On Ghostbusters 2016 and objectivity

My husband and I saw Ghostbusters separately. We each saw it alone, which is perhaps the best way to know whether you really enjoyed something; you’re not reacting to it with anyone, so it’s all on you.

I loved it. He thought it was fine. We, like everyone else in the world, both fell hard for Holtzmann; we diverged on Hemsworth. I was pleasantly surprised by his straight delivery and almost deadpan gaze; my husband found him a bit lifeless. We agree that the first half hour takes too long to get to the point. I would say that too much space is given to Wiig and McCarthy to do their thing as individuals when the strength of the film is the union of all four characters, and in particular the rock solid contributions of Jones and McKinnon. He reckons that they are both simply not that funny in the first half of the film – individually and together. We were both glad that, even if Patty is still relegated to being the only non-academic of the group and a bit ‘urban’ (which could have been a massive cringe as the only notable POC in the film), she’s actually far more rounded than the trailer suggested, and massively well self-educated to boot.  But still: overall I loved it, pre-ordered it on Blu-ray (yes, some people still do that) and can’t wait to see it again, and he thought it was a bit better than okay but… yeah, whatever.

Here is where I wonder if it’s actually impossible to separate political joy and filmmaking objectivity. Do we even need to? My husband’s position is arguably more ‘objective’ than mine in that he is, by definition, less invested in the film being good. He has never had to go out at night worrying if tonight is going to involve (another) assault or death; on a recent re-watch of the original Ghostbusters he himself pointed out how revoltingly predatory Bill Murray’s Venkman is but I think he could see it rather than feel it. As a child I watched that version many, many times every summer – that and Mannequin were the only vaguely suitable films in English that my grandma’s local video shop in Athens carried – and yet I never loved it. At the time it was groundbreaking in many ways and the premise remains an excellent one, but I did not warm to it the way I did Back To The Future, The Goonies and Pretty in Pink. Even Mannequin, frankly. That’s fine, I didn’t have to. I can accept that it wasn’t, in the end, made for me.

But this Ghostbusters, at this time, was. And I accept the gift wholeheartedly. I feel an intense and lasting joy at the lack of casual rape jokes, at the tongue-in-cheek references to fanboy trolling, at the deliberately practical and unsexy costumes, at Holtzmann’s triumphant battle scene, at female friendship that doesn’t centre on relationships, at flawed women being flawed. And it doesn’t matter to me whether future generations objectively think that joke was as funny as it could have been, etc. I lost patience with this Ghostbusters only when it delivered heavy-handed fan service to the original (Aykroyd’s lamely game cameo was really just awful, and Murray’s awkwardly unnecessary; Hudson’s was actually quite sweet and natural but made the sad lack of Ramis even more keenly felt). When it was its own, kickass thing, behaving as if comic female action leads are just the most natural thing in the world, it was exactly what I always knew could happen if we just let it.

To be honest, the best case scenario is that women in the future find this film a bit of an embarrassing relic that their mums like. That there are so many original, brilliant feature films that don’t need to rely on an existing formats to make their point that this seems a bit old fashioned and unnecessary. I do not need it to last. I do not need it to be ‘objectively’ brilliant to do exactly what it was has done (even if I think it does actually stand up just fine most of the time, thanks). If the greatest value this film ever has is as a gender political statement, then that is more than enough for me.

And if my husband has to stand there in his wrongness, be wrong and get used to it, then I dare say we can both live with that too.

Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass with Edible Cinema

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It’s no secret that I adore the Alice in Wonderland aesthetic. As with so many tea fans and cat lovers – not to mention flamingo obsessives – I’m drawn to the twee and the fantastic, the essential Britishness. I went to the British Library exhibit earlier this year, and I’ve already assigned the animated take on the Cheshire Cat as my favourite Disney character of all time (we have both Disney and Tenniel Christmas ornaments to prove it). Mary Blair’s concept work on Alice is basically the artwork I’d produce if I had any sort of talent, let alone one as prodigious as Blair’s.

In spite of all of this, it took me an age to get around to watching 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. In part, this is because of my complex relationship with the films of Tim Burton. Having loved every second of the Edward Scissorhands era, I became increasingly disillusioned with his more recent work, culminating in a substantial dislike of Big Fish  – the point, for me, at which his work stopped being beautiful creative driven by the story but self-consciously quirky stories retrofitted into a glorious visual. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by his Alice – from the liberties it gleefully took with the source material to the canny casting of the other-worldly Mia Wasikowska. And when I heard that Alice Through the Looking Glass was going to be handed over to another director, I was heartened – if The Nightmare Before Christmas teaches us anything it’s that sometimes Burton can be credited with finer work as producer, rather than director.

And then… then I was invited to watch it as part of an Edible Cinema screening. Hell yes, my friends.

I’ve been dying to try Edible Cinema for ages – food AND films? What’s not to love? – and I cannot imagine a better pairing for this pleasingly inventive idea than an Alice film. If you’re unfamiliar with the setup, you get given a box full of numbered ‘serves’ and then are prompted unobtrusively during the film to eat or drink them at relevant points. Each serve is designed to perfectly accompany the scene it’s consumed with – like ice-cold mouthfuls of crunchy sherbet as the characters tramp through the snow… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Alice Through the Looking Glass again parks the source material at the door, simply taking the characters of Lewis Carroll’s world and playing merry hell with them. And really, maybe it’s the preferable route to take sometimes, particularly with such widely adapted and massively influential texts; without worrying about the impact of some perceived canon or other, you can simply enjoy the action for what it is. Set some years after Alice’s return from ‘Underland’, she’s now a fearless sea captain – steering her late father’s ship to safety and leaving pirates stranded in the shallows. This Alice is a fully paid up feminist, and it’s a delight to see. On her return to land, her shady wannabe-ex attempts to pop her back into the drawer he thinks she belongs in – instead Alice follows an old friend through a looking glass and ends up back in the familiar topsy-turvy world, only to be plunged immediately into a race against Time (literally, in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen) to save her friend the Hatter from a swift decline prompted by nostalgic melancholy.

If I’m honest, the plot doesn’t always make that much sense, but the rollicking, frantic pace is such that it doesn’t much matter. The moral – that you can’t change the past, but you can learn from it – is ladled on a tad thickly but it helps that it’s a pretty solid moral. Wasikowska’s straight guy turn is thoughtful, and there’s a cameo for all her old pals, from Absolem (the late, great Alan Rickman’s final work, and heartbreaking for it) to the White Queen (Anne Hathaway still keeping up the well-meant but misguided mannerisms that made the character rather irritating the first time around). Andrew Scott pops up pleasingly as a sort of Bedlam Moriarty, eyes gleaming and syringe held high. And of course Helena Bonham Carter is back on scene-stealing duty as Iracebeth, the Red Queen, but it’s Baron Cohen who walks away with the film. His sublime portrayal of what director James Bobin – he, appropriately enough, of The Muppets – called the ‘confident idiot’ is beautifully balanced: he flips on and off the manic gleam in his eye to be at one moment the frustrating villain of the piece and at the next a surprisingly moving figure.

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Accompanying the rapid twists and turns of the plot were some brilliantly creative moments from Edible Cinema. Be warned – you will be sugar high and a little tipsy by the time you emerge from any EC screening (and there are allergen-friendly menus available if you get in touch in time). I parked my sugar-quitting at the door to try a gooey, marshmallow fluff-based confection as Alice landed in a heap of flowers, a crystalline sugar butterfly when she met the transformed former caterpillar (accompanied by a shot of gin so strong I coughed like a furtive  smoker behind the bikesheds) and a rich bite of ginger and thyme spice cake as matters came to their Time-ly resolution at the end. My absolute favourite – both for flavour and the matching sensation it evoked – was the aforementioned crunchy sugar snow (and more gin). I missed one number cue which meant that two treats got shovelled in rather quickly one after another but it didn’t really affect the overall charm of the experience. Were I to give any feedback it would be that more savouries would really help cut through the intense sweetness of the menu, as some very welcome sharp and spicy popcorn did, but I imagine it’s very different with other films. And there’s no doubt that I would definitely try it again.

Glorious setting aside, I will admit that – with its madcap pace, convoluted plot and sudden resolution – Alice Through the Looking Glass is not a masterpiece, but it is a perfectly watchable romp with a universally appealing moral and a satisfyingly intentional take on creating a feminist heroine. Older children will enjoy the bonkers humour and rousing pitch, while adults can be quietly charmed by the sumptuous visuals and quality cast. Of course I didn’t take my 5yo to this particular screening (hic!); while I think she would have been fine with the nature of the content, she would likely have struggled with following the plot so in general I’d recommend it for 7+. If you don’t manage to catch it in cinemas, I definitely recommend getting creative with snacks for the home release – I can confirm it adds a whole new dimension.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is on UK general release.

Disclosure: The screening and Edible Cinema experience were courtesy of the Disney UK team. All opinions my own.

 

 

Being a ‘new’ you without taking everyone down with you

When breastfeeding went drastically wrong from day one, I discovered Fearless Formula Feeder and loved it – especially the tagline “Standing up for formula feeders… without being a boob about it.” Now, everyone loves a good boob pun, but it was the message of defending ones own space without insisting on invading someone else’s – one that is so often lacking in ‘lifestyle change’ discussions – that really resonated.

We get it: you lost weight, swapped a 20-fag-a-day for a 20-bowls-of-kale-a-day habit, went from not being able to run for a bus to doing ultramarathons… gave up sugar (ahem). It’s really helpful to hear about that change, and it can be inspiring, too. But the problem is that other people are just trying to steer a path of just getting on with living in their own bodies as they are and it’s hard enough to steer that ship already, beset as it is by a whole host of societal and media obstacles. Like being a fan of problematic things, there are ways to discuss undergoing a transformation, no matter how big or small, without becoming an iceberg in the path of the body positivity boat.

I hold myself accountable here. I have a massively complex relationship with my weight and my appearance. I was a fat child; one day a complete stranger I had to squeeze past to get to a seat in a cafe (because he had his chair flung out) berated me because I failed to apologise for grazing his elbow with my body. “Sorry, I didn’t realise,” I replied; “you’re probably too fat to realise” came the response. I was nine, and he said it front of his (thin) wife, who pursed her lips smugly, silently, and his son, about my age. I was also a fat teenager – 16 stone at 16 – and this was in the days where it was buy an ugly tent from Evans (it wasn’t cool then, well before Beth Ditto), make your own muumuu or don’t go out. For years and years I tried to lose weight. I was in a popular group weight loss meetings programme at 14 – I quit after I lost 4lbs in a week of illness and vomiting, eating nothing but dry toast, and was congratulated for it, then warned to ‘be careful’ the following week when I put on half a pound on returning to “normal” eating. I was still a teenager, being encouraged to be ill and vomit to lose weight. When I had my appendix out at 16, I had a dreadful reaction to an anti-inflammatory drug and couldn’t eat at all for four days – anything except ice-cold water, in tiny sips, made me vomit copiously. I became massively lethargic and my tongue furred up from dehydration. My mother called the GP, worried, and was told it wouldn’t be the worst thing if I lost weight. Again: Still. A. Teenager. And it wouldn’t be the first or last time I came across fat concerns being placed above good healthcare by medical professionals.

Anyway, I tried okay? At some point in my mid-20s, I drifted down from a 22 to a 16; I started a more regular gym habit with my now-husband, and we both got a bit fitter which also happened to coincide with a bit of weight loss (the two don’t always go hand in hand); I did not diet for my wedding, though I think I was probably incidentally at my thinnest anyway. I wore a lot of corsetry and insisted on a jacket. A year later I was pregnant. I gained a bit, I lost a bit… my body changed, as is wont to happen with pregnancy and childbirth.

Then, almost two years ago,  I quit sugar, and my body again changed substantially. And while everyone expects a pre-during-post pregnancy change, here it was a dietary one, and it got attention. I gradually shrank in front of my colleagues while at the same time having to voice that I was eating differently (our office is powered on cake, and you need reasons to avoid it). I went from tipping a 16 to being an M&S 12. I also began to explore fashion with something approaching a sense of self, rather than invisibility and comfort, for the first time. I began to feel vaguely welcome in that world.

Perhaps paradoxically, it wasn’t actually being a size that was available in more / most high street stores that did that initially, but the increasing proliferation of plus size bloggers showing that larger women could wear whatever the hell they wanted. I am smaller than I was, but I am not really thin, toned or fit, and I often dress with the same panicky considerations as I did when I was bigger: covering my arms, nothing above the knee unless it’s worn with thick tights / leggings, nothing too body con. Fatshion bloggers basically said “to hell with that” and they let me see a side to dressing that had been hitherto hidden from me: one that focussed on the gorgeousness of the clothes and the generally being fabulous and not having to achieve some special exclusive social value before being allowed to access those things or feel good about myself.

I didn’t quit sugar to lose weight – I’d finally given up on that, but it came as a side effect. If I’m totally honest I suppose it was welcome in that way that you’re glad to see a long lost relative even if they’ve turned up days late with a friend you weren’t expecting and the spare room is still full of junk. I have massively mixed feelings about it all. But perhaps because it was unintentional, I also have massively mixed feelings about the way that people respond to me post-weight loss. In fact I frequently resent my new-found visibility and newly-won respect. In so many ways, I am still very much the same person I was before, just thinner. But at the same time, I might not seem it.

I cannot fail to respond to the receptivity shown to my bid to be that bit “better” dressed, that bit louder and brighter with my look, that bit braver in tarting up in vintage or pulling on nerdy leggings. I have started deliberately posting outfit pics on Instagram, doing actual fashion blog posts, growing my hair long – in the past I subscribed to some weird rule that being bigger meant I should have short hair? – and slapping on a host of red lipsticks. That has led to more people commenting (positively) on my appearance. And while I enjoy that and am grateful for any and all well-meant kindness, I feel angry for my past self and the lack of love she got. Angry at myself, for spending all those years hiding myself and waiting to be more ‘acceptable’, and angry at others for refusing to notice that girl until she made herself noticed by finally doing what the system insisted she had to do. Would owning it then, dressing up more and wearing those lipsticks have achieved more respect then? I’ll never know, because I didn’t feel ready to do it until after people started making a fuss of my weight loss. I feel like maybe I could have if I were 15 now, but back then there were no social media, no inspirational bloggers, no accessible, progressive clothing stores or lines – no online communities for someone like me to turn to to make me part of an incredible movement and not just a funny fat girl trying. There’s a messy, painful symbiosis between the emergence of my confidence and the diminishment of my body, where no good can ever be entirely good.

The extraordinarily luminous Bethany Rutter often posts examples of the harmful narrative of former fat people – that is, those who say they’re a different person / healthier / happier / full of love and light since making a physical change. I’m not going to speak on behalf of fat women, because you need to read the discussions coming directly from fat women about all sorts of things; here’s another example on the same topic, Lesley Kinzel’s entire XOJane back catalogue, great fashion inspo from my darling friend Kitkeen and a wonderful summary article on not diluting the radicalism of body / fat positivity to get you started. (It should go without saying that you should follow those women for their general brilliance as interesting, smart – also fat – women; they’re not paid to educate us but if we happen to learn something along the way that can only be for the good). But it has dawned on me that, like men calling out other men to battle misogyny, I should reach out to others ‘like me’ – others who have made some sort of change and found themselves in a new category, treated with a new respect and handed a tiny sliver of the privilege others have been basking in for some time. And what I say to us is: THINK. Think about what you’re saying when you say things are much better now. Think about what – again, in Bethany’s perfect words – fat shaming really is.

Of course you must speak your truth – for me, it would be lying not to suggest that I feel healthier off sugar; of course I do, that’s why I did it and kept doing it and wrote about it. But you do not do this in a vacuum. Furthermore, to go that step further and suggest that being treated better means I am better, and advocate for you to all join me and be much better too would be frankly awful. The assumption that everyone wants to lose weight and that this would also happen in exactly the same way for them, the underpinning of a royally messed up status quo that rewards you for physically diminishing yourself, the value judgement implicitly levelled at anyone who doesn’t change themselves to please the public anti-fat narrative (whether they can or want to or not)… how would that be helping anyone except myself and my own validation?

It can be tempting when you’ve been part of one group and you find yourself in another to try and be all things to all people. As radical movements go mainstream, the demand to become accommodating forces them to be stretched like an old piece of chewing gum that’s lost its flavour but can still be relied upon for a few attention-drawing pops. This is disastrous, and erasing – yes, we are all objectified and victimised by a thin-centric social narrative and media, but if you’re about to say something about ‘skinny shaming’ ask yourself if this would ever happen to a thin person and remember that ‘reverse’ isms do not really exist. That doesn’t make the person benefiting from privilege bad, it just makes them privileged. Different responsibilities come with that.  I am not thin, and I am now over 35, but I am still more welcome in any space than a woman identical in all other ways to me but fat would be. I have a responsiblity to not further pollute the little space afforded to her by grabbing at it to add at my new-found wiggle room. And I think too many ex-fats like me do that without even being aware of it.

As one of the most painfully honest pieces I’ve ever written, I will find it very hard to publish this. It will feel exposing, and raw, and I will fear it being taken the wrong way or being seen as appropriative (and if I am told it is, I will be prepared to remove it). But this, really, is my love letter to those people – particularly fat women – that are changing the landscape so that there never needs to be another child or teenager miserable in the way that I was, not because I was fat but because of the way fat people are treated. I salute them, I love them and – from the bottom of my heart – I thank them.

Film review: Captain America: Civil War (no spoilers)

  

When you take a step back, it’s clear that the Captain America franchise is what holds the MCU together. Not because of key plot points or character overlap, although those are important, but because it provides the beating heart of the whole: the moral compass and the conflicted human core. In Civil War, the Russos have built on a strong foundation to produce what is unquestionably one of the finer examples of a superhero ensemble movie that we’ve seen yet.

One of the ways in which they do this is in not shying away from telling a story: thoroughly, engagingly – above all, emotionally. Joe Johnston set the scene: The First Avenger stretched the origin story out in a way that no other MCU film has – contrast this with Tony whose suit building is done in the first 35 minutes with such alacrity that it feels like a pre-credit sequence, the emotional arc flattened by the force of his impulsive personality.  For Cap, almost half the story takes place before the (physical) hero has been created. The thrills deliver when they come, but their goal is to show the building of a man – the polar opposite of Stark, holding the attention with simple, quiet determination – not a machine. So the Russos ran with it once they had their turn at the helm: The Winter Soldier has the pace of a Cold War thriller, but is at heart an exploration of friendship and trust. In Civil War we’re treated to the evolution of that: a rich examination of the nature of family.

In the aftermath of the events of Age of Ulton and following a catastrophic intervention in Nigeria, the question of quis custodiet ipsos custodes raises its head: should the Avengers be controlled by the United Nations and deployed by committee – political weapons, if you will? Horrified by the human cost of his Ultron experiment, Tony Stark believes so; Steve Rogers, battle-scarred Boy Scout, disagrees. When one James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes resurfaces accused of a shocking atrocity, confrontation becomes inevitable and the rest of the team are forced to choose a side.

The emotional heft here is undeniable, but punctured with outrageously fluid set pieces – including a Greengrass calibre car chase – and a solid sense of humour, it works beautifully. With the freedom to choose how much to involve anyone beyond the main protagonists, rather than the obligation to balance them, Civil War feels very much like the film Ultron could, perhaps should, have been – and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script has at least a handful of Whedonesque moments to prove it.

Still, the focus is remarkably broad; alongside the ideological battles between Steve (an eternally straight-faced Evans bringing his usual quiet likeability)  and Tony (the best we’ve seen from RDJ in the role yet), is generous screen time for Black Panther in advance of his upcoming solo outing. Despite their shared litheness, steely Chadwick Boseman contrasts beautifully against a high-energy first appearance from Tom Holland that should make us all thoroughly excited for the upcoming Sony Spider-Man reboot. A pleasantly quirky fan-pleasing chemistry is explored between Vision and Scarlett Witch, though both feel a fraction underused, and if we’re not entirely sold on Natasha Romanov’s new-found maternal instincts, her long-honed propensity to play both sides renders her the most intriguingly unpredictable “enhanced individual” in the line-up. Though the seeds of the conflict are sewn long before his appearance on the scene to stir up trouble, the endlessly watchable Daniel Bruhl isn’t wasted as Zemo either, in a carefully judged and admirably restrained villainous turn.  Finally, somehow, there’s enough latitude given to make the appearances of Ant-Man, Hawkeye and War Machine worthwhile while still at least attempting to make clear that this is not an Avengers movie (honest guv).

We engage when Stark and Rogers square up against each other because we care about them – and in the choices that those around them make (Hawkeye and Black Widow hurling punches while discussing whether they’re still friends is both absurdly funny and poignant). With yet another Bruce Wayne to familiarise ourselves with and a Clark Kent who barely considers changing his world view, Batman v Superman, leached of all tension, never stood a chance by comparison. Admittedly, Civil War might have benefited from a tighter approach to the action sequences – there’s a danger some of the more dramatic clashes are undermined by the volume and length of the fight scenes. But it seems a worthwhile trade-off to allow the Russos a little bit of indulgence in the fireworks since they’re willing to invest the same effort in the more discursive scenes.

If Iron Man deals in flashy theatrics, Thor brings the Shakespearean space opera and Guardians of the Galaxy is an adult’s adventure story, Civil War places Cap firmly at the emotional centre, dragging everyone in its orbit in to examine their own place in the MCU – but crucially with wit and warmth rather than an excess of ponderous brooding. With more of Ant-Man‘s humour and Doctor Strange’s mysticism on the way to keep it balanced, there’s no sign of this juggernaut losing momentum. And thank goodness for that.

Captain America: Civil War is released in the UK cinemas on the 29th April. 

Disclosure: Press tickets were provided by the Disney UK team. Opinions are my own.

#TeamCap 

Film review: Disney’s The Jungle Book (live action)

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If I had to sum up Jon Favreau’s live action take on The Jungle Book in a single word, it would be… affectionate.

It’s perhaps an unexpected thing to say about a film that is a little darker and quite substantially more intense than the animated version of Kipling’s tale from which it takes its inspiration, but it is exactly in referencing that source that much affection is revealed. In that, and the enormous heart that runs through it which never turns saccharine.

The Jungle Book‘s stellar cast might overwhelm newcomer Neel Sethi in any other circumstances; as they’re safely ensconced in (gorgeously realised) animal characters it is perhaps the youngster’s inexperience that allows him to make such a good showing, unbowed – in that childlike way – by the amounts of green screen acting he must have done. As it is, he stands up brilliantly well to the sheer weight of talent around him. Sir Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera is particularly generous, restrained and warm, letting Sethi’s Mowgli fill the screen – even a screen as intimidating as the IMAX in which we saw it – with big-eyed naivety and youthful belligerence. Lupita Nyong’o brings the heart in spades, and even Bill Murray’s Baloo is a scene-stealer rather than walking away with the whole movie. Christopher Walken’s gargantuan King Louie is thrillingly creepy even when conducting a classic sing-song.

It is perhaps Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa that suffers most from the surfeit of talent; though her role contains a crucial bit of exposition and she’s spared the undignified exit of the cartoon concertina snake, her cameo is brief and abruptly over and her song confined to the end credits – though these are worth sticking around for. I also struggled a little with Idris Elba’s Shere Khan; never bettered when exuding quiet menace, the twisted tiger’s blistering moments of rage seemed at times a bit muted.

Still, this is splitting cat hairs. The fact is that the whole is enchanting. The immersion offered by the IMAX screen was quite something, but even on a 2D screen half the size it would clearly be a really beautiful film. Despite deft references to the animated classic – particularly in the opening and ending, and well-chosen musical links – it’s in the deviations, and the return to Kipling, that this finds its own feet and justifies Disney’s desire to explore its back catalogue in live action. Witty without being jarring or coarse, deeply emotional but not manipulative and a serious visual treat – what a winner.

The five-year-old’s verdict:

Here’s where it went slightly wrong. I actually nearly went to see this without her, as after her nervousness at some elements of Zootropolis, she and I were both uncertain. But we talked it through and thought we’d try being brave. I gave her an opt out, which was to leave with her dad if it was too much. She was actually completely fine through some early scenes of animal violence – and I should emphasise that almost everything is implied rather than seen, so the PG rating certainly holds. But the big screen eventually became too much, and she decided to opt out; while the central core of the film was then fine, the ending was intense even for me, so it’s just as well. My parental recommendation would be for 8+, particularly in 3D, perhaps a little younger in 2D. I recognise I have quite a sensitive soul on board, particularly where animals are concerned, so others of a similar age might be fine. However, I did also hear another child near us express a quavering dislike of Kaa.

The Jungle Book is on general release in the UK from April 15th.

Disclosure: We were given family tickets by the Disney UK team to a screening including some fun events like face-painting; however, all thoughts about the film are our own. 

On visiting the Regent Street Cinema to see Network

…or, more honestly, some fevered blather about Network.

Let’s dispense with the preliminaries. Last night, unable to resist temptation, I made my first visit to London’s oldest cinema – beautifully restored and reconditioned by the University of Westminster crew – to see two firm favourites in a Lumet double-bill: 12 Angry Men and Network. Better yet, I was with someone who had never seen either before. I was seething with jealousy – imagine your first time with these two on a big screen! – but also able to enjoy a vicarious thrill through her pleasingly audible gasps and wry laughter.

It’s a lovely place; all olive green velvet seats and slightly-too-loud speakers, with a delightful bar and nerd-pleasing programming of the kind I once gobbled up eagerly every weekend at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. And that brings us neatly back to Network.

Oh, Network. How I love Network. The only script I can think of that gives me more knee-trembling writerly joy is The Lion in Winter. Viciously satirical, horrifyingly prophetic – it sings a lament of simpler days through the voice of William Holden’s romantically ravaged news editor, Max, every bit as warped and dreadful in his own way as the glittery-eyed youth, reared on television, that he is obsessed with and disgusted by. Faye Dunaway’s huntress Diana is revelatory, fascinating – her allure is complex, her unapologetic heart worn right on the sleeves of her half-buttoned blouse. Draped across a frame achingly thin for the time and with an imperfect smile in an other-worldly face, her glassy-eyed inability to connect with anything other than ratings is chilling but somehow still attractive. And then the articulated rage, the cinematic dynamite that is Peter Finch’s drunk, suicidal, surplus-to-requirements news anchor Howard Beale, releasing the bottled anguish, the impotent fury, that dwells in all hearts and can never be extinguished.

When Beale has his come-to-Jesus moment at the hands of a capitalism-rapt network exec it’s simply one of the most gorgeous scenes committed to film. Atmospheric and elegant, menacing yet comically bizarre. Lumet is sparing with the psychedelia so the dreamlike, interrogatory shots are all the more impactful when they hit. The conceit of the documentary narrator is blissfully jarring. A few years later, Hal Ashby’s Being There will pick up the theme of the modern Messiah and do it justice too, the equally blistering satire cloaked in a gentler, more parodic comedy. But here, here there are sharply witty, audacious exchanges Aaron Sorkin would kill to reproduce. No punches are pulled or speeches left undelivered. No spittle-flecked rant from Robert Duvall’s hatchet man left unspoken, no brutal truth unrevealed.

I feel exhausted just thinking about it, but it’s a post-exertion exhaustion, self-satisfied and glowing, as if I had anything to do with the brilliance of a film made several years before I was born but more unspeakably prophetic than ever.

There. Now I have left nothing unsaid. And nothing left to say.

Film review: Zootropolis / Zootopia – predator, prey and privilege

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Why didn’t anyone tell me this was Pride and Prejudice with added Breaking Bad jokes? Also, sloths. Somehow much of the build up to the release of Zootropolis passed me by, but now that it’s landed I couldn’t be happier.

Walt Disney  Studios’ latest blockbuster opened to greater success at the box office than Frozen and yet has precisely none of the hallmarks of what most people probably think of as classic Disney: it has a non-princess female lead, it isn’t a musical and there’s no love story. And yet it is unquestionably  Disney in tone, with all the characterisation, humour and heart that Disney has come to stand for, plus a dose of the more ambitiously groundbreaking attitude Disney animation has had since Pixar chief John Lasseter took the creative helm (in fact, I’d argue the Disney team has knocked out more world class game-changers than their colleagues at Pixar have in the past five years, despite popular opinion casting Pixar as the creative leaders).

Zootropolis – the UK name, though Zootopia makes more sense – shares a good deal of tone with one of my recent favourites, Tangled. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a wide-eyed, innocent yet determined bunny from the countryside, full of beans but just a touch sheltered and naive. As the first bunny police officer in heaving Zootropolis, the place where predator and prey have apparently learned to live side by side in perfect harmony, she faces stereotyping and sidelining by the cynical chief (Idris Elba) – but she grits her carrot-chomping teeth and plans to work twice as hard to show how good she is. A bewildering investigation leads her to team up with professional hustler Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), an embittered fox determined to prove that if sly is what people expect from him, then sly is what they’ll get. In a world that’s supposed to lack species tension, Judy and Nick set out to track down a group of missing animals – and discover there’s a lot more mutual suspicion bubbling under the surface than Judy, at least, had anticipated.

Bright, funny and great for almost all ages, it’s a classic buddy movie with a timely, complex message about the nature of prejudice that deftly avoids the thundering cliche of all being the same under the skin (the point is not being the same, but being equal). There are some audaciously direct references to all sorts of ‘isms’ – Judy’s reception as the minority candidate reeks of everyday sexism and tokenism; Nick obnoxiously squeezing a sheep’s hair and commenting on its texture made my jaw drop. At various times both predator and prey are shown as being fearful and ignorant and – though I’m not a believer in ‘reverse’ prejudice, since the balance of power is usually pretty obvious – the message that fear is damaging to everyone is powerful. Pointedly, the film dares to point out the hypocrisy in thinking you’re being the perfect, outspoken ally while spouting prejudice and holding on to negative perceptions without even realising it. It shows the specific, personal cost of not practicing what you preach. And if audiences like me, who fit several privilege groups, feel a little uncomfortable, then that’s as it should be.

What makes Zootropolis hugely enjoyable as well as audacious is a good dose of humour; witty and sharp, with plenty of over-the-kids-heads jokes, it also has a number of great visual gags and in-jokes. My five-year-old was highly amused by some knock-off DVDs (Pig Hero 6, Wrangled) though she missed that they were being peddled by a Duke Weaselton – come on, Frozen fans – voiced brilliantly by Alan Tudyk (come on trivia fans). A very earnest story is rattled out through a succession of one liners and smart characterisation, and even the key emotional appeal in delivered through the useful shorthand of an all-too-familiar celebrity appeal (oddly sexy Gazelle, voiced by Shakira channelling Lady Gaga). There’s no heavy-handed worthiness, but plenty of goodwill.

I strongly suspect that Jennifer Lee, who contributed to the story, had more influence than the credits suggest in turning out a balanced narrative – between her princess-subverting Frozen, which she also co-directed,  and the outstanding Wreck-It Ralph , she’s shown over and over again that she’s willing to take stereotypes, particularly sexist ones, and turn them on their heads. That the production team flipped characters during production to make Judy the lead, rather than Nick, shows that the studio is beginning to understand what it needs to produce films that are more inclusive; that very realisation is at the core of what makes Zootropolis such an honest and engaging film.

Thoughtful, wise and pleasingly zany, I’d happily and heartily recommend Zootropolis far and wide.

The five-year-old’s verdict: Despite giggling aloud at plenty of the film – we’re still hearing about the sloth, days later – being quite a sensitive soul she was also scared by some snarling animal attack moments. For that reason she isn’t sure she’d like to see it again, though her cousins, another 5yo and a 10yo, both thought it was fantastic and really funny. I think there’s a mild warning in it for easily scared types (and it is a PG, not a U) otherwise I’d say it’s a rollicking family adventure with an important message.

Zootropolis is on general release from Good Friday, 25th March.

 

Disclaimer: The Disney UK team kindly provided five tickets for me and my family to view the film. All opinions are our own.