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Mary and the Witch’s Flower

If you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli’s gorgeous animated fantasies you will be enchanted by this debut  from Japan’s Studio Ponoc. Mary and the Witch’s Flower continues the Ghibli tradition of dusting down old English children’s books and transforming them into splendid visual adventures.

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Director Hiromasa Yonebashi follows his adaptations of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952) — Arrietty — and Joan G. Robinson’s  When Marnie Was There (1967) with this animation of The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart (1971).

Why are these Japanese animators so drawn to our old-fashioned children’s books? Perhaps they grew up reading them and see them as touchstones of a pre-digital age in which children had more freedom to play and dream. In Mary and the Witch’s Flower 12 year-old Mary Smith goes out for a picnic on her own and doesn’t return home until nightfall.

Studio Ghibli became the beloved widescreen custodian of our childhood dreams, with films like My Nieghbour Totoro capturing those golden summer holidays when we let our imaginations fly and anything was possible. Watching Mary and the Witch’s Flower we are similarly gifted the space to luxuriate in the lush watercolour landscapes and the lovingly painted rooms of Mary’s holiday cottage.

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Mary has been sent to stay with her Great-Aunt Charlotte but she is bored. The old television is broken and she has no friends to play with. She hates her frizzy red hair and wonders whether she will ever be good at anything. When a black cat leads her into a wood she picks a glowing blue flower which gives her magical powers.

Tib the cat shows Mary a broomstick with an inscription on its handle and soon she is astride it, with her emerald-eyed familiar on the back, pogoing and levitating wildly around the wood. They shoot into the clouds and arrive in a beautiful new land with a domed citadel. This turns out to be Endor College for witches, dating back to the days of dragons.

Headmistress Madam Mumblechook is delighted to welcome Mary as a new pupil, showering her with praise for her flaming red hair, which only the best witches have, and her ‘phenomenal talent’. But when the girl confesses that her magical abilities are flower-powered Madam and her sidekick, Doctor Dee, start to show the dark side of Endor.

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Can Mary keep hold of her special flower and rescue her friend Peter from the ‘strong room’, where he is imprisoned with assorted fantastical beasts – the results of scientific experiment ‘failures’?

Mary and the Witch’s Flower features an engagingly clumsy and spirited protagonist and a moody cat, who has an impressively wide vocabulary of ‘meows’. It has wise things to say about transformation, the abuse of power (‘some powers in this world just can’t be harnessed’) and failure (‘failures are valuable’).

But, gorgeous visuals apart, it feels like the creative handbrake is on. The best Studio Ghibli films are universal, quirky and wildly imaginative, whereas Studio Ponoc’s debut feels more like a ‘safe’ film made with its target audience of 7- 11 year olds in mind. Its musical score strives to be yearning and romantic in the tradition of Ghibli’s go-to composer, Joe Hisaishi, but does not linger in the memory.

Studio Ghibli set the bar so high with their best animated adventures such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, that most follow-ups in the same vein will inevitably suffer by comparison. But I, for one, am delighted that Hiromasa Yonebashi and his team created Mary and the Witch’s Flower. It keeps our childhood dreams alive.

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Isle of Dogs

If you love dogs, Japan, animation or the cinema, go and see the latest film from maverick American auteur Wes Anderson. Isle of Dogs is a superbly inventive, visually astounding, funny and fresh stop-motion delight.

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Last seen in Anderson’s 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, his animation is a highly-original blend of old and new, a kind of retro-futurism with echoes of vintage Oliver Postgate (Ivor the Engine), the Heath-Robinson cyberpunk of Wallace and Gromit, Tintin and the Japanese magic of Studio Ghibli. But Anderson crafts a world of his own that is rich in detail, characters, storytelling and quickfire wit.

Isle of Dogs is set in Japan, twenty years in the future, when an outbreak of dog flu and snout fever results in the deportation of all canines to Trash Island, a rubbish dump for the city of Megasaki. Here, they roam in packs, growing weaker and sadder, scared of cannibal dogs and alarmed by conspiracy theories about what Mayor Kobayashi has in store for them.

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When 12 year old boy Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash-lands his plane on the Isle of Dogs, in search of his beloved pet Spots, he galvanises the efforts of Chief (the basso-profundo voice of Bryan Cranston) and his ‘alpha-male’ buddies to escape. Meanwhile, students led by Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) campaign to ‘bring them back’, rightly sensing that ‘somebody is up to something.’

Japanese culture is more associated with cats than dogs – one thinks of maneki-neko, those waving (or beckoning) cat figurines, and the prevalence of cats in the films of Studio Ghibli (The Cat Returns). Mayor Kobayashi has a cat tattoo on his back, a clue to his prejudice. But Anderson puts his dogs centre-stage and gives them individuality, humour and soul. Each character’s fur and eyes are different, testament to the filmmaker and his model-making team’s staggering attention to detail.

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While the dogs speak in English, the humans speak Japanese. The faces of Atari and the younger characters have a rubber-duck sheen or waxwork pallor to them. The Mayor’s henchman looks like he is carved in jade, like a ‘glow-in-the-dark’ Lurch from the Addams Family. Elsewhere, there are multiple references to Japanese culture, from a bird’s-eye-view food preparation scene to the sprinkling of haiku poems and the deadpan appearance of poetic commentaries in square brackets, such as ‘[frost on window pane’].

Isle of Dogs can be viewed as a political allegory as well as a hugely enjoyable animation adventure. Mayor Kobayashi is portrayed as a Big Brother dictator, hell-bent of scapegoating a minority group and putting them in a concentration camp, with a view to enacting ‘ethnic cleansing’ and replacement by robots.

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Anderson is obviously on the side of his canines and student activists. His wish for a more inclusive and harmonious future is expressed in Japanese style through Atari’s speech at the end of the film: ‘the cycle of life always hangs in a delicate balance – who are we and who do we want to be.’ As stray dog Chief pointed out earlier, we are all strays ‘in the last analysis’.

If you are a dog owner and lucky enough to live near a Picture house cinema, why not take your pet to one of their dog-friendly screenings of Isle of Dogs? It will make a wonderful film experience unforgettable.

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Dog-friendly Cinema

There were barks of excitement on Sunday morning at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse as around 50 well-behaved dogs joined their owners to watch a preview of Wes Anderson’s new film, Isle of Dogs. They were provided by staff with blankets, biscuits and water and given a special pre-recorded welcome from the director himself: ‘we extend our thanks to your dogs for joining us.’

dog1Dogs of all shapes and sizes leaned over cinema seats to make friends – the one behind us said hello by licking my ear. There was a bit of territorial barking during the adverts, but as soon as the film started both humans and dogs really got into it. Isle of Dogs is wonderful – a superbly inventive, visually astounding, funny and fresh animated adventure.

The film is set in a dystopian future Japan, in which a cat-loving dictator tries to get rid of all canines, and a 12 year old boy named Atari searches for his lost pet, Spots.

Perhaps the dogs we were watching the film with were film-buffs, because they really did seem to respond to the action on screen. At times of dire doggy peril there were outbreaks of whimpering. But when Chief, Rex, Spots and the others fought back, there were barks and yaps of encouragement, the big cheerleader down the front setting off the chihuahua at the back.

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And when the humans clapped at the end of the film, their dogs joined in with a chorus of canine approval.

You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here is a mesmerising character study of a troubled man at the end of his tether, a new kind of action movie by Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsey, in which the story is told in impressionistic fragments and the audience has to make sense of them. It is both brutal and beautiful, with an extraordinary physical performance by Joaquin Phoenix, whose barely-contained suffering is matched by Jonny Greenwood’s evocative score.

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Phoenix plays Joe, a grizzly bear-like enforcer, who seems to specialise in rescuing young women from the hellish New York underworld. He is hired by a State Senator to rescue his teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), from a brothel specialising in underage girls. ‘I want you to hurt them,’ orders the Senator. There follows a trail of violence and anguish, as Joe struggles to do the right thing, and hold himself together.

Critics have noted the similarities between You Were Never Really Here and Martin Scorsese’s classic Taxi Driver (1976). Both contain unhinged war veteran anti-heroes who are on a mission to ‘wash the scum off the streets’ and both contain grainy shots of New York at night, as seen from a moving car. But Ramsey’s film is more meditative, has little dialogue, and only really gives us two shocking moments of violence. Unlike the lurid bloodbath at the end of Taxi Driver, most of the violence in her film happens off-screen or is glimpsed through the grey lens of a hotel’s CCTV system.

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Any nastiness is made bearable by frequent zen-like pauses in which the camera lingers on buildings, rooms or inanimate objects. Ramsey, who started her career as a still photographer, brings an artistic sensibility to her first action movie, making it more interesting than its generic source material, Jonathan Ames’ pulp-fiction page-turner.

Joaquin Phoenix brings authenticity to the role, transforming himself into a grey-bearded beast in scuffed brown workboots, a man of few words, who suffers his own demons intensely, yet who is capable of tenderness and redemption. He is kind to girls, cats and his mum, helping her clean her bathroom and fridge (‘this cream cheese is from 1972’). But Joe is tormented by flashbacks to war horrors and the childhood abuse he and his mother endured at the hands of his father.

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This psychic disturbance is soundtracked by Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score, often sounding like a primary school music lesson – painful violin-slashing and out-of-time, out-of-tune guitar noodling, which nevertheless sounds great when a pulsing drum machine or synth line is added. Greenwood is a gifted musical ‘commentator’, adding aural drama to the visuals. This talent was clear from early Radiohead hit, Creep, in which guitarist Greenwood added a ‘nervous tic’ noise just before the confessional chorus. He made a good song great and he repeats the trick here.

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Ramsey has described You Were Never Really Here as a character study of mid-life crisis, of a man who is ‘a bit like a ghost in his own life.’ She also sees it as a film ‘about now – about nothing being black and white anymore’. With its theme of trauma begetting more trauma, it has echoes of the recent award-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. There is also an underwater scene that brings to mind Oscar-winner The Shape of Water.

Perhaps Ramsey, Phoenix and Greenwood will also be celebrating when the awards season comes around again next year.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water is a widescreen treat, a satisfyingly rich and moving fairy tale fantasy that also works as spy thriller, love story or romantic comedy. Guillermo del Toro’s tale of a fish-man creature and the mute cleaner who befriends it features wonderful acting, terrific dialogue and a gorgeous design.

The film is set in 1962 Baltimore, but real world troubles do not often impinge. We glimpse footage from the Vietnam War and race riots on television sets, but the characters switch channels to old musicals. Both Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her best friend neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) live in apartments above a cinema and both are old-fashioned romantics. When Elisa is first shown leaving home, a building is on fire at the end of her block, but she doesn’t even seem to notice.

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The Shape of Water is framed by an unknown narrator who tells us what to expect: ‘a tale of love and loss’ about a ‘princess without a voice’ and the ‘monster who tried to destroy it all.’ It has echoes of Beauty and the Beast or Free Willy, with the quirky charm of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film and a menacing baddie straight from Coen Brothers Scary Monsters casting.

Elisa works as a cleaner at the Occam Aerospace Research Centre, where she uses sign language (we get subtitles) to communicate with her chatty co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). When the facility takes delivery of a strange fish-man creature, caught in the Amazon, the white-coated scientists and their military bosses talk about using it to get ahead of the Soviets in the Space Race. Sadistic Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) wants to dissect it and a Russian spy is under orders to kill it (‘we want the Americans not to learn’).

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Elisa, though, is strangely drawn to the fish-man. She engineers time alone with it and gradually falls in love. The feeling seems to be mutual. As dark forces conspire against the creature, Elisa must somehow rescue it, with the help of her friends. Her impassioned signing to Giles gets to the heart of what the film is about – the way we treat ‘otherness’. When he objects that ‘this thing isn’t even human’, Elisa signs in reply ‘and if we do nothing, neither are we.’

As ever, Sally Hawkins is excellent as Elisa, using her soulful eyes and expressive face to convey defiance and love. Here, she adds unselfconscious nude scenes to her repertoire, and does a nice line in synchronised seated tap dancing. She is fast becoming a national treasure.

Superb support is provided by craggy veteran Jenkins, who adds witty, wistful gravitas and wisecracking Spencer, who gets the best one-liners, usually belittling her husband (sample: ‘it takes a lot of lies to keep a marriage going’). Michael Shannon (Mud, Midnight Special) makes the most of his ‘monster’ role, by turns chilling and ridiculous. After inflicting a nasty bit of torture he is fond of reading ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’.

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The Shape of Water is ravishing to look at, with teal green its dominant colour – cadillacs, chairs, lockers, baths and fish-man tanks are all a slightly queasy aquatic green, as if writer-director del Toro is saturating us. There is a lovely scene in which a post-coital Elisa watches the rain through a bus window, seeing two raindrops chase each other, before they join together as one.

Early Man

Early Man will delight fans of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep with its daft imagining of how cavemen invented football. As usual, Nick Park and his animation team ensure that the jokes and slapstick come thick and fast, wrapped up in Aardman’s trademark northern English warmth and DIY visual flair. Football fans, old and young, will best appreciate the many references to ‘the beautiful game’ in Early Man, but its plot and characters sometimes feel a bit tired and predictable.

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The film opens in the Neo-Pleistocine Age (of course!). Near Manchester. Around lunchtime. Dinosaurs and cavemen are fighting amongst themselves when a meteorite lands on Earth. This cataclysmic event does away with the dinosaurs, but it also creates a molten football. When the cavemen discover it lying at the centre of a massive crater, they kick it around because it’s too hot to hold on to. Thus, a sport is born, inspiring Stonehenge goalposts and cave paintings.

‘A few ages later’, we meet Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of gormless rabbit-hunters, including Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall), Treebor (Richard Ayoade) and Asbo (Johnny Vegas). Not forgetting Dug’s sidekick, Hobnob (Nick Park), a smarter-than-the-humans hog. They use new-fangled clothes pegs (mini crocodiles) and shavers (stag beetles), but football seems to be lost in the mists of time. ‘Our ancestors hunted little round beasts,’ the chief tells them. ‘I suppose they didn’t know how to draw rabbits back then.’

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When Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston + dodgy French accent) and his Bronze Age army invade their idyllic valley, the ‘age of stone is over’ and the tribe are banished to the Badlands. The only way they can return home is by beating Nooth’s football team, Real Bronzio, in their huge arena. Dug enlists the help of the talented Goona (Maisie Williams), and they try to explain the rules to the rest: ‘if you kick the ball in the goal other men hug and kiss you’. But how can this ‘plucky band of knuckle-grazers’ beat the likes of blond bombshell Jurgen and Gonad the Gaul?

The play-off is great fun, featuring an inspired Instant Replay puppet show, with stick players recreating the action within a Punch and Judy booth. Elsewhere, there is a hilarious massage scene featuring a multi-tasking Hobnob, and the giant man-eating mallard is genius.

But overall Early Man is not vintage Aardman. It lacks the spark and drama of their last film, Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015), which married retro and new, the country and the city, to giddy effect. Perhaps the problem lies with the subject matter. There seems to be a curse on most films set in the era of cavemen/dinosaurs (think The Flintstones movie or Disney’s tedious Dinosaur), and the same goes for football films (Escape to Victory, anyone?), with their predictable ‘triumph of the underdog’ storylines.

It is puzzling how Early Man earned a Parental Guidance (PG) certificate. It has one occurrence of the word ‘crap’ and some mooning bottoms painted on cave walls, but surely all Nick Park’s films deserve to be Universal (U)? There is a modern trend on the part of the Film Board of Censors to mark down violent films from 18 to 15 Certificate. To mark up children’s films from U to PG just seems plain daft.

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Coco

Bursting with the colour, warmth and passion of Mexico, Coco is gorgeous to look at – a fiesta for the eyes. Pixar’s latest animated triumph has a richness of detail in characterisation and backgrounds to rival classic Studio Ghibli and Disney. It is a film for everyone, but this story about family and the power of music will perhaps be most appreciated by adults.

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If you cried during the first five minutes of Up, prepare to be moved by Coco. The rest of the time you’ll be wonderstruck, as the screen is filled with astonishing animated images. Coco shares the same feeling of sunny delight as Pixar’s first film, Toy Story (1995), but advances in technology and ingenuity mean that its humans are now rendered in believably organic form. Great-grandmother Coco’s wrinkled face and veiny hands are works of art in themselves.

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On a larger scale, the heavenly splendour of the Land of the Dead is almost too much – towers of multi-coloured buildings and tracks which seem to stretch to infinity and beyond, a million twinkling lights and the occasional flying tram. The tram station itself is also magnificent. This is the work of magicians using a master painter’s palette.

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Featuring the voices of an all-Latino cast for the first time in a big-budget American film, Coco celebrates Mexican folklore and culture on the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos), ‘the one night of the year when our ancestors can visit us’. 12 year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) and his extended family join many others in paying their respects at the local cemetery.

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Much of the film’s comedy is provided by Miguel’s clumsy canine companion, Dante, a gloriously daft hairless Mexican mutt (Xoloitzcuintli), who ‘looks like a sausage someone dropped in a barber shop’. But like his master, Dante has hidden talents.

Since Miguel’s great-great-grandfather disappeared one day with his guitar, music has been banned from the house because ‘it tore the family apart’. But Miguel dreams of playing his guitar like Ernesto de la Cruz, a pop star from the past. He has a tree house hideaway where he plays along to videos and the animators make sure that his fingers form the right chord shapes and pick the correct strings to the song on the soundtrack.

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When he discovers Ernesto’s famous white guitar in a family photo, Miguel concludes that he is Ernesto’s descendent and is more determined than ever to enter a talent show for the Day of the Dead. But when he takes the pop star’s guitar from the wall of a mausoleum and plays a chord Miguel becomes invisible to everyone except his dog and his skeletal dead relatives.

Coco follows Miguel’s quest in the Land of the Dead, where he must break the curse by receiving his ancestors’ blessing. In this magical place he uncovers a shocking family secret, as the film builds towards a dazzling action finale.

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In the process, Pixar break a couple of Disney’s normal rules: girls in the audience might wonder why there are no young female characters in the story; its’ filmmakers also subvert the familiar Disney theme of chasing your dream. Here, family responsibility is shown to come first, and ‘seizing the day’ will just have to wait.

The film’s title is an odd one, too, considering that Miguel’s relative Coco hardly features in it. Perhaps it was meant as a message to the audience: cherish the older members of your family and keep their memory alive.