Mary and The Witches Flower
No one loves retirement quite like Hayao Miyazaki. The renowned Japanese animator-director has thrice announced the end of his career, following the releases of his films Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001) and The Wind Rises (2013). Predictably, his latest ‘retirement’ hasn’t stuck either – he’s been at work on short film Boro the Caterpillar and feature How do you Live? – but the announcement was enough to cause Studio Ghibli, the animation mammoth Miyazaki co-founded, to reveal that it would take a ‘brief pause’ to evaluate its position. Fearing permanent closure in 2015, lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, along with other key Ghibli animators, jumped ship and founded Studio Ponoc.
The first feature from the new studio tells the story of Mary, an unconfident and lonely girl who discovers a mysterious glowing flower that temporarily transforms her into a witch. Taken by a feisty broom with a mind of its own to Endor College, a school for witches hidden in the clouds, she meets headmistress Madame Mumblechook and chemistry teacher Doctor Dee, who become convinced that Mary is a one-in-a-century natural prodigy. However – surprise surprise – there’s something not quite right about Endor’s scholastic utopia, and when the circumstances of Mary’s magical alteration become apparent, she finds herself at the peril of the witchy powers that be.
Ponoc’s name comes from the Serbo-Croatian word for midnight; an allusion to the start of a new day for the animation studio. For the most part, however, Mary and the Witch’s Flower suggests more continuity with Ghibli than Ponoc might like to admit. Aside from the gorgeous animation style, the film borrows Ghibli’s commitment to strong female characters reverence for the natural world – this time, a critique of animal testing is at play.
Miyazaki’s shadow looms large over Japanese animation, and here the inevitable comparisons are particularly unflattering. Mary and the Witch’s Flower resembles a fusion of fellow witch flick Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and fantasy adventure Spirited Away, but fails to conjure anything resembling the compelling protagonist of the former nor the nefarious antagonist of the latter. Truth be told, the magnificent world that the film crafts is inhabited by somewhat two-dimensional individuals rendered in derivative character designs.
What Mary and the Witch’s Flower lacks in complexity it makes up for it heart and charm. The film’s message – that Mary doesn’t need magic to make her special – is admirable, if a little confused in its execution. All in all, Studio Ponoc’s first outing makes for a charming if somewhat forgettable watch.
Let The Sunshine In
Paris may be the setting for Let the Sunshine In, but Claire Denis’ latest film takes a refreshingly pessimistic look at the City of Love, albeit with a lot more humour and sympathy than one might expect. Loosely inspired by Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, the film concerns the fruitless romantic endeavours of Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a divorced artist who begins the film with an obnoxious banker (Xavier Beauvois) for a lover. She soon dumps him in favour of an indecisive young actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle), but it becomes clear that he too isn’t nearly right for her. And so she goes on and on.
Binoche gives a typically restrained performance of a smartly written character in what is a terrifically well-observed film; the way Isabelle talks in circles, saying exactly what she doesn’t mean, is as frustrating as it is true. A tender dance between Isabelle and a new love interest set to Etta James’s ‘At Last’ is the film’s high point, if only because Denis affords her audience to feel her protagonist’s momentary happiness. But we know full well this won’t be her Prince Charming, and the irony of song choice stings.
The film is undoubtedly seductive in its sharp observations and its terrific wit, but it comes off as a little slight and inconsequential, even potentially tedious in its later stages – a last minute appearance from Gérard Depardieu will no doubt divide audiences. Denis isn’t prepared to get deep under the skin of Isabelle’s borderline-masochistic dating strategies, and so for all its intellectual playfulness Let the Sunshine In is less thought-provoking than it ought to be come its open ending.
A vast array of films have seen women dressing as men as a way of circumventing patriarchal oppression, from Mulan Joins the Army (1939) to the Disney retelling Mulan (1998), from the various adaptations of Twelfth Night to its contemporary reimagining She’s the Man (2006). Rarely, however, have the stakes been so high as in Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner.
Set in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, the film sees a family sent into disarray when father and husband Nurullah (Ali Badshah) is unjustly arrested. With no adult male relative present and women forbidden in public unaccompanied by a man, 11-year-old Parvana (Saara Chaudry) cuts her hair, dons her deceased brother’s clothes and goes to work for the family. Her narrative is paralleled by the inventive story she tells her young brother Zaki, about a young man confronting an evil Elephant King
This story within a story, which takes a more expressionistic animation style to the naturalistic rendering of Parvana’s brutal homeland, helps to spell out the films themes of resistance, memory and the importance of imagination in the face of adversity. It also causes the film to drag a little, but this hardly matters come the astonishing third act, in which real life and fantasy increasingly blend in a heart-breaking but hopeful finale.
You Me and Him
Everything about Daisy Aitkens’ debut film You, Me and Him, from the Jolly Old England setting to the cringey humour to the capital-Q Quirky characters, plays like something out of a Richard Curtis-fuelled nightmare of mediocrity. So too does the spectacularly forced plot, which sees a lesbian couple becoming simultaneously pregnant – the posh, 40-year-old Olivia (Lucy Punch) due to secret IVF, and artsy stoner Alex (Faye Marsay) owing to a drunken one night stand with obnoxious neighbour John (David Tennant). Having recently gone through a divorce, John decides he desperately wants in on this new family unit.
There’s pretty much nothing redeeming about You, Me and Him. The leads show little acting talent and no chemistry between each other, and the film doesn’t do enough to show the relationship between the trio prior to the plot kicking in. The whole thing looks and feels like it was shot for TV in the mid ’00s (a montage scene set to Razorlight’s 2006 song ‘Before I Fall to Pieces’ in its entirety makes you question whether this was actually the case), and its atrocious screenplay trudges through tired jokes about lesbianism designed to pander to a middle-aged, middle-class and, most probably, heterosexual audience.
A moving twist suggests what might have been a better film, but it comes after over an hour of unfunny jokes and the kind of lazy physical comedy that gives slapstick a bad name. This is the kind of film you might find on a late afternoon slot on ITV2 – if you do, I strongly suggest switching channels.
Images: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival