Film review: Beauty and the Beast (live action)

It doesn’t feel an overstatement to suggest that Howard Ashman was absolutely key in transforming the lumbering beast that Walt Disney Animation had started to resemble in the mid-80s into the fleet-of-foot animation royalty that dominated the 90s and heralded an era of musical hit after musical hit. He did it through the gift of song – his artistic vision and a lyricist’s pen dripping with inspiration that was at its most passionately effective in partnership with his long term creative collaborator, Disney Legend Alan Menken. The 14th of March marks the 26th anniversary of his sadly premature loss, so it seems a fitting moment to return to some of his very finest work with the company as Disney indulges in its latest project to reinvent its back catalogue into live action for fun and profit.

If Bill Condon (Twilight: Breaking Dawn 1 2, Mr Holmes) attempts to tighten up the more dated elements of the tale as old as time by developing its independent and intelligent heroine’s back story, there’s no need to lift a finger to invigorate the music: it’s aged perfectly.  The sole bum note is the Beast’s new number, a rather pedestrian lament penned by Sir Tim Rice (who also completed Ashman’s work on Aladdin) – though it’s good to see the cursed Prince get his due with a bit more character development. Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens brings a note of gruff sarcasm to his performance which is warm and welcome; he’s also provided with hints of a more complex story than simply ‘petulant child’, and this helps with what has always been a tough sell of a romance – even more challenging with live action characters and hard-working CGI and prosthetics than it is with animated protagonists.

The supporting cast is stalwart and solid; Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth is reliably…McKellian. Ewan McGregor can safely be counted on to belt out a rousing tune; his Lumiere’s Be Our Guest might lack the tongue-in-cheek suaveness of the sorely missed Jerry Orbach but taken as its own performance is still a Busby Berkeley extravaganza in which the running joke of Belle failing to actually get to eat anything remains. Audra MacDonald’s Mme Garderobe gets a fuller role and injects necessary notes of both pathos and jollity as a result of her continuing love affair with harpsichord husband Mastro Cadenza- a newly-created character and gleeful cameo from Stanley Tucci and his spectacular dentures. The challenges here are largely of realisation rather than performance; where Cogsworth and the Maestro’s household objects lend themselves to mimicking facial expressions, Lumiere’s tiny face, Mrs Potts’ flat surface and the wardrobe’s unnerving facelessness are at times slightly unnerving. While this doesn’t prevent national treasure Emma Thompson from being bumblingly charming and pretty much pulling off that crucial titular ballad, she’s one of the few characters that is preferable in her briefly-observed human form.

But what of Belle herself? Emma Watson’s is a very cool and reserved take on one of Disney’s more fearless heroines. In many ways she’s a more realistic introvert, and there are some touching moments, such as a small bubbling up of glee at being given the library to explore and in the richer relationship with the delightful Kevin Kline’s Einsteinian Maurice. Still, this interpretation leaves some of the high drama sadly lacking; for one, her Fraulein Maria hilltop moment is oddly muted. It perhaps doesn’t help that Watson is well nigh steamrollered by an absolute barnstormer of a performance from Luke Evans on full-bodied form as Gaston, rolling effortlessly from high camp to cartoonish villainy with a genuine note of unhinged violence. Where Be Our Guest and Beauty and the Beast should dominate the score, it’s actually tub-thumping tavern jig Gaston and menacing rabble-rouser Kill the Beast that lead the way as the film’s most engaging musical moments. There’s been much press coverage of Josh Gad’s Le Fou being the first obviously gay Disney character, though this is rather more disappointingly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it than advertised; still, he’s an able enough foil for his puffed-up partner in crime, even if his conflicted moments are a little lacklustre.

Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is a beauty but a funny film; just a touch too paint-by-numbers to attain the high standards set by Jon Favreau’s lavish and loveable take on The Jungle Book and certainly not about to replace the near-perfect Ashman swansong from which it took its cue. But it’s an affectionately crafted and solidly enjoyable family night out; the lights of its most stirring numbers remain undimmed and that wickedly effective Gaston is possibly even an improvement on the source material. If, being honest, it wouldn’t be included in the bookshelves of the mind where my most prized treasures rest together, I wouldn’t refuse to include it in the library.

Beauty and the Beast is on UK general release from Friday March 17th. Many thanks to @disney_uk for two press preview tickets. All opinions my own; more blog-based movie reviews here; even more film stuff on my Letterboxd profile.

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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


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.


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.



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.


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


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. 

Film review: Carol

Earlier this week I was delighted to be able to go along to The Pool‘s screening of Carol, followed by a Q&A with producer Elizabeth Karlsen and journalist Helen O’Hara. Carol was my LFF ‘one that got away’ – it was replaced by Trumbo, which I enjoyed a great deal, but I still felt the sting of the missed opportunity.

I remember seeing Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven in the cinema, and being blown away by its loveliness, by the graceful weaving of oppressive sadness between layers of beautifully arranged fabric. I didn’t have any doubts that Carol would be just as gorgeous, if not more so; Karlsen commented afterwards that she thought this was “Todd at the top of his game”, and I can see why. Haynes communicates in the language of sensation; he captures in just a few seconds the headiness and distraction of falling in love, the drifting in and out of focus. His storytelling has a consistently dreamlike quality, though the finely detailed and precise workmanship is always evident; Karlsen made a point of the incredibly prescriptive shotlisting which allowed the film to be shot in just 35 days. It’s not hard to believe that this was all meticulously, lovingly planned down to the last exquisitely styled stitch and button.

Both leads are excellent; Blanchett makes thorough and judicious use of that Galadriel-honed mysterious smile, and Mara’s other-worldliness is perfect for the angel who “fell from space”. And yet…. and yet.

As much as I wanted to love Carol, I couldn’t summon up more than an affectionate fondness. The tenderness between privileged Carol and awkward Therese is appealing and lovely, but while I understand the relationship from the latter’s perspective – Carol overwhelms her senses, and indeed ours – I don’t quite buy into the love story. It’s not clear that they even really like each other; of course, given the time, the place and the very real threat of their illegal relationship there was no way to have any public declarations andmost conversations would be heavily loaded. But the result is a little smothering – I longed to see them simply laugh together, just once. Conversely, “Aunt” Abby’s (a great Sarah Paulson) long-dead romantic relationship with Carol – now a deep and passionate friendship – was fascinating; I desperately wanted to see a film about their history.

If Carol were a food, it would be dessert. But, for all its Michelin-starred care, it wouldn’t be a complex, deconstructed trifle with a feather on top. It would be rice pudding, but the best rice pudding in the world: dreamy, thick; full of cream and vanilla fragrance, with the bittersweet edge of cinnamon. You’d scoop up bite after bite, revelling in its richness and rolling it around your mouth. You’d feel the warmth spreading from your core. You’d savour each tooth-clinging mouthful. But it would only be when you came to the end, scraping the last grains from the bowl, that you’d realise you’re dying for a different texture: a crystal sip of ice water or perhaps the alien crunch of a nut. Carol is sumptuous, and visually glorious and its success can only help drive change in an industry that badly needs to see beyond the tentpole releases and exceptional white male stories. But it also feels as slippery as silk, with a lack of anything really substantial to hold on to.

Many thanks to The Pool for the chance to see the film and enjoy the excellent Q&A afterwards.

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Film review: Home (Digital HD release)

One of the great advantages of my daughter now being a much more independent small person is that I’m getting to indulge a lot more of my pre-motherhood interests again. I’ve probably seen more films and read more books in the first six months of this year than I did in the three years before that; some of that is down to the fact that we now enjoy lots of those things together.

Perhaps because I’ve been writing and tweeting more about films, the kind folks at Fox Home Entertainment sent the two of us a very cute party pack and a copy of DreamWorks’ Home to watch while we celebrated the release of the film on Digital HD.

So this weekend we got our party together and settled down to watch the story of well-meaning but disaster-prone alien Oh (The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons), whose Boov brethren have colonised Earth in one of the most genial invasions ever captured on film. Attempting to make friends, Oh accidentally sends a message which could pinpoint the Boovs’ location to their dreaded enemies, and in escaping the rage of his fellow aliens takes up with a lone girl, Tip (Rihanna) -who has accidentally been mistaken for her cat, Pig, and therefore failed to be swept up alongside her mother and relocated to one of the remaining human areas of the planet. The unlikely partnership forces them to learn a bit more about each other – and themselves – in order for both of them to find the family they treasure.

Home is as genial and good-natured as its main character overall; the plot is occasionally a little meandering and chaotic, but it dashes along at a fairly breakneck pace, and the level of humour was spot on for my almost-5yo (there is one particular knock knock joke I think we’ll be telling for weeks). She was particularly charmed by the dancing scenes (“my hands are in the air like I just do not care”) and cackled gleefully at the odd helping of toilet humour.

For me, the main plus points were the small but significant nods the film made towards greater inclusivity. In a world where the bulk of big-ticket animated features is still very white and tends to be rather male-dominated (unless royalty is involved), it was a breath of fresh air to see a film where a substantial amount of screentime was given over to a sparky, intelligent girl of colour –  and one who wasn’t particularly defined by being a girl at that. Tip’s mother, desperate to find her, describes her to a Boov guard, uttering the line “she has beautiful brown skin”  – something that’s just lovely to hear. To top it all, the animation allows Tip to have a fairly normal, childlike body.

We actually missed Home in the cinema as we were off on holiday just after it was released, and my daughter was quite gutted – so to get the opportunity not only to watch the film but to do so with bunting strung up, snacks to nibble on and a garden tent to sit in (although we were indoors!) filled her with excitement. While I wouldn’t say it’s gone straight into our list of favourites, I suspect we’ll watch it again at some point as it was sweet, enjoyable and made for a fun family afternoon. I think it’s a particularly strong choice for the younger members of the family, being lighter and less developed than DreamWorks favourites like the excellent How to Train Your Dragon (and with fewer fart jokes than Shrek).

Home is available now on Digital HD.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of Home, along with a party pack, by Fox; however, this is not a paid review and all opinions are my own. 

Non-spoilery thoughts about Avengers: Age of Ultron

I think of all the films that I’ve been excited about so far this year – and there have, ahem, been a few –  the one that I’d invested with the most lip-biting enthusiasm was this one. And here it is, and us British types got to see it A WEEK BEFORE the US (not over how long it took to get Big Hero 6 yet)… and I still haven’t actually written anything about it.

There are reasons. The first is that, as with The Avengers / Avengers Assemble (pick your favoured regional variant), the first viewing was more about getting my head around what the hell was going on; I’ll need to go again to really make sense of things, I think. The second is that practically all the things I want to talk about come with Veronica-sized spoiler warnings. I guess I’m safe enough letting those out of the bag now… Though I won’t.

Mainly, I came out of the cinema feeling like there had been some thrilling moments, some funny moments, some genuinely very touching moments and only a couple of really irritating moments (superhero territory: no matter how good the cast, crew, script etc, there’s going to be at least one clanging great sexist moment or something like it to really get up your nose; also, if Tony Stark is in the film it will involve him because on paper and on screen he is a truly awful person). I really liked that despite SO MUCH GOING ON, SO LOUDLY there was time and space for it to be surprisingly intimate. This was needed, since a mechanical villain is never going to have the emotional draw of a human(ish) bad guy whose motivations can be more complex, more personal and, perhaps, more forgiveable. Well, until he unleashed space-hell’s firey Godzilla-bildschnipe on New York, anyway. And there was the small matter of all those people he killed before that… wait, what was I saying?

Intimate, yes. Sometimes having your hand forced is a joy; being able to reinvent Wanda and Pietro’s background, removing Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver from specific associations with X-Men and Magneto, meant that that part of the story – and the reasons for the siblings’ dubious allegiances – could feel oddly real and plausible. For a film with an Internet robot and a flying city, anyway.

It’s funny, because people who know me IRL will know I can bore people stone cold sober with natter about these films (one poor soul got my full Shakespearean thesis on Thor by text) but it’s awfully hard to be remotely coherent when I try to make my writing sound more like a review and less like some really meandering observational routine from the graveyard shift at the comedy club. Obviously not trying that hard on this occasion, to be fair.

Anyway, sod it. It’s my blog, not a film magazine. I can write whatever I like. So I’ll end with a short and slightly disappointing story:

After the film, we went for a really nice meal in a Turkish restaurant we’d never tried before (no, we didn’t have schwarma). The waitress heard us talking about it and asked me if I could tell her who the voice of Ultron is since her flatmates are all crazy about this film. “James Spader,” I said, with the warmth that only having been alive to be in love with James Spader between 1986-1994 can achieve. “Who?” she replied. And I was just a little gutted.

That has nothing to do with the film per se, but that feeling of love and possessiveness being mildly punctured by someone else’s complete lack of immersion in the landscape? Sort of how it feels to talk about this stuff with people who don’t do superhero movies. So it’s felt pleasantly cathartic to write a little about it here where I have no idea if you care or not, but I’ve got to assume you were interested enough to get past the headline.

Right. Time to book take two, I think…

Film review: Cinderella and Frozen Fever

Ramona meets a prince and checks out a glass slipperIt feels faintly confessional to declare I bloody love Kenneth Branagh. I do. I think he’s great. I love his acting. I love his direction. I love that he brought us Thor (and, via the marvellous Wallander, Tom Hiddleston). I love that he was married to Emma Thompson. And even though I really, really wanted Toby Stephens to be cast as Gilderoy Lockhart, I love that he’s a part of the Harry Potter film universe. So I didn’t need a whole lot of convincing to watch his take on Cinderella.

And to top it all, I got to be among the very first people in the UK to get to see Frozen Fever, which has nothing to do with Kenneth Branagh, but is basically me bragging. Sorry. Ish. More on this later (or you can just scroll to the bottom).

Branagh’s Cinderella is a live action retelling of the fairytale; it doesn’t have a particular  alternative spin, a la Maleficent, and – wisely, in my opinion – it doesn’t really seek to do much more than reinvigorate a well-loved tale. Disney’s animated classic, still looking gorgeous at 65, is one of the gentlest of the whole stable, with relatively little peril and a liberal sprinkling of glitter and stardust – in fact, it’s said Walt’s favourite bit of animation was the dress transformation. Branagh restrainedly doesn’t attempt to layer too much onto that and goes instead for a very traditional family movie, marrying a sweet, intimate script peppered with British quirk to the visual sumptuousness of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Ramona gets her nails painted a glittery blueIn fact, so lavish is the imagery – particularly the mindblowingly gorgeous costume design – that only an excellent cast could avoid being swallowed up by it. While Lily James is a bit too breathless for my preference – kindness doesn’t have to mean a lack of gumption – Richard Madden is appropriately charming and Cate Blanchett, in the accurate words of my husband “becomes more beautiful and more intimidatingly talented with every role”. Her Lady Tremaine is wonderfully nuanced and even a little sympathetic, swinging smoothly from uncontrolled bursts of rage to icily arresting viciousness. In this she’s ably assisted by the secondary villain, a megalomaniac aristocrat brought to scheming life by Stellan Skarsgard (yep, love him too) and Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera in gloriously grotesque form as Anastasia and Drizella – in fact, I could have done with even more of the latter pairing.

Ramona, the Prince and me.The show is, however, stolen by the special guest star; Helena Bonham Carter opts for feather-light British eccentricity with a touch of sly humour as the Fairy Godmother; her soft voice shepherds us through the heavily narrated action and her eventual appearance involves plenty of daft physical comedy, making gleeful use of elements like her bizarre choice of vehicular vegetable. She lifts the pace of what is a surprisingly long movie and keeps it from sagging at the centre, providing the off-beat heart of the film. Injecting a little more drama into the magic also sets up a lively and welcome stroke-of-midnight set piece, which, with its ‘princess’ trapped in a shrinking pumpkin, has more than a whiff of Alice about it.

From the largely home-grown cast to the indulgent little asides (a Rob Brydon cameo that wasn’t for me, but that seemed to land well with the rest of the audience), this felt like a very British effort, and it’s that layer of deliberate quirk that brings it to life and makes it a highly watchable, sweet and very, very pretty family film.

The four-year-old’s verdict: It was good. I think it’s better than the cartoon. Cinderella was nice. It was a bit long though and I got tired. There were some funny bits [she laughed during the painter scene, and at the animal transformations].

Family note: Aside from two – very gentle – depictions of death and, of course, Lady Tremaine’s acerbic treatment of Cinders, there’s little to worry about here for even the most sensitive child. Definitely a full family friendly film (I like alliteration).

Cinderella is on general release in the UK from March 27th.


And now, Frozen Fever. Well, it certainly has its moments! Without wishing to give too much away, the action unfolds on Anna’s birthday where Elsa’s attempts to give her a celebration to remember go a little awry (think Tangled Every After with more snow). There’s a new song to enjoy, and plenty of Olaf gags, plus cameos from practically every character you’d want to see. Ramona watched avidly and chuckled out loud a few times, as did I. And it was nice to hear Jonathan Groff sing a little about something other than reindeer…

Disclosure: The kind folks at Disney UK provided screening tickets including the funtimes shown above; thoughts about the film, however, are entirely mine.

Thoughts on The Theory of Everything and Only Lovers Left Alive

Aside from an abundance of English accents, the above have little in common. However, I happened to see them in the same week and while one is too old to review and I probably don’t have enough to say about the other to warrant a whole post, I had a few thoughts about each I wanted to set down.

First, the Hawking movie. It would, I think, simply be silly to be remotely critical of Eddie Redmayne here; he was as close to perfect, and as far from impression or parody, as anyone could ever ask him to be. I don’t for a minute question whether he deserves all the accolades heaped on his head; with that in mind, I also think there’s a great deal to be said for the direction, at least from a performance perspective. However, I was left feeling largely like I’d missed the point. Usually with a biopic there’s an arc, a focus – an overall reason for telling this story, at this time and in this way. Unquestionably, Stephen Hawking has led a life that is out of the ordinary in a number of ways, and that makes it a compelling proposition. But where the oft-compared The Imitation Game largely focussed on a particular period in Turing’s life, and came with a healthy dose of social justice polemic to boot, The Theory of Everything is essentially a greatest hits of Hawking’s life from MND diagnosis to the end of his marriage to first wife Jane.

Of course the primary reason for this time span is that the source material is Jane’s book (and how good to see a woman’s story and perspective for a change). But in trying to summarise everything it feels like a thread has snapped somewhere along the line. Perhaps because both are still alive, and in spite of Felicity Jones being marvellous, Jane seems oddly airbrushed; actually, the whole film has a soft-focus, with any sexual or gory medical detail much more inferred than displayed. Again, I think, a side effect of choosing a living subject – a largely private one, at that.

There is, thankfully, no hokey disability narrative; the Motor Neurone Disease Association appeal shown just before the film deftly made the point that Hawking’s length of life post-diagnosis is pretty unusual and the film, to its credit, doesn’t try to imply that there’s any special strength of spirit that is the cause of this. It actually does an admirable job of acknowledging the considerable challenges of living with MND, whilst allowing a full characterisation of the subject as a complex – and obviously hyper-intelligent – human being. Still, there was one moment where Hawking imagines stepping out of his chair to pick up a student’s dropped pen – one of those inescapable cure-fantasy moments that seem to come built into any story where disability is an essential part of the story.

A little soft-focus, a little abbreviated, a little airbrushed… is it better, perhaps, to be as accurate and respectful as one can be about reality than to basically make bits up for dramatic effect, as The Imitation Game has been accused of? Perhaps for the subject; but I can tell you which makes better cinema.

And yet, having just complained about the lack of structure in The Theory of Everything, in the same week I hugely enjoyed a film with absolutely no real plot to speak of, Only Lovers Left Alive.

I’ll generally watch any old vampire crap as long as it’s not full-on horror, and there is something wholly irresistible about the idea of Tilda Swinton as the undead. Throw in John Hurt – as Kit Marlowe, no less! – and Tom Hiddleston (finally out-manoeuvred on-screen by his manifestly more experienced colleagues, but still very good), and I’m already sold. But I generally have little patience for excessively self-indulgent faffing, and the first few minutes of the film, beautiful though they were, threatened to annoy my short attention span. And yet… touches of unexpected humour, jarring references to YouTube and Apple product placement, captivating moodiness and just the right touch of self-aware silliness… altogether, frankly, it was a little gem. Every so often, a burst of activity threatens to add a storyline, but then it just sort of rolls on – as well life might if you’ve been alive and married for centuries.

Perhaps that’s exactly the difference between a biopic that rattles from station to station with no clear destination and a drive through the desert with no road at all.