The blood and gore, the pitch-black satire, the hyper-realistic world, the dark tone in contrast to the surreal J-Pop musical interludes, it was pure euphoria. I’ve been following his work ever since and now Sono is on his way of surpassing Takashi Miike to become Japan’s fully-fledged maverick filmmaker. His films have ranged from a wide array of genres (often mixing them all at once) and, like Miike, is more popular overseas than in his native country. And like I said before, he has SIX films in 2015. One of them is a teen sex comedy, one of them is a gangster crime film, one of them is an arthouse sci-fi drama, one of them is a teen horror film, one of them has not been disclosed yet and the one I’m reviewing is a family film that just happens to have rock’n’roll, kaiju, cute puppets and city-wide destruction. This film is Love and Peace. A film I never would have expected from Sion Sono and I gotta say, it was a terrific surprise.

Hiroki Hasegawa stars as Ryoichi, a timid salaryman at a musical parts company, who dreams of being a rockstar. He constantly gets bullied at work by everyone except for Yuko (Kumiko Aso), a woman he has a crush on. To pass through the dull ennui and everyday minutiae of his life, he breaks routine, buys a baby turtle and names it Pikadon, which is amusingly defined as a nuclear disaster. Bonding with Pikadon as a friend as well as an outlet of his frustrations, dreams and wants (using a homemade board game), he decides to bring Pikadon to work, but Pikadon shows itself to the entire staff and Ryoichi gets ridiculed much harsher than usual. Having enough of this abuse, he lets his anger out on Pikadon but in a tragic fashion, he accidentally flushes it down the toilet, which leads it in the sewer. As Ryoichi cries over the loss of his one true friend, Pikadon discovers something in the sewer after being brought in by a homeless man (Toshiyuki Nishida) that can only be described as magical; so magical that it will change the lives of Ryoichi and everyone else in Japan forever.

There’s much more I can go through with the synopsis, but the film is best left unspoiled. But what I can tell you that this film is very reminiscent of director Tim Burton’s work and seeing it come to life was a pure delight. Unfortunately the film does not start that well. The overacting from the cast to the assaultive editing and meandering storytelling makes you wonder what the point of the film is, but once the film introduces Pikadon, the film improves immensely. The film doesn’t even try to be realistic to the point that that the fantasy world Sono is trying to portray is achieved with very little CGI and intentionally low-fi practical effects. Characters in the sewer ranging from discarded pets and toys (aside from Nishida) are all puppetry (with strings shown) and they are all adorable to look at and lovable, from the tragic doll Maria (voiced by Shoko Nakagawa) who was left behind by her infant owner; to a smart-aleck cat Sulky (voiced by Shinji Miyadai) who despises humans and an antique toy robot, PC-300 (voiced by Gen Hoshino), unaware of the world outside the sewers. The musical score is also reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s scores from Tim Burton films, although Sono does reuse musical tracks from his previous films like Love Exposure and Himizu. He also uses excerpts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the same excerpts used in A Clockwork Orange), which add to the maniacal world. Oh, did I mention Pikadon itself? I can say, without doubt, that this is the cutest turtle ever portrayed on film. The huge eyes, the way it walks and the fantastic vocals from Ikue Otani (who voices Pikachu in the Pokemon series) just engenders sympathy from the audience so quickly, it’s irresistible.

As for many of Sono’s films, there is a bit of social commentary within the proceedings, and in the case of Love and Peace, it is the theme of consumerism. All the toys and animals were discarded and it is a commentary about what the Japanese people take for granted and how much they are spoiled with new trends of shopping. Sono also adds satirical barbs around the music industry and celebrity stardom that surprisingly fits into the movie well, with its terms around Ryoichi’s character development and what it means for celebrity fans to show love instead of excessive fandom.

As for the human characters, they all give good performances. Hiroki Hasegawa, who is on a roll with his versatility lately (hyperactive film director in Why Don’t You Play in Hell, vocal teacher in Lady Maiko, warrior soldier in Attack on Titan films, suitor in Princess Jellyfish) and his role as Ryoichi is played really well and I was surprised at how believable he was a rockstar. His singing skills are great and the songs themselves (particularly the title song) are incredibly catchy. There’s even a song that is a reference to Why Don’t You Play in Hell that had me laughing. The character growth from timid salaryman to egotistical rockstar is sometimes hard to watch due to how selfish Ryoichi can be, yet it is easy to believe and to sympathize and it is a testament to Hasegawa. Toshiyuki Nishida, whom I know from the TV series Monkey, gives a great performance as Pa, the homeless man who lives in the sewer. He shows the perfect balance of tenderness and grumpiness to become endearing and once a reveal happens later in the film, it will surprise you at first, but then you realize it fits perfectly with his character, thanks to Nishida’s performance. The only unfortunate liability in the cast is Kumiko Aso. There is no fault in her performance itself as she does soulful and pathetic quite well (it was amusing to see her wear such homely clothes), but her role is incredibly underwritten that it hinders the emotional climax quite a bit.

Speaking of the climax, the last 20 minutes are spectacular to behold. Pikadon takes center stage of the film (and in the film, literally) and the whole city is awestruck by it despite “the destruction spread by its love”. The way it calls back to Ryoichi with his frustrations and dreams is genius in its comedic effect as well as its emotional catharsis. Aside from its flaws, Love and Peace is a film I never thought Sono would make, but not only I’m glad that he did, but I hope he does more films like this.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give great performances

The special effects exude magic and wonder to the story

Nice integration of social commentary and satire into the main story

The songs are catchy and memorable

CONS

The film does not start well

Kumiko Aso is quite underused

Those expecting Sion Sono’s edgy touch will be disappointed

SCORE: 8/10 (Definitely Sion Sono’s most light-hearted and heartwarming film he’s ever made)

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Kumiko Aso, Toshiyuki Nishida, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Eita Okuno, Makita Sports, Motoki Fukami, Toru Tezuka, Izumi, Soichiro Tahara, Hakase Suidobashi, Shinji Miyadai, Kenichiro Mogi, Daisuke Tsuda, Erina Mano, Megumi Kagurazaka, Miyuki Matsuda, Aki Hiraoka, Shoko Nakagawa
Director: Sion Sono
Screenwriter: Sion Sono