Mary and the Witch’s Flower Spoiler-Free Review: The Birth of Studio Ponoc

Last week I caught a preview screening for the debut feature from Ghibli heir Studio Ponoc at the fantastic Cinema City Picturehouse cinema in Norwich, UK. I had consciously avoided any review of this film, apart from chancing upon a somewhat disappointing missive a few weeks before.

The cinema was packed to the rafters with cinephiles, and it was a rare pleasure to witness flawless etiquette amongst the audience (which spanned all ages). The only test for the latter was a slightly overlong, nevertheless interesting, behind-the-scenes documentary which preceded the film itself, explaining the birth of Studio Ponoc. Founder Yoshiaki Nishimura was brutally honest in his statement that the creation of a new studio was deemed necessary for several Ghibli staffers after Hayao Miyazaki’s announcement that he would not be making any more feature films. “We have young families” stated Nishimura in his explanation of the rationale behind the new studio.

Studio Ponoc

Studio Ponoc was founded in April 2015, and Nishimura brought several other Ghibli members of a similar age to himself, with the goal being the birth of a new Japanese animation dynasty. Indeed, Ponoc is a Serbo-Croatian word which means midnight or the beginning of a new day. The pedigree of Ponoc’s crew is not in doubt — its lead director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, has already been a key animator of Spirited Away and Ponyo, before taking the reins completely for The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. Other animators have had roles in a number of Studio Ghibli’s masterpieces over the years.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the debut feature for the studio, and is scheduled for a UK-wide release on the 4th May 2018. It is based on “The Little Broomstick”, a children’s novel written by Mary Stewart in 1971. The version I saw was in Japanese, with English subtitles. The dubbed version features some stellar voice cast including the likes of Jim Broadbent and Kate Winslet. However, my personal experience is that there is always some magic lost in the dubbed versions of japanese animated films.

Film Synopsis (No Spoilers apart from those already in the Trailer)

The film starts with a bang, with a chaotic battle scene which only reveals its significance towards the end of the film. We meet Mary, a well fleshed-out young red-haired girl who does not like her hair and is inquisitive about the world. She gets annoyed easily, particularly at her own quirks, but she is caring and empathetic in her interactions with others. As a lead character, she is excellent and deserves to be the early symbol for Studio Ponoc in the same way that Totoro has been for Studio Ghibli. Indeed, our empathy for her transcends some of the finest Ghibli protagonists: Kiki, San, perhaps even Spirited Away’s Chihiro.

Mary’s world is upended following a visit into the woods, which is clearly inspired by the studio’s heritage, and the rest of the story has a magical theme (as implicated by the title) with segments which do resemble Ghibli’s classic Kiki’s Delivery Service. Mary meets a Headmistress who appears inspired by Zeniba from Spirited Away, enters a world of the arcane arts and encounters a perilous situation which threatens all that she loves. The plot is somewhat formulaic and, perhaps, lacks the flights of whimsy and depth from Ghibli’s finest works which could elevate it to a true masterpiece. However, the formula is, like a perfect witch’s potion, brewed perfectly and did not feel derivative.

Visuals

The film is mainly set in Rural England, and the behind-the-scenes featurette described how the animators travelled to England and made sketches of the countryside. Their meticulous research has paid dividends in some breathtaking English scenery, from forests filled with mist to verdant countryside. Later scenes have a psychedelic appearance which seem inspired by The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, and have so much detail that it is impossible to appreciate them in just one viewing. To put it simply, the beauty of this film rivals anything that Studio Ghibli has done.

BBFC Age Rating

The film is rated “U” for very mild threat. Whilst I agree that the feature warrants a U rating for children to have the optimum chance to be bewitched by this film, it does actually have some intense moments, including emotive scenes involving animals.

Overall

The spirit of Ghibli permeates this film, and a tight plot is complemented by stunning visuals which rival any of the works of the studio’s progenitor. Despite a fantastical narrative, the magical whimsy of Ghibli’s finest works doesn’t quite make it over to Ponoc’s debut to forge a true masterpiece. However it is an immensely strong debut feature which Ghibliholics, fantasy fans and many more will wolf down faster than Spirited Away’s No-Face.

This kind of film needs to be championed, as a world without the beauty of Miyazaki’s legacy, would be a dark world indeed.

My rating: 

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EGX Rezzed 2018 Review

I just attended the Rezzed games event in London for the first time. This is a spin-off from the main EGX (originally, the Eurogamer Expo) with a primary focus on indie games. It also seeks to attract young budding games-makers and journalists to the industry. The weekend had a very relaxed theme and people were immensely friendly. The location in London’s Tobacco Dock was also well-ventilated (very important when there are lots of gamers), there wasn’t much queuing required (often none), and it made for a thoroughly pleasant experience for a Spring weekend.

There were a number of games that I enjoyed both playing, and looking at. Here are some of my highlights:

Onrush

Codemasters.com

There were, of course, smatterings of “triple A” titles, and the one which I enjoyed the most was a racing game developed by Codemasters called Onrush. This was a fast-based arcade-style racing game with various types of vehicles on a hilly terrain and it was setup as a 6vs6 competition in the expo. It reminded me of the Excitetruck remake on Nintendo Wii and MotorStorm on Playstation. The gameplay was very crisp, and it was obvious that the makers have put a lot of time testing the game to make sure it plays beautifully. The soundtrack was outstanding too. The release date is 5th June 2018.

Homo Machina

http://www.homomachina-game.com/

This gorgeous 2D exploration game from Darjeeling Productions is inspired by the medical illustrations of Dr Fritz Kahn. Think of the concept of the Pixar film “Inside Out” with tiny little humanoids controlling your actions. I just wanted to watch the game, can’t wait for it to come out on mobile and tablet formats.

Bad North

https://www.badnorth.com/

This game caught my eye in the Nintendo Switch section (though it will be released on all formats) – a compact little real-time strategy game on rotatable islands inhabited by humble island dwellers who are under attack from Vikings. It may look simplistic but the minimalist charm and movements (e.g. the way the arrows and rain drop) were zen bliss.

Phogs

Image: Bitloomgames.com

This was such a wacky offering from Bitloom Games – you and a friend control a double-ended dog as you solve puzzles on various floating islands, with the aim being to feed a giant worm with either an acorn or a globe-shaped light bulb (!) The cooperative mechanic (both players sharing one controller) was amongst the finest I have every played, and the lovely pastel colours were joyful to look at. Loved it!

Me sitting on some Phogs-theme upholstery

Strange Brigade

Image: Strangebrigade.com

This cooperative third-person shooter by Rebellion Developments had an exuberant 1930s theme to it, I played a level as one of four diverse heroes fighting hordes of mythic beings in some kind of Egyptian setting. The visuals were stunning and the gameplay mechanics felt great, but the main attraction of the game was the over-the-top British pulp style narration.

Knights and Bikes

http://foamswordgames.com/

This hand-painted game set on a British island seemed to have an ET/Stranger Things/Super8 style theme to it, with an 80s feel and coming-of-age theme. In the small part that I watched, there was a clear emotional underpinning to the game which suggests a lot of heart has been put into the writing and design.

The Leftfield Collection

There were some awesome little indie games in the Leftfield Room – the ones which stood out for me were Wobble Garden:  a spring and light based installation which provided a sensory experience unlike any other game I’d played before. Haiku Adventure had a beautiful Japanese ukiyo-e inspired landscape scene in a puzzle game which seemed to involve using Haiku to chill out a flock of assorted wildfowl.

Other Comments

The show also had some very nice retro games, and also had a few multiplayer units for games which had already been released. I particularly enjoyed re-awakening my old puzzling skills in Sega’s Puyo Puyo Tetris. My younger brother Sina The Doc, who first suggesting we attend this expo, also enjoyed meeting some of his podcasting heroes and had a go on a game which appears inspired by the classic Theme Hospital, Two Point Hospital:

My younger Brother on the left, Sina The Doc

A nice weekend, maybe I’ll come again next year!

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Isle of Dogs Review: A Ruff-around-the-edges treat for humans of all breeds

No Spoilers in this Review

Isle of Dogs is a surreal treat for humans of all breeds. Could this stop-motion dog-themed movie set in a future Japan be the flick to get the mercurial Wes Anderson some long-awaited mainstream adoration?

I saw this film at a Preview Screening at a local Picturehouse Cinema, the fantastic CinemaCity in Norwich.

Isle-of-Dogs-1.jpg
A cute canine cast – from Metro Weekly Full Link

Plot and Themes (No Spoilers)

The plot, as already outlined in the trailer, centres around a young boy called Atari who arrives on an island full of junk to find his lost dog Spots. It’s not a simple boy-and-dog story, however as Wes Anderson and his writing collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwarzmann have created a pacy critique on contemporary political lunacy set 20 years in the future. The underlying premise is that a disease called Dog Flu forces a Japanese provincial government to quarantine and remove all canines from the mainland. Atari ends up befriending a group of dogs on this Trash Island, including a lovingly characterised antihero called Chief, a stray voiced by Bryan Cranston. The rest of the story mixes broadish political commentary brush-strokes with heartstring-tugging momentsin a beautifully-realised world which left me itching to stay in my seat for another viewing.

The dogs speak American English, though the humans in Megasaki speak Japanese using simple expressions (and no subtitles) which are designed for the viewer to “get the gist of”. This is a fascinating idea which almost works, though there just doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason for it. I do wonder whether Anderson could have predicted the social media uproar about stereotyping Japanese culture, however well-intentioned his homage appears to be.

Cultural appropriation aside, it is hard to avoid the word “quirky” when describing a Wes Anderson flick, and yes the film does have an eccentric narrative. But this is the closest I’ve ever felt emotionally engaged with a Wes Anderson film, where often I find his style and worldview a little too idiosyncratic to fully embrace the immersion his worlds entreat. In this offering, however, the emotional core of the film is studiously crafted, from the relationships between the human characters and between human and dog. There were a few sniffles in the theater.

Visuals
isle-dogs-wes-anderson.jpg
A panorama of Megasaki – from It’s Nice That Full Link

The stop-motion visuals are, predictably, stunning to look at. Anderson brought over a sizeable portion of the visuals team from his first animated effort Fantastic Mr. Fox to create a fictional Megasaki City using 240 sets and 130,000 stills. The result is a beautifully handmade-style film, and even the piles of garbage in Trash Island conjure a minimalist beauty. Together with more standard cartoon animated elements used for television clips and intriguing takes on classic Japanese artwork seen in various backdrops, this film really is gorgeous to look at.

As with Anderson’s previous work, everything on screen has been meticulously selected for inclusion. Even if the amount of content on the screen is often Spartan, there is still not enough time to take in all the little screen delights, so most viewers will be looking forward to DVD and Blu-Ray releases in order to ingest all the delicious treats that Wes Anderson throws.

Performances
Isle-of-Dogs-movie-poster.jpg
A typically stellar group of actors for Wes Anderson – From Foxsearchlight.com Full Link

This director knows a lot of people. The cast-list for Wes Anderson films can be farcically imposing, and this film is true to form. Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton… you get the picture. Special praise must go to young Canadian Koyu Rankin for his performance as 12-year-old Atari. As with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the voices of the actors resonate through the animated characters they portray and each role appears to be hand-crafted for the voice talent.

Soundtrack

If I’ve made it clear that the first star of this film are the visuals, the second is the music. There are classic tracks from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Drunken Angel films, together with psychedelic rock and swing jazz from the 1950s and 1960s. These are the dressing for a stunning original score from Alexandre Desplat, who just won an Oscar for his work on The Shape of Water. If you’ve heard his name prior to that, he also won an Oscar with another Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel. Taiko Drumming provides the centrepiece for the score, although there are some whimsical forays into dreamlike electronic music and more jazzy interludes. It is a triumph

Quirks
wes-anderson-isle-of-dogs-040.jpg

Pro-Dog protestors in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki – from technobuffalo.com Full link

The oddities in Wes Anderson films often provoke reactions similar to those toward a yeast extract spread. This film gave me moments of intense pleasure and annoyance, with the balance strongly in favour of the former. His labelling of items on the screen was pure pleasure for a cataloguing aficianado. As were the bizarre moments when characters wistfully looked into the distance. This happened once in the Fantastic Mr. Fox film when Mr.Fox suddenly stares at a wolf for no solid narrative reason. Why not? Similar scenes exist in this film, though not as indiscriminately.

Less successful was the reliance on sudden camera movements in the early parts of the film, whereby the only angle in which characters’ heads could move was 90 degrees, and usually in the direction of the viewer. It was the cinematic equivalent of the non-existent word überkook.

Overall
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Atari looks back at Rex, Boss and King – from thatericalper.com Full link

Anderson’s second animated offering is a cut above his first. It is a genuinely beautiful film which provides a lot of treats, though is ruff around the edges. The clumsy cultural tourism is outweighed by stunning visuals, fantastic performances and a beautiful soundtrack. Barring an upset, this ought to win the first Academy Award for Wes Anderson in 2019.

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The Value of Norouz – A 3000-year old festival of rebirth

Today marks the first day of Norouz (also spelt Norooz, Nawruz, Nowruz), the Iranian and Central Asian New Year, which has been celebrated for millenia. Now, more than ever, we need to treasure this ancient celebration of renewal. Here is my article on this celebration, together with some photos I have taken from Iran.

Lentil sprouts and hyacinths at a roadside stall in Tehran, Iran

In Iran, poetry remains an important and relevant part of cultural life and is a ubiquitous part of the Norouz festival. The patron poet of Norouz is the 14th century mystic “safe-keeper” Hafez, who was described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “a poet for poets”. Hafez often used wine as a metaphor for love, and during Norouz a book of his poems often has a prominent place on the Haft-seen (the tabletop arrangement of symbolic items). Indeed his words in verse have never seemed more apt.

Whether raising themes of love and devotion “The sun never says to the earth ‘you owe me’. Look what happens with a love like that… it lights up the whole sky” or a message of hope “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being”, his philosophy of the spirit of love underlines the value of Norouz, a celebration of renewal which has spanned countless nationalities and religions and is a vestige of a primordial harmony which seems increasingly besieged in today’s world.

Norouz itself literally means “New Day” and coincides with the arrival of spring. It is celebrated on the same day as the pagan festival Ostara, and the roots of Norouz lie in ancient Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism and Mitraism. The festival is likely to have been arisen in the Achaemenid era (The sixth century BC), and it is a testament to its cultural importance that it has endured such longevity over three millenia. It is a public holiday in thirteen countries, and is also celebrated worldwide by the diaspora from those countries, together with Kurds, Parsis and followers of the Baha’i faith. In Iran, the celebration is largely frowned upon by the ruling clerics. As it predates Islam by over a millennium, Norouz is seen by many in the theocratic regime as a pagan ritual.

Decorated eggs at a roadside shop in Tehran, Iran

Norouz is a time for family and friendship. In most homes, the beginning of the festival comprises an intense period of spring-cleaning and preparation for feasts and exchange of gifts. People are expected to pay house visits to each other and check on each others’ health, meaning that an endless supply of pastry, cookies, nuts and fruits are required. The spirit of reconciliation also means that this is a time to heal wounds new and old, and the practice of holding grudges during this period is considered a bad omen.

A central component of Norouz is the Haft-Seen table spread, with items chosen which each symbolise a particular theme:

A simple norouz haftsin for a family home

The core tenets of the haft-seen are literally seven (haft) S’s (words which begin with S) and are: Sabzeh, a lentil sprouts growing in a dish, representing rebirth. Samanu, a sweet wheatgerm-derived pudding representing wealth and abudance. Senjed, a dried Persian olive which represents love. Seer, garlic which represents good health. Seeb, an apple which represents virality. Sumac, which represents sunrise or the victory of light over dark and Serkeh, vinegar, which represents patients and wisdom.

Alongside these core components, other common items include a mirror with two candles, the poetry book of Hafez or the Shanmaheh, a holy book such as the Quran, Avesta, Bible or Torah, painted eggs, a bowl of water with a goldfish, a hyacinth and various other sweets. In addition, it is not uncommon for each home to introduce their own take, with items that are important for them.

Sprouts and hyacinths in bunny pots

The celebrations last thirteen days, and on the last day an extra celebration known as Sizdah Bedar (literally thirteenth outdoors) happens whereby families and friends spend all day outdoors in nature, and childrens’ play, music and dancing takes place. Traditionally, the leaves of the greenery are tied with a whisper by young singletons expressing a wish to find a partner, and then they are discarded.

A Half-Seen in the State Dining Room of George W. Bush’s White House, 2008 (TOP PHOTO). A spread from Secretary of State John Kerry’s office in 2015 (BOTTOM PHOTO)

Regardless of the ceremonies in Norouz, its themes are universal. In a world where anger and fear seems to be increasingly prospering over love and hope, let us find some optimism in this transcendental celebration of new possibilities and new life which has not only survived, but prospered, through the centuries.

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Playing The Clarinet For Stephen Hawking

This article is my own, and I published it in the Huffington Post today:

Professor Stephen Hawking said in an interview with the New York Times:

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”

This encapsulates both his tremendous sense of humour, and the immense success of his many personal and professional endeavours over the physical limitations of Motor Neurone Disease.

I was fortunate to study in the same college where Stephen Hawking worked as a Fellow: walking past his office on the way to dinner, sometimes eating in the same hall. It always felt surreal to live and study in the same place as this scientific luminary, and I spent many awe-struck dinners manoeuvring through the long students’ tables in a rather unseemly way so that I could catch a glimpse at how he uses his computer-based communication system.

Every so often, he used to join the students in the college bar where he might have been sipping a soft drink or talking to students.  It took a few terms to pluck up the courage to ask for a photo with him, and he graciously obliged. Indeed, Professor Hawking never gave the impression of an aloof celebrity scientist, he always seemed to be an authentically down-to-earth man who appreciated life and the people around him.

His self-deferential style of comedy is a feature of his many cameos on popular television series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons and Futurama. He knowingly portrayed himself as a petty, self-important egotist in these and routinely stole the show. One of his funniest recent gigs was his retort to satirist John Oliver’s question “Does that mean that there is a universe our there where I am smarter than you”was “Yes. And also a universe where you’re funny”.

Nevertheless, arguably the greatest testament to his character remains how he tirelessly fought over the last few years in support of the National Health Service. His robust defence of the NHS, without which he said “I wouldn’t be here today” turned to a clinical attack of politicians in a speech at the Royal Society of Medicine where he warned of a “US-style insurance system” being brought about by ministers cutting funds and privatising the healthcare service. Alongside the NHS, he also battled to safeguard science funding and recruitment following the UK’s EU referendum decision. As I work in medicine, this elevated his status in my mind from a hero to a kind of mythic entity: he was spending his sunset years fighting for what he believed was right, with the fire in his soul burning brighter than ever.

“The NHS is Britain’s finest public service and the cornerstone of our society. The NHS brings out the best in us. We cannot lose it.”

My most vivid memory of Professor Hawking is from playing clarinet in a College Orchestra concert during my first term. I had been tasked with performing the solo from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ piece The Lark Ascending, but had not quite expected Stephen Hawking to be sitting directly opposite me. My nerves combined with a lazy embouchure and resulted in a largely squeaked segment, which seemed to last an eternity. I looked at Professor Hawking but could not deduce his thoughts as I massacred a classic English piece in my first (and last) performance.

“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”

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Book Review – “Leaving Megalopolis”. What happens when superheroes turn bad?

After reviewing the fantastic graphic novel The Beautiful Death here I thought to continue with another 5-part comic I read two days ago called Leaving Megalopolis, a 2014 book from Gail Simone.

Leaving Megalopolis: When heroes turn bad. From: Dark Horse Comics

Superhero comic books, when told from the perspective of the ordinary civilian, can be outstanding work like Kurt Busiek’s Marvels series which followed photographer Phil Sheldon as he documented this brave new era. However I do find the additional hook of superheroes turning evil a guilty pleasure, and Leaving Megalopolis follows this theme.

The benchmark for me is the plot, though not the execution, of the Injustice book from DC, a comic series which was spun out of a computer game. The central premise of Injustice is that that Superman loses his head when Gotham’s Joker destroys Metropolis with a nuke and kills Lois Lane and his unborn son. Superman sets up a totalitarian state to bring about order and the story features the rebellion against his fascist rule.

Not all the heroes in that book are “bad” though. Perhaps the most similar comic to Leaving Megalopolis is The Boys from Garth Ennis which portrays a world where superheroes have been corrupted by their celebrity and their increasingly thoughtless and rash actions require a secret taskforce to monitor and deal with. I enjoyed the over-the-top nature of the book though the protagonists were rather stereotyped (The affable Scot, the Cockney geezer, the French one (who was called “Frenchie”) etc….). It isn’t a classic by any means, but it is entertaining fluff.

Heroes of Leaving Megalopolis – Do you recognise any of them? From: Dark Horse Comics

Leaving Megalopolis features even more unhinged superheroes who have unaccountably turned into deranged murderers after encountering an alien. It is unashamedly violent, akin to The Boys, and also sends up popular superhero teams (think Avengers or Justice League) in similarly dark ways. We follow a group of protagonists who want to escape the city of Megalopolis where these superheroes reside. The sense of horror is real, though I did feel that the characters were not as memorable as I might have hoped, with the exception of main protagonist Mina and her cliffhanger leaving the possibility of a sequel. I found the art unsettling in a way that mirrored the palpable tension in the writing, in particular the rage of the superheroes and their glee in causing chaos.

The survivors in Leaving Megalopolis. From: Dark Horse Comics

The main criticism was that I wanted the characters to be fleshed out more. Often certain features of plot were insinuated but there did not seem to be any follow-up, for example there is a hint that one of the band of survivors has done something bad previously, but we never find out what it might be and the book becomes sympathetic towards him. I enjoy mystery and complex characters, but perhaps there was a bit too much shrouding in all but the main character Mina.

Nevertheless, if you do enjoy your stories dark and your worlds dystopic, I recommend that you check this series out, particularly if you enjoy the theme of corrupted heroes.

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