Tag Archives: film reviews

A Wrinkle in Time: A film review with a difference

WhatsApp Image 2018-03-19 at 09.18.40(1)It’s not every day you have to say “no” to meeting Ava DuVernay.

Having a full-time day job means I do have to decline quite a few of the invitations I get, but this one really hurt. And I was honestly really excited about seeing the film. Luckily, I had the perfect stand-in up my sleeve: web series whizz, producer, actor and writer Rochelle Dancel, who attended a roundtable with Ava and A Wrinkle in Time’s lead actress, 14yo Storm Reid.

Rochelle was all set to guest post a film review here too, when another wonderful friend, blogging powerhouse Vicki of Honest Mum, asked me if I’d like to stand in for her husband at the premiere of the film, along with stylist Lauren Jobling and the highly motivating Lucy Hird. Um, YES? Best of all, we’d get to hear Ava and all the main cast (including ZOMG OPRAH) speak at a Q&A beforehand and I not-so-quietly died inside with happiness.

So this post, while containing a film review, is a little different. We’ll look at our thoughts going in, what we thought of the film itself, and what we learned from the cast and director – so if you’re just looking for film info, head for the middle bits. No spoilers.

A culture shift

RD: Admittedly, I was a little bit apprehensive about going to see this. I am clearly not the target audience, and I don’t have kids. So the lens I naturally had through which to watch this was borne from everything I’d read about it: strong female leads, directed by one of only a handful of women to have a $100m+ budget and, in the week I saw it, the first time two films helmed by African-American directors had the number 1 and 2 spots in the US box office (shoutout Black Panther). I think it’s very difficult not to consider this film in the current social and political climate, which I’m sure also had a part to play in the creative changes they made from the book e.g. the decision to create a blended family with adopted children from different ethnic backgrounds. But it all works. Regardless, I invite any grown-ups going to see it to leave all of that at the door, and bring their younger, teenage selves into the theatre.

AG: I’m pretty much fully in touch with my inner child – potentially more than my sensitive 7yo is. If I didn’t love L’Engle’s source material – and I’m afraid I didn’t – I put this down to being 30 years a little too old when I read it, but that hadn’t stopped me being really excited to see the film. I’ll come back to the Q&A I saw directly before in a moment, but what really framed the viewing for me was the DuVernay asked everyone in the audience aged 6-16 to stand up. And then told them specifically that this film was for them, and invited the rest of us to put ourselves in their shoes. Sometimes it can feel like saying “this was made for kids” is seen as negative – or it actively excludes adults from enjoying it – but I actually prefer for films to know who they’re for. For example, my daughter and I both enjoyed Inside Out at the time, but neither of us have wanted to watch it again since because the more we look back at it the less we know what it’s for; she found it a bit long-winded for kids, I found it a bit basic for adults.

A brief history of A Wrinkle in Time

Based on a much-loved children’s novel from Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time is the story of Meg Murry, whose parents are notable physicists – but whose ambitious work is greeted with incredulity when it seems to go too far. Meg’s father disappears in the course of his research, and for four years his family – Meg, her mother and her brother, Charles Wallace – know nothing of how or why, making Meg angry and closed off. Just as it looks as if she’ll have to accept he’s never coming back, a trio of outlandish guides show up to suggest there could still be hope of unravelling the mystery and saving the day – if Meg can only find the strength in herself.

A few of our favourite things

RD: My favourite thing about this film is that our lead character isn’t a superhero: she doesn’t have to transform to be anything superhuman to do anything over and above what she has previously perceived herself to be. She’s perfect exactly as she is, flaws and all, and I think that’s a major point of difference from other films that may be thrown into the same category, especially for young people.

AG: Yes! I would have killed for a female lead that was kind of nerdy when I was a kid. But even more for a girl who wears glasses and can’t see without them and doesn’t have to remove them to be ‘beautiful’. I know that’s very specific, but seriously. It’s so rare that the removal of glasses to reveal physical beauty has become a trope. Meg’s physical appearance is almost entirely irrelevant except in terms of her being asked to accept herself as she is.

I’m all for films making proud statements, and I found myself wanting to stand up and clap as one theme after another was teased out – from facing the realities of teen life, to family dynamics, adoption, siblinghood and accepting the fallibility of the most loving parent. But there were lots of other things about A Wrinkle in Time I enjoyed that were purely dramatic. I thought the pacing was perfect, and I’m a harsh judge of films that outstay their welcome. The central performances – especially Reid and Deric McCabe – were terrific. I can only imagine the skill it takes to coax such natural performances from young actors. It’s also just really beautiful to look at. In many ways it reminded me of Tomorrowland, with its audacious scope and proudly female tone.

RD: I also thought the young actors were amazing. At the roundtable, Ava described Deric McCabe as exuberant, and it truly is the perfect adjective for him. He is so fiercely committed to his character, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what he does in future. Of her lead actress, Ava said, “Storm Reid is one of the most deeply feeling actors I’ve ever worked with of any age – I compare here with David Oyelowo who played Dr King in Selma in terms of the depth of the way that she feels about her characters.” I was immediately struck by the respect that Ava has for her young actors, and she went on to say that, as the director, she made sure that they knew they could try anything, and that she would be there to catch them. I think this reassurance shows in the final film: intuitive, confident and beautiful performances all around.

AG: I have to acknowledge a couple of avoidable issues. One was chunks of surprisingly clunky dialogue – not at all what you usually get from a film co-written by Jennifer Lee (Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph), and it meant Mindy Kaling in particular suffered from not enough to do. My main familiarity with DuVernay’s other work is 13th, a documentary, so I’m not sure if it’s her usual feature-film style to get quite so vertiginous. I did see the film in IMAX, but I found the regular extreme close ups slightly queasy, and sometimes the technique seemed to undermine the intimacy instead of underscore it.

RD: I enjoyed the concept of the Mrs characters; they’re like a squad of fairy godmothers with whom you don’t always agree or understand, but will come through for you in the end. I didn’t find them entirely cohesive though. Reese Witherspoon was perfect: Elle Woods, having had a career change, in an alternate universe. I really wish that Oprah had had more screen time; she’s always very reassuring, and both the actress and character did serve to ground the film in the little time she was there. Unfortunately, although I am a huge Mindy Kaling fan, I found that the majority of her dialogue – interjected quotes a la inspirational Instagram feed – made it really difficult to see her beyond two dimensions or connect her to the journey of the main characters.

AG: On a parenting note, I’d add that, while the themes are probably most strongly resonant for the middle of the 6-16 group, it’s pretty friendly to the whole age range. I talk a lot about my daughter being a gentle soulThe Jungle Book was too much for her – but she’s super excited to see Wrinkle and so far my judgement is that she’ll be completely fine with it. The scariest bit is mostly implied (unless you have a phobia of trees or branches) and she’ll probably miss some of the nuance there until she’s older anyway.

Hearing from the filmmakers

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RD: As I’ve worked with young actors, which means I’ve met many parents, I asked Reid what her advice would be to parents whose kids wanted to get into acting, and I was totally floored by the maturity and insight of this response: “I think that if I were to tell parents – well, you’re not supposed to tell parents anything because you’re supposed to respect them – but I would just say that, if your kid wants to do it, let them do it, and as long as they are having fun and they are enjoying it, they should be doing it, and if they’re doing the right things at home and being good people then you should let them do it. If your kid doesn’t have the same interests as you, then I don’t think that you should force your kid into something because that’s when they become resentful or that’s not when they want to put 150% into something – and not only just acting.”

AG: Storm Reid. STORM REID. She was so immensely poised at the Q&A, talking about the reality of having to find strength inside yourself as a girl or woman in this world, and especially as a girl or woman of colour. Between that and Oprah’s rallying cry to look for the positives – the uprisings, the revolutions – in every difficult and painful piece of political news, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. DuVernay also took the time to call out to the men in the room and ask them to stand up if they’re good allies; you see that figure reflected in the character of Calvin, a model for how to fight for someone else and for change even when it looks like you’re holding all the cards (and it takes time to show that all might not be as it seems).

RD: So to sum up: the film isn’t perfect. It is flawed. But in the same way that Mrs. Whatsit gifts Meg her faults, I think the film’s flaws serve to highlight the film’s strengths: courage, strength and beauty – enough of each to love it exactly as it is.

AG: That’s such a perfect summary, I’m leaving it right there. 

 

A Wrinkle in Time is out in UK cinemas from 23rd March. Thank you to Disney UK for the opportunity to send Rochelle to the roundtable and a screening, and to Honest Mum and Disney UK for the chance to attend the European premiere and Q&A. All thoughts and opinions our own (apart from where we’re quoting others, obviously…).

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BFI London Film Festival 2017: four-minute film reviews (The Meyerowitz Stories; Battle of the Sexes; Call Me By Your Name; The Shape of Water)

I’m taking a different approach to my festival filmgoing this year – a round-up rather than a post for each. I’m sure SEO experts will be shaking their heads and I’m certainly not winning on frequency or volume of content, but I’m hoping this will mean a distillation of quality – more useful stuff, delivered more efficiently, with less waffling.

She says, waffling.

Anyway. This is what I saw, and these are my thoughts – written in four minutes or fewer.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Writer / director Noah Baumbach turns his lens on notions of success and failure in life and art, with the help of a gorgeously restrained performance from Dustin Hoffman bookended by smart takes from Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller – who are given specific set-pieces to channel their usual energetic performances into so they don’t overwhelm the all-important quiet. Strikingly edited and deftly constructed, it’s warm, witty and truthful – and Baumbach nails quirks so much more invitingly and incisively than his sometime collaborator Wes Anderson. Its weakness is in its women; less well-developed than the men around them – and at times almost uncomfortably drawn as the maiden, the would-be mother and the crone – there is a strong whiff of missed opportunity as Emma Thompson feels miscast and Elizabeth Marvel underused. That said, it’s unquestionably a lingerer with some beautifully written and cannily observed family conversations that make it well worth a shot – and it’s on Netflix any day now, so there’s no excuse not to.

Battle of the Sexes

Oh, how terrible this could have been – but blissfully isn’t. Filled with energy and an assured lightness of touch from Simon Beaufoy’s sparkling script, the story of young and ambitious Billie Jean King taking on the ageing but still potent self-styled chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, could have been beset by stumbling blocks: a living subject, a known outcome and a watered-down message. They’re all neatly brushed aside in a funny, smart and even-handed take which allows both Billie’s and Bobby’s stories to breathe before building to the climactic match with genuine tension. There could have been a little more explanation of Larry King (who in every particular resembles Fred from Scooby Doo) and Alan Cumming’s well-meaning ‘flamboyant fashion designer’ seems to be the voice of LGBTQ+ politics with a direct line to the future, but it’s all ultimately forgivable in a message film that avoids queasy moralising in favour of simply pointing out how right it so obviously is. Emma Stone blends steely and breezy apparently effortlessly, Steve Carrell deftly sidesteps any mawkishness to make Bobby occasionally even sympathetic – while Sarah Silverman steps in to steal the odd scene with maybe the best 70s hair ever seen on screen. A feel-good winner for sure.

Call Me By Your Name

The pinnacle of the festival for me, this dreamy take on André Aciman’s book from Luca Guadagnino is suffused with Italian summer sunlight and is every inch a James Ivory adaptation. If it has a flaw it is this tendency to cast everything in soft focus – a queer love story for straight people like me – but it stays so resolutely on-the-nose about first love and burgeoning sexuality that it’s hard to hold that against it for too long (that’s what he said, etc). Timothée Chalamet is outrageously good and Armie Hammer outrageously charismatic; while there’s little room for anyone else to command the screen, Michael Stuhlbarg gleams in the supporting role of the benignly yearning outsider. I could watch the end credits for hours.

The Shape of Water

A gloriously evocative mood piece that ultimately favours style over substance. Intended as a fairy tale period piece with a very modern sting in the messaging – absolutely a commentary on our current crises – it sings most powerfully when the wildly captivating Sally Hawkins leads us deftly through the pattern of her mundane days and then the incredible positive disruption that the arrival of an intriguing underwater specimen causes. When it centres on Michael Shannon – commanding but inexplicable – it loses some of its subtlety and depth, and yet again it is Michael Stuhlbarg to the rescue as the voice of the outsider in a moving subplot that I wanted more of. Sadly, Octavia Spencer is wasted on a character that skirts around the edges of stereotype as she gossips endlessly about her husband while occasionally Del Toro gives in to his ghoulish side to deliver some gratuitously grim thrills; one particular stunt with a cat feels like a cheap trick. Still, for all of this – and despite granular plot points that don’t stand up to close examination – the naming of the mysterious facility housing the ‘creature’, Occam, reminds us that we might as well have faith. And what The Shape of Water lacks in depth, it delivers in both faith and heart, making it a flawed but still compelling offering.

 

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

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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.

 

 

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.