BFI London Film Festival 2016: Paterson (review…ish)

How do you make a film compelling

Without conflict, drama or action“?

When a man goes to work every day

And loves his girlfriend

And she loves him?

When a notebook full of gentle poems

Stashed in a pocket as he drives the bus

Is all that he needs to be


When the surroundings are suburban

Washed out, simple

Just about real?

When cereal is eaten from a water glass

(No plums in the icebox)

And every morning starts the same

More or less?

When simple symbols repeat themselves

Regularly for two hours

(Circles, twins, circles, twins)?

When he sees things in black and white

(Him and the world, together but separate)

And she makes everything black and white

But sees everything as grey

As possible

(Cupcake queen, country singer)?

When an event of enormous personal significance

Is a broken bus

A toy

A chance conversation

Some paper?

You cast Adam Driver

On whose face the tiniest twitch

The most subtle reaction

Is everything you need to know

And who is capable of being blank

Without being empty.

And to make doubly sure

That everyone is paying attention

You add a bulldog with just enough personality

(Personality goes a long way)

And a wobbly postbox.


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


c 2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Film review: Tomorrowland: A World Beyond European Premiere

Me in my genuine 1940s finery with my genuine, erm, 2015 Haunted Mansion souvenir.

Me in my genuine 1940s premiere finery with my genuine, erm, 2015 Haunted Mansion souvenir.

For a film about the future, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond sure feels like stepping into the past. In this joyful retro-futuristic romp, The Incredibles director Brad Bird and LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof have created a relentlessly upbeat, Spielberg-reminiscent family adventure with its eyes on creating a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.

It’s 1964, and young Frank Walker is enjoying the sights and sounds of the World’s Fair, including Walt Disney’s It’s a Small World and Carousel of Progress. Everyone is looking ahead to a world of gadgets and gizmos aplenty; Frank himself is toting a new invention to enter into an innovation contest.

Fast forward 50 years, and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), eternal optimist and tech nerd, is battling the closure of the NASA platform where her dad works and the negative attitudes of her peers and teachers, all forecasting doom and dystopia. It’s not looking good – until a strange vintage pin turns up in her possession…

Hugh Laurie making people laugh? Never.

Hugh Laurie making people laugh? Never.

Tomorrowland (to use its simpler US title), rests on the premise that at some point post-1970 our outlook on the future went from chasing dreams to ducking nightmares. And looking at some of most popular and successful franchises around today – although, yes, dystopia in cinema is nothing new exactly – it’s hard to disagree. Somewhere along the line, our vision became more universally dim; less Jetsons, more genocide. And the disaster is invariably man-made. No meteror extinguishes our old-fashioned thinking; we’re dinosaurs on a collision course with our own greed – or worse, apathy. Tomorrowland explores what the world could be like if we rediscovered that spark of enthusiasm – and what that could mean for humanity now. But to have nostalgia for an imagined future, you have to go back to the place that future was envisaged from, and in doing so Bird has also tapped into the childhoods of his core audience; I felt more than anything like I was watching some of the classics of my own upbringing – but for the first time and without the dated haircuts. It was Flight of the Navigator, War Games… maybe even ET, only new and shiny.

Okay, I squeed a little.

Okay, I squeed a little.

In many ways, it’s a shame to give too many details away about Tomorrowland. To me it felt primarily like an old-school family adventure movie – although my daughter, not yet five, is not the key audience, I wouldn’t actually have any problem with her watching it – but also like a film made by Disney fans for Disney fans (but enjoyed by everyone else). Certainly a ride on It’s a Small World will never feel exactly the same… Crucially, though, Tomorrowland doesn’t just revisit the past for the sake of it and then wallow in nostalgic baby-boomery; it does attempt to move the discussion along beyond rediscovery, into action.

Clooney! The guy on the right = joy.

Clooney! The guy on the right = joy.

Just over four weeks ago, I was actually sitting in Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress – and it was a really weird experience. For one, it was one of the few classic attractions I couldn’t remember from childhood; I’d completely blanked it out (or maybe we hadn’t visited? Seems unlikely, though; I remember every version of the Spaceship Earth narration since 1984 – we were that kind of family). Despite frequent updates until the early 90s, it hasn’t aged as spectacularly well as one might hope; progress by this definition largely meant technology – not people. All innovations are presented – as well they might be in view of the domestic preoccupations of 1964 – in terms of household convenience. Women are generally sewing or losing weight or gossiping on the phone, right up until the most modern, forward-thinking scene. It’s all a bit old-fashioned in a generally uncomfortable way. In Tomorrowland, the very essence of futuristic thinking is rooted in humanity, and progress is from the earth to the stars, not from the kitchen to the living room. Besides which, humanity is embodied primarily not in Frank – in spite of Clooney’s global star power – but in the body of a young female character who is not sassy or ditzy or seeking male approval or especially representative of anything other than being an intelligent teenage girl.

Do I look worried because Alex Zane is about to tap-dance on my husband's head?

Do I look worried because Alex Zane is about to tap-dance on my husband’s head?

Better yet – and here, I shall be deliberately vague – key relationships in the film revolve around another female character, the mysterious Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Impressively she is both the lynchpin of which the emotional core of the film and its coolest, most logical mind; it is Walker’s adult male that is the most unhinged and uncontrolled. When is the last time we’ve seen that kind of dynamic presented to young girls? I remember watching what is still one of my favourite films, Jurassic Park, and being utterly frustrated that seven-year-old Lex of the book, who had good reason to be scared due to her young age, had been turned into a snivelling teenager on screen, reassured about “veggiesauruses”. In Casey and Athena we have a couple of bright, shining examples of how a female character can be a character first and female second.

Few films are perfect, and Tomorrowland has its flaws – though I’d argue that most are a direct consequence of its strengths. For one, it is so invested in character and delivering its message that plot can feel a bit rushed; fully three quarters of the film is devoted to setting up what turns out to be a pretty fast pay-off. Still, I didn’t actually notice that until later, when Ramona asked me about the story (she’s something of a Joe Friday about these things). Unsurprisingly for a movie based on a themed land from one man’s dream, there’s a strong emphasis on individual, special visionaries needed to inspire the rest of humanity that I’m not entirely sure I agree with, but it did force me to think about it. Interestingly, the villain here – Hugh Laurie’s David Nix – is not actually outright evil for the most part; to be a bad guy here is to have had the optimism kicked out of you (bad news for Eeyore, I guess). When introducing the film, Bird had difficulty defining the genre into which it fits, because there isn’t just one; while that can be jarring at times, when the film takes an unexpected turn, it’s also refreshing.

Smug people are smug.

Smug people are smug.

In the end, I found myself unwilling to pull at Tomorrowland‘s threads too hard because I enjoyed the whole fabric so much; it’s such a cosy blanket of positivity and hope that I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to unravel it. Also, I really, really want one of those badges.

Disclosure: To make the entire experience altogether more amazing, I was privileged enough to be able to see it at the European premiere, where I edged past Clooney and Laurie on the blue carpet (sadly nowhere near Bird, of whom I am entirely in awe) to the strains of There’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow whilst wearing my favourite vintage dress and a Haunted Mansion scarf because apparently I CAN DO THAT NOW. I am very grateful to the lovely team at @Disney_UK who invited me along and made my week. However, I can assure you the thoughts above are entirely my own (and indeed, who else would want to claim them?).

Update: I’ve had MOAR THOUGHTS about Tomorrowland, and specifically the feminism and insight therein But there are spoilers. So tread carefully.