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It’s a good week for both new films as well as mind-bending fiction, as the latest digital cinema offerings include a mixture of works that are expansive either in scope or in concept. In terms of new releases, there’s Disney’s latest blockbuster remake of an old work, Mulan (helmed by Whale Rider’s Niki Caro) and the latest from writer and director Charlie Kaufman, the bizarre and nightmarish I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
For films a little more out of the spotlight (but no less entertaining) there’s also this month’s new selection from Screen Anime, with the premiere of the spectacular coming-of-age animation Children of the Sea, accompanied by recent gems such as A Letter To Momo and Napping Princess.
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Mulan (2020) - Disney+
Stream Mulan, only on Disney+ with Premier Access for £19.99. Disney+ subscription required.
Disney Studios’ latest live-action remake of its old animated works is perhaps the most true to the term ‘live-action’ than most of the studio’s recent blockbusters, with its feet firmly planted in the real world. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) looked to make the film as tangible as possible even with its epic scope – shooting on 65mm film in the overwhelming and wide open landscapes of New Zealand and China, making sure its action is done with flesh and blood humans rather than CG, its backdrops full of vivid and natural colour rather than the sterile and artificial backdrops of the studio’s other remakes (though the sets often look like something from a stage play).
While the story more or less remains the same, fans of the original might find interest in some of the changes made, with musical sequences left aside for the sake of a focus on action, and the change from the Huns of the original to the northern armies as the adversaries of the emperor. Perhaps the most major change aside from the songs is the absence of the romance between Mulan and her captain Li Shiang, who has now been split into two characters, Commander Tung (played by martial arts legend Donnie Yen) and fellow recruit Chen – the decision was made in light of the power imbalance between Mulan and Li Shiang.
Though many will be disappointed by the lack of east Asian or Asian American creative forces behind the camera, there is at least an all-star cast of Chinese and Asian-American talent in front of it – including the likes of Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Gong Li and Jason Scott Lee.
Also new on Disney+: Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against The Universe
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) - Netflix
The latest from Charlie Kaufman – the writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich and director of Synecdoche, New York – is a typically byzantine (and often nightmarish) journey through the human psyche. I’m Thinking of Ending Things, based on Iain Reid’s novella of the same name, carries with it an intangible sense of doom (not unlike a recommendation from last week, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow), bolstered by a fantastic performance from lead Jessie Buckley (Beast, Wild Rose). It’s a film that feels extremely contained and personal, its cast limited to just four people – a woman, her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his two parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette, both incredibly overbearing) – but also one that feels unfathomably wide open.
The conversations that make up the majority of the film cross a wild range of topics to the point where it feels like other souls are speaking through Buckley’s character, at one point almost literally, as she evokes a different voice to monologue an excerpt from a Pauline Kael review. There’s no discernible line between acts, between periods of time or worlds, as characters radically change age and appearance in the blink of an eye, the imagined and the real becoming united. Though it, of course, would look wonderful on a big screen, it’s a film that invites revisiting: not just because it’s so strange and opaque (the Charlie Kaufman guarantee), but because it’s so fluid and open, far beyond Netflix’s presentation of the film as some kind of psychological horror. If anything the section of the film that gives itself over to uncanny terror is the smallest fraction of it, the rest is grounded in various personal anxieties. Daunting and typically bizarre work from Kaufman, but perhaps the most interesting (live action) release of this week.
Also new on Netflix this week: Zodiac
Children of the Sea (2019) - Screen Anime
A surprisingly impressionistic coming-of-age tale, Ayumu Watanabe’s Children of the Sea is more than comfortable with not holding its audience’s hand. It’s easy to get lost in this particular film, and as confusing as it can be, it’s still a thrilling experience to let yourself get swept up in its current. Directed by Watanabe with animation production by Studio 4 °C (whose other efforts include the equally mind-boggling Mind Game), the film is is based on the manga of the same title by Daisuke Igarashi who also wrote the film's screenplay (it’s also the first of Igarashi’s manga to be adapted into film).
The plot doesn’t sound too incomprehensible on paper: after a falling out with both her mother and the other members of her high school club, Ruka finds herself with nowhere to spend her days during summer vacation, and so she ends up hanging out at the aquarium where her father works. While there, she meets a mysterious pair of brothers, named Umi and Sora, boys found in the ocean and said to have been “raised by dugongs”, now observed for their aquatic abilities. The three teens share some sort of connection to a series of supernatural phenomena that have been affecting the world's marine life, such as a comet falling into the sea and aquatic life from around the world gathering in Japan. But the whole thing unfolds in an almost dreamlike fashion, content to let its imagery and emotion guide the viewer through rather than sit still and explain things.
It’s handily one of the year’s best-looking films, with dense and detailed linework that feels unbelievable tactile, vivid colour and sometimes imagery breaking up each intimate sequence of drawings. All underpinned by a gorgeous score from frequent Studio Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi, Children of the Sea is a feast for the senses, even if the plot itself can run away from you a bit. But that rarely feels like it matters when you can so clearly feel its significance.
Also new on Screen Anime: A Letter To Momo, Napping Princess
The Wind (2018) - Shudder
An enticing mixture of the frontier western and uncanny, ethereal horror, director Emma Tammi’s The Wind is a chilling, folkloric tale of paranoia, and otherworldly terror. The film follows Lizzy, a resourceful homesteader settling on a remote stretch of land on the American frontier in the late 1800s.
Despite her toughness however the isolation of the area and the never-ending howling of the wind never leads her to suspect a menacing presence on their land, perhaps borne of the untamed land itself, something that her husband dismisses as superstition. When a newlywed couple arrives on a nearby homestead, Lizzy’s fears become amplified and her increasing paranoia sets off a grim chain of events. With gorgeous, haunting visuals and pulse-pounding sound design and its sparse, patient plot, Tammi evokes the isolation of patriarchy as something forcefully planted into the land, the resulting landscape becoming untenable.
Also new on Shudder this week: The Dead Lands, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau