Disney+

Fresh

17/06/22

Disney+

I have high hopes of this comedy-horror, where the feminist sub-text is right there on the surface. It promises to be a ‘fresh’ take on a well-worn trope, written and directed by two women (Lauryn Kahn and Mimi Cave respectively). So imagine my disappointment when I find myself watching an all-too familiar extended sequence: a beautiful young woman chained up in a cruel madman’s basement, crying and begging for her freedom. Surely I can’t be alone in thinking that it’s not enough to subvert the ending (spoiler: it’s not a man who saves the day)? That, actually, you can’t make a valid point about the exploitation of women by exploiting them further? Or that a film that lingers unironically on images of women’s suffering loses its claim to be a fucking comedy?

It starts off promisingly. Okay, so it’s not exactly subtle. Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is single and sick of the dating scene. We see her out with a cartoonish man, all wafting scarf and pronouncements about how women just aren’t as feminine as they used to be. It’s mildly amusing: recognisably awful, but also (whisper) a bit hack. Later, she texts another guy, who immediately sends her a dick pic. Maybe love just isn’t for her, she tells her best pal, Mollie (Jojo T Gibbs). But then she meets Steve (Sebastian Stan), who seems too good to be true. He’s sweet, polite, engaging, kind.

And yeah, too good to be true. Because Steve is a cannibal, who butchers women. It’s an obvious metaphor for the romance meat market – and, sadly, the film’s charm wears off as quickly as Steve’s. The lengthy pre-credit sequence hints at something gentle and quirky; what follows is almost gore-by-numbers, albeit with some gorgeous cinematography (by Pawel Pogorzelski) and a banging 80s soundtrack.

Ach, I don’t know. It makes me weary. I hated rape-revenge movies The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Elle for the same reason: I don’t want to watch women being victimised, and then emerging, brutalised, to re-enact the same violence against men. That’s not redemption; it’s having your steak and eating it: a tone-deaf definition of a ‘strong woman’ – and we shouldn’t let the film-makers off the hook. Emerald Fennell nails feminist vengeance in Promising Young Woman, proving it can be done.

That’s not to say there’s nothing good about this film. The actors are all impressive, although Gibbs is criminally under-used as Mollie (of course she is, because Mollie is black and gay, only ever destined for a sidekick role alongside the straight, white heroine). I like the device of setting up Paul (Dayo Okeniyi) as a potential hero, and then deflating that hope. Stan is well-cast as the killer, plausibly likeable, so that his success in charming Noa seems credible enough. The initial meat-packing sequences are wonderfully stylised, hinting at the better movie this could have been.

In many ways, the whole thing works better as an analogy for farming, where animals live in captivity, and where ‘kindness’ only extends as far as keeping them warm and fed so that they’re tender and disease-free when we come to eat them. That’s not the intended message, but it’s the one I’m taking home.

This movie just doesn’t work for me: the ‘comedy’ never raises more than a small smile, and the ‘horror’ is nasty rather than scary. Sadly, in the end, Fresh is more than a little bit stale.

2.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Pistol

03/06/22

Disney +

Looking back, it’s hard to fully appreciate the full cataclysm delivered to the United Kingdom by the arrival of The Sex Pistols in 1975. Here were four working class lads who could barely play their instruments and who seemed more interested in causing controversy than producing hit records. They did manage the latter, even if the radio initially refused to play them. Now, with the Jubilee in full swing, it’s a really interesting time for this six part series to land – and, if the House of Mouse seems an unlikely home for it, Danny Boyle as director makes perfect sense.

Working alongside regular collaborator, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantel, Boyle makes this much more than a standard rock biopic. The extended running time offers him the opportunity to explore a more diverse landscape. Co-written by guitarist Steve Jones (played here by Toby Wallace), and based on his auto-biography, this shows how the Pistols were a construct, created in the fevered brain of agent provocateur Malcolm McLaren (a wonderfully smarmy performance by Thomas Brodie-Sangster). His callous machinations are clearly displayed, as he edges out original bassist Glen Matlock (Christian Lees) – who he considers too straight and too musically accomplished – in favour of Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), who can’t play a note but looks perfect.

Dod Mantel’s restless cameras capture everyone else in the vicinity. They include Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), who comes within a hair’s breadth of fronting the band; Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), who creates the Pistols’ iconic look; and Jordan (Maisie Williams), who blazes a trail for women’s rights in her own fearless way. (Sadly, the real Jordan died only weeks before this series was released.)

Boyle liberally peppers the proceedings with contemporary newsreel footage, tabloid headlines and clips of established musicians touting their pompous productions: an extract from Rick Wakeman’s ‘King Arthur & The Knight’s of the Round Table – on Ice’ really ought to be a spoof, but sadly isn’t.

There are uncannily realistic recreations of true events, including the Pistols’ explosive appearance on the Bill Grundy TV show, their ill-fated tour around the north of England and their even more disastrous attempt to play a series of gigs in America. There’s an inevitable dip in episode seven as the heartbreaking relationship between Vicious and Nancy Spungen (Emma Appleton) reaches its inevitable conclusion, but Boyle could hardly have left it out – and, happily, the lost momentum is soon recovered.

It’s interesting to note that the actors perform their own music and vocals, so much respect is due to Anson Boon, who has the difficult task of portraying John Lydon and actually making us care about him. His performance is a particular triumph.

Eagle-eyed viewers may spot the fact that Boyle occasionally slips performance footage of the real band into the mix and it’s entirely to his credit that those moments are genuinely hard to spot. Poor advance reviews mean that I don’t expect to like it as much as I do – indeed, I find it so utterly compulsive, I watch all six episodes in two hugely enjoyable binges.

Never mind the bad buzz – this really is the bollocks!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Turning Red

24/03/22

Disney +

The House of Mouse’s decision to release all new Pixar films directly to their in-house streaming service seems incredibly short-sighted – and not just because this is a time when cinemas are really struggling to tempt viewers back into seats. Mostly, it’s because the gorgeous animation that exemplifies Pixar is made to be shown on the biggest screens available. However, Disney seem not for turning, so it’s time to renew that monthly subscription.

Turning Red is set in Toronto in 2002 . Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) is thirteen years old, a good girl who excels as a scholar and spends most of her spare time helping her domineering Mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), to run the family temple, a place dedicated to their illustrious ancestor, Sun Yee. Meanwhile, Meilin’s father, Jin (Orion Lee), cooks up some amazing food. In scenes that could have come straight from a Studio Ghibli feature, his dishes are enough to make this reviewer’s mouth water.

With her three bosom buddies, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Remakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park), Meilin is a fan of the hot new boy band, 4*Town. She also discovers, to her dismay, that she’s developing a crush on handsome local store clerk, Tyler (Tristran Allerick Chen), who she has always professed to hate. She is hurtling headlong towards puberty and the resulting rush of hormones has an unfortunate effect on Meilin. She finds herself suddenly transforming into a giant red panda at the most inopportune moments (although I’m not sure when would be a good time). This is the result of an ancient transformation that every young woman of her family must undergo.

It can be cured, Ming assures her daughter, but not until a month has passed. Awkward.

And then news reaches Meilin that 4*Town are going to be performing at a huge concert in Toronto and she and her friends know that, whatever else comes or goes, they will have to be there in order to ‘become women.’ So how are they ever going to raise the hefty price of admission?

From the outset it’s clear that Pixar, already the most innovative of animation studios, is setting out to walk a path where no other cartoon makers have dared to venture. The Red Panda is clearly a metaphor, standing in for the turmoil and confusion of adolescence – the film even manages to cover the subject of menstruation without raising so much as an eyebrow. All credit to director Domee Shi, who has clearly used her own youth in Canada as inspiration for the story, co-writing the screenplay with Julia Cho and Sarah Streicher. Hats off also to songwriters Billie Eilish and Finneas, who manage to capture the vapid tosh that is 4*Town’s music with ease.

This is a gorgeous film, all about the power of womanhood and the healing properties of friendship. The fact that it’s wrapped up in a pretty parcel of jaw-dropping animation doesn’t dilute its message one jot – and the climactic showdown at the 4*Town arena concert – where events begin to feel a little like Pandazilla – brings everything to a suitably powerful conclusion.

Even on our modest screen at home this looks dazzling, so how it would have looked on IMAX can only be wistfully imagined.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Zootropolis

12/01/21

Disney +

Our recent flirtation with the House of Mouse affords us the opportunity to investigate some of the Disney product we’ve previously missed. Zootropolis seems worthy of investigation. There are several people out there (you know who you are) who’ve urged us to give it a try and, for no other reason than the fact that – pre-Covid – we were somewhat spoiled for choice, we have chosen to ignore them.

We no longer have that excuse. And of course, it turns out our friends were right. Doncha just hate it when that happens?

In a world where all animals happily co-exist, young rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) grows up with one overpowering ambition: to become a police officer. Her carrot-farming parents are really not keen on the idea. Bunnies, they insist, are meek and cute, and not cut out for such shenanigans. But Judy is determined and, sure enough, after graduating valedictorian from the police academy, she heads off to the city of Zootropolis to start her new career.

The titular city, by the way, is the film’s most glorious achievement. A fully-realised environment divided into different sectors – desert, rain forest, tundra – it’s all rendered in eye-popping animation with extraordinary attention to detail. Watching it, you can almost believe it exists.

Judy arrives at her police precinct all ready to go, but the stern Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) clearly shares her parents’ views of what a bunny is capable of and promptly assigns her to parking duties. She applies herself to the task, and soon encounters the streetwise Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily fox who has devised his own ways of making a living by skirting very, VERY close to the edges of the law.

When a series of mysterious disappearances occur around the city, Judy spots an opportunity to step up her career a couple of notches and cunningly blackmails Nick into helping her investigate the situation. They soon realises that this particular rabbit hole goes very deep indeed…

Zootropolis is enormously appealing – a bizarre marriage between a futuristic sci-fi adventure and an old fashioned noir mystery. Look out for a delightful spoof of The Godfather in the engaging form of Mr Big (Maurice LaMarche) and relish the scene where Judy and Nick visit an information department serviced exclusively by sloths, led by Flash (Raymond S. Persi). You’ll giggle too at an appearance by Tommy Chong as a fly-infested yak, the manager of a… health spa.

Of course, there’s another of those famous Disney ‘messages’ embedded in this tale – a subtext that warns of the dangers of making cultural and racial assumptions, and how every individual deserves the personal freedom to pursue what interests them. It’s not particularly subtle, but it’s an important message, isn’t it, and maybe subtlety isn’t always appropriate.

At any rate, it’s great fun and it’s chock full of invention. If, like me, you’ve put this onto the back (bunny) boiler, now might be the perfect time to try it out.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Onward

09/01/21

Disney +

The release of Onward couldn’t have been more disastrously timed. We were all set to view it in an actual movie theatre when the pandemic hit big and cinemas had to close their doors. Now here it is on Disney +, and, like so many of its illustrious Pixar brethren, this is a fabulous slice of family-friendly entertainment with a brilliant concept at its core.

The story takes place in a fantasy world, where magic has somehow become unappreciated by its exotic inhabitants. Here, unicorns are simply pesky critters that regularly raid the dustbins, ancient artefacts are best sourced in thrift stores, and the local Manticore’s tavern has been styled to look like TGI Friday’s, complete with a karaoke machine.

Elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) reaches his sixteenth birthday, but feels too self-conscious to invite his friends from high school to his party. He’s also somewhat overshadowed by his brash older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), who is obsessed with fantasy role-playing games and seems to feel it’s his duty to embarrass his younger bro at every opportunity. The boys’ mom, Laurel (Julia Louise-Dreyfus), has her hands full keeping the peace. Since the untimely death of her first husband, Wilden, she’s remarried to clumsy centaur cop, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez), a nice guy whose speciality seems to be knocking over the furniture. Ian, meanwhile, is still mourning the death of Wilden, who died just after he was born. It irks him that Barley has something he has never enjoyed – memories of their father.

But one of Ian’s birthday presents is an ancient staff, containing a rare Phoenix gem – something that, if used correctly, can conjure a ‘visitation spell.’ It has the power to bring Wilden back for just one day. When the boys attempt to use the staff, something goes disastrously wrong and they are obliged to embark on a perilous quest in order to rectify their error.

They have twenty-four hours. As the time ticks steadily away, their mission becomes ever more complicated…

What ensues is the usual Pixar mix of broad comedy and bitter-sweet sentiment – the boys encounter legions of mythological characters along the way (including Octavia Spencer’s Manticore and a bunch of motorbike-riding sprites). There are frantic chases and gasp-inducing perils for the boys to overcome and, as their time begins to run out, some genuine suspense is generated. Of course, this being a Pixar film, there’s also a central message and it’s to the writers’ credit that, near the film’s conclusion, they opt to pull off something really daring and manage it with aplomb.

This is exactly what’s needed right now. Brilliantly crafted, deceptively simple, heartwarming and, above all, great fun. In these harrowing times, what more can we reasonably ask?

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Mulan

05/01/21

Disney+

I’ve never seen Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan, but my stepdaughter loves it and I trust her judgement, so I’m predisposed to like this live action version of the tale, directed by Niki Caro.

The story is based on an old Chinese folk tale, The Ballad of Mulan, created in the time of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534). It tells the tale of the titular Mulan, a young woman who disguises herself as a man so that she can fight in the Imperial Army and save the dynasty from the Rouran warriors.

Mulan has always possessed the chi that marks out the greatest soldiers, but the patriarchal society she lives in demands that both men and women adhere to strict gender roles, and women are definitely not supposed to fight. Mulan wants to bring honour to her family, but she doesn’t want to wear fancy make-up or restrictive clothing; she’s not interested in learning how to pour tea with decorum, nor in acquiring any of the other skills needed to ‘make a match.’ She doesn’t want to be a wife; she wants to rise, phoenix-like, and become a warrior. So, when it looks like her ailing father might be pressed into battle, she steals his call-up papers and his sword, and sets off on her mission.

It’s a charming story, beautifully told. Yifei Liu is luminous as the eponymous heroine, her quiet determination both convincing and impressive. And this is more than just a worn-out, that-old-chestnut, girl-pretends-to-be-a-boy type thing, because – despite its historical origins – this is very much a story for our times, showing clearly how people – all people – need to be allowed to pursue their passions, and to realise their own natures. Indeed, in the form of hawk-witch Xianniang (Li Gong), we are given a very stark (and not very subtle) warning as to how destructive it can be when we are forced to deny our true selves: this is a woman made of fury, doomed to a life as an outcast, and desperate for revenge.

The fight scenes are gorgeously choreographed by Mandy Walker, a brutal ballet of physical perfection. The battle:story ratio seems well-judged: there’s not too much for me (I tend to get bored watching protracted fights), but there’s plenty for martial arts fans. Philip’s especially delighted to see veteran stars given roles with appropriate gravitas, namely Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, Jet Li as the Emperor and Jason Scott Lee as their formidable foe, Böri Khan.

The CGI hawk and phoenix are skilfully rendered, adding an interesting element of mysticism to what is essentially – in this incarnation – a realistic tale. And the relationships between the characters are nuanced and compelling, with almost everyone open to learning and accepting new norms and ideas.

For me, this is a genuine pleasure. I guess I’d better watch the animated version now…

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield