Tag Archives: comedy

Quick Review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

After a brief scare in 2014, fans of Studio Ghibli let out a sigh of relief as fears that their favorite animation house would be closing their doors were squelched by official statements declaring the news to be a mere rumor. However, in recent years the famous brand has certainly slowed in their efforts and their latest outing, ‘Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter’, a CG animated TV series released to Amazon Prime video, has sparked much interest but has left filmmakers and long time fans to question the direction the company has taken. Thus, a few of the talents from the ranks of Ghibli moved on to start a new chapter in Studio Ponoc.

Ponoc’s first feature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, is a light adventure that definitely follows in the footsteps of the Master, Miyazaki-san. It has all of the things he’s known for, yet is missing a few of the things that made many of his movies instant classics. However, all things considered, this is a skillful, beautiful and fun fantasy that will certainly appeal to all ages.

The story follows the titular Mary, a young girl who has moved to her grandmother’s home in the English countryside and is awaiting her parents’ arrival. However, her attempts to connect with others in this new landscape are appearing futile. In desperation she begins to pour out her heart to a black cat, and upon following this cat into a thick wood, she finds a glowing flower. Deciding to pluck it and hold as a keepsake, she soon discovers there’s more to this flower than she ever could have imagined…

Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows many of the tropes from other films released by Ponoc’s predecessor, Studio Ghibli. The strange yet amazing fantasy world of Spirited Away, a magical ‘Castle’ in the sky, a stranger who befriends our heroine in their darkest hour… It’s all there. In fact, in many ways this is a patchwork of stories retold from a slightly more modernized perspective. Much of the whimsy has been replaced with vigor and the lead character Mary does seem to have a real personality outside of being a “spunky kid”. She reacts comically and believably to the strange occurrences around her and her first interactions with some of the odd, otherworldly characters bring some of the film’s best moments.

The Alice In Wonderland premise blended with a MacGuffin and some brief but satisfying action scenes come together to make a nice movie that only lacks in a few areas. Firstly, the film comes to a edge so often then pulls back. We get an idea of Mary’s potential with magic, but we rarely see her do anything. In fact, the apparent goal is to show how she can overcome these challenges without magic, but that is all negated in the end. In the meantime, the villains’ plans, which are never made entirely clear outside of a vague description, never really lay out any consequences. We are just meant to accept that their goals would cause some harm by having them take some “drastic measures” to achieve their ends.

That said, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is an enjoyable movie and should give fans of the classic Studio Ghibli style hope that Studio Ponoc may be the fresh new face in cinematic Japanese animation. They certainly have a knack for it. This is an absolutely beautiful movie, with some of the best animation and art I have seen from Japan in several years. The writing is quite good, with characters that are likable without being annoying and real human moments that are often lost in animated fantasies. I give this one a recommendation, especially for families with kids. This is a great start into this world of family-friendly animation from Japan and I think fans of Miyazaki’s work would likely enjoy this one as well, though it fails to live up to the high standards set by some of his notable classics.

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Anime Review – A Place Further Than the Universe: Episode 1

Youth is said to be an adventure, and anime can occasionally capture ideas of youth quite well.  A Place Further Than the Universe is a slice-of-life anime series from Madhouse with writing and production from creators of shows like K-On!, Steins;Gate, Nichijou and Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi.

The first episode, entitled “One Mwillion Yen For Youth” (‘Million’ is misspelled in the actual title; I’m not sure why but if anyone knows, please comment below) follows a 2nd-year high school student named Mari Tamaki who longs for adventure but can never bring herself to take the leap, always backing out at the last minute with a new excuse every time.  Everything changes, however, after a serendipitous encounter with a strange girl at a train station.  This mystery student dashes past her and in her rush drops an envelope containing one million Yen!  Mari, who picks the envelope up and unable to resist peeks inside.  Mari is immediately met with a giant moral dilemma.  Resolving to do the right thing, she finds and returns the money to the strange girl, named Shirase, and through their new friendship it is discovered this detached young woman has been saving money for years to travel to Antarctica to search for her missing mother.  In the end, Mari resolves to join Shirase and they embark on a spontaneous and probably dangerous journey to one of the harshest environments on Earth.  The first episode ends as the two teenagers embark on a barge to begin their long journey across the ocean to a moving score.

From what I can tell so far from this 23-minute introduction is A Place Further Than the Universe is a light drama that has a lot of warmth.  I think, however, this series is going to lean more towards the teenage girl demographic than my taste can really endure.  That isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I doubt there will be much to relate or attach to for me here.  I did enjoy the gentleness of the first episode though, the animation quality is top-notch (as to be expected considering it is a Madhouse production), and the opening to the series is also pretty good.  I will definitely give the next few episodes a watch, hoping things pick up a bit more.  However, if you are already a fan of saccharin, girlish charm, you will probably like this one more than me.

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Logan Lucky (2017) Review

 After the critical success of the thriller Traffic in 2000, Steven Soderbergh went on to direct the divisive Ocean’s Eleven, released the following year, and its subsequent sequels (of progressively-declining quality).  Through the years since the near-bomb Ocean’s Thirteen, Soderbergh has been working steadily, albeit largely under-the-radar.  Enter 2017 and Soderbergh returns to the light heist movie format with Logan Lucky.

The movie stars Channing Tatum as Jimmy Logan, a father and divorcee working for a construction company on contract involving tunneling under the Charlotte Motor Speedway, who is laid off as a liability due to an injury that causes him to limp.  He and his brother, a bartender named Clyde (who lost his arm in the Iraq war), through a series of slightly-contrived circumstances, come to the conclusion to steal money from the speedway.  Their plan is somewhat convenient and absurd, but it works for the plot, which was very-very-loosely based on true events.  They bring on a notorious local criminal named Joe Bang (whom they have to break out of prison by having Clyde break into prison; also convoluted), Jimmy’s oddly-compliant sister, and lastly two hapless “techies” to complete the crew.  Then the team of disjointed rednecks launch their criminal master plan.

Logan Lucky (2017; Trans-Radial Pictures)

While the first half of the movie is utterly absurd and even a little convoluted at times, the movie manages to keep things running pretty smoothly without feeling too slow as it moves along.  Having this much plot in a movie like this can cause some scenes to feel disjointed and out-of-left-field and there are more than a few of moments in Logan Lucky that should have been either edited down or removed entirely, including one where a prison riot used as a distraction for the prison escape culminates in a ridiculous dispute over a fake list of demands.  The dialogue is also very fast and heavy, something Soderbergh drew from his Ocean’s days, and can occasionally slow things to a crawl.  Add to that a few moments that go on far longer than they should and about 15 minutes of filler and you have a 90-minute movie that the director manages to stretch to nearly two hours!  There is no reason for a movie like this to be that long, and while Logan Lucky is entertaining, it would have probably landed even better with me if it weren’t for the intrusive runtime.

I suppose my biggest complaints with Logan Lucky are right along with those I had with Ocean’s Twelve.  It was too convoluted, too silly and way too overwritten.  The script here, written by possibly-pseudonymous Rebecca Blunt, seems to be attempting to recreate the fast-talking styles of some comedies from the 50’s and 60’s but doesn’t really land.  Like Ocean’s Twelve, everything is written to the point where it sounds and feels like everyone is trying too hard to be clever.  This is fine for the comedy elements of the movie executed by the leads, but when even Jimmy’s seven-year-old daughter is reading over-witty lines precociously, it gets a little outlandish.  Still, there are plenty of laughs from the script and the characters are pretty distinct, so it does manage to break the strain of feeling like you’re trapped in a restaurant booth between two loud, arguing family members.

Logan Lucky (2017; Trans-Radial Pictures)

The performances here span the spectrum of quality for a movie like this.  Channing Tatum is generally fine, especially in lighter roles, but here his portrayal of Jimmy Logan is more banal than anything.  He’s suffers the problem of being the “everyman” to the point of being rather boring, especially up against his supporting cast.  Adam Driver (riding the success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens) is awkwardly-funny as Clyde, who is stiff and over-serious and delivers some of the better straight-man lines in the movie.  The bombast comes from Daniel Craig as Joe Bang, who is a loud-mouth bomber criminal who helps the brothers with the more dangerous parts of their heist.  His portrayal of a raucous hillbilly is instantly-funny knowing that he is more well-known for playing the sophisticated, edgy, and very English James Bond.  The reward for “Worst Character” in the movie goes to (surprise, surprise) Seth MacFarlane, who plays an utterly obnoxious energy drink promoter named Max.  His character stops the movie dead for four particular scenes that simply do not need to be in the movie at all and are easily the worst parts of the movie.  There is also a pretty funny appearance late in the movie by Hillary Swank as an intrepid FBI agent investigating the theft and a small role for the declining Katie Holmes as Jimmy’s ex-wife who is given next-to-nothing to do outside being the barrier between Jimmy and his daughter.

Gripes aside, Logan Lucky is an entertaining watch.  It has a lot of laughs and is generally pretty enjoyable.  It didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth and, in fact, I didn’t have many complaints at all until I had time to reflect on the film.  While I watching it I was enjoying the twisted humor and the willingness of all of the actors to just cut loose.  Craig and Driver take dialogue that is pretty standard for a film like this and sells them through their admirable delivery, elevating the material.  Craig is loud and loquacious and brings energy to his scenes while Adam Driver’s straight-faced, intentionally-stiff Clyde hits funny lines with a sort of sincerity that makes his character very likable and I am glad to see him shaping up to be a pretty good actor on the Hollywood main stage.

I really can’t hate on this movie too much.  A few years ago I probably would have despised it but as I watch more and more cheesy movies and find my cynical film snobbery dissolve away with age, I can honestly recommend Logan Lucky.  I would say pay matinee price, or if you’re willing to wait, check it out On Demand from your platform of choice.  Logan Lucky is a movie I will probably never feel the need to watch again and again, but it works as a funny one-time movie excursion.  It may not be for everyone as it is overlong, overwritten and somewhat cliched at times, but if you just want to check out a fun comedy it gets a pretty solid recommendation.

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