Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Streaming: Star is Disney+ for grownups – but is it any good? | Film


It’s nearly a year since Disney+ made its way to the UK in what must surely rank as one of the most fortuitously timed launches in media history. Just as Britain went into its first Covid-19 lockdown, harried parents were suddenly presented with approximately a zillion hours of Disney and Disney-adjacent streaming content, from classic animation to National Geographic to The Mandalorian.

Child-free adults with little interest in family fare, however, could safely give it a miss. Cue the arrival of Star, a separate hub of grown-up programming within the service, where Disney’s takeover of 20th Century Studios, Touchstone Pictures and the ABC television network, among others, comes into play. Star launches on Tuesday with more than 270 films and 70 series, largely pulled from the recent archives: a thousand more titles are promised within the first year. You can’t have Star without the rest of Disney+, or vice versa: that means an increase in the Disney+ subscription rate from £5.99 to £7.99 a month (or £59.99 to £79.99 annually). New subscribers will pay the new rate immediately, although any subscriptions taken out before Tuesday’s launch have a six-month grace period before the increase kicks in.

Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, 1999.
‘Devastating’: Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, 1999. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox

How much bang you’re getting for your increased buck depends on your affection for multiplex cinema of the 1990s and 2000s. For every welcome title on the launch list, there are three or four that you’d never have otherwise recalled. The Banger Sisters with Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn? The Good Son, briefly notorious for turning Macaulay Culkin evil, and then never spoken of again? Andie MacDowell and Drew Barrymore packing pistols in cod-feminist western Bad Girls? The past truly is a foreign country.

Several more enduring crowdpleasers are in the mix, though: ever-pleasurable blockbusters such as Pretty Woman and The Devil Wears Prada feel right at home here, maintaining as they do a kind of Disney fairytale narrative in a notionally adult context. (Baz Luhrmann’s still-giddy Moulin Rouge!, too, if you’re old enough to accept your fairytale princess perhaps not making it to the end.) One might not say the same for the first Borat film, or Tony Scott’s crisp submarine action banger Crimson Tide, but I’m glad they’re there just the same.

Things get more wildly off-brand with the incorporation of Fox’s indie-oriented Searchlight stable, which contributes a number of films that couldn’t be further from the Disney house style: Yorgos Lanthimos’s witty, warped historical comedy The Favourite; Kenneth Lonergan’s brilliant but divisive Margaret, a sprawling psychological map of teen guilt and trauma; Kimberly Peirce’s landmark transgender drama Boys Don’t Cry, with its devastating, Oscar-winning Hilary Swank performance; or the very minor Woody Allen trifle Melinda and Melinda. Is it disorienting to see these films under the same sparkly umbrella as the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Yes. Does it raise my interest in Disney+? Yes again.

Burton and Taylor in the bank-breaking Cleopatra.
Burton and Taylor in the bank-breaking Cleopatra. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Where Star’s collection falls short is in the genuine classic department. Beyond the random inclusion of The French Connection or the lumbering, high-kitsch 1963 version of Cleopatra – famously the film that nearly bankrupted Fox, making it a rather droll selection on Disney’s part – there’s precious little cinema from before my own late-millennial lifetime.

The TV selection, meanwhile, is a little less than inspired, unless you’ve been hankering for a chance to catch up with Donald Glover’s sly, sharp Atlanta, or have a nostalgic urge to rebinge Alias, still the best thing JJ Abrams has ever put his name to. (LA 92, a fine National Geographic documentary about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, is the outlier in the mix.) Rather more effort seems to have been spent on making and marketing a handful of original series – including Love, Victor, a TV spin-off of the sunny gay teen romcom Love, Simon that does prompt you to wonder why it was seen as too “adult” for the main Disney+ stream. Star, it seems, may absorb what few chances the Mouse House is willing to take.

Also new on streaming and DVD

Cheers… Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.
Cheers… Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Photograph: Utopia

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Films that blur the permeable line between documentary and fiction aren’t such a novelty these days, but Bill and Turner Ross’s eerily convincing reconstruction of Las Vegas bar society – played entirely by real-life barflies – is audacious and exciting even within its hybrid genre.

Two of Us
Shortlisted for the foreign language Oscar, this sensitive, intelligently acted French drama centres on a retired lesbian couple whose clandestine relationship is outed after decades of cautious concealment. Filippo Meneghetti’s film unfolds with the sensibility of a thriller rather than a tearjerker, though it clutches the heart hard.

Mogul Mowgli
(BFI, 15)
Riz Ahmed is collecting armfuls of awards stateside for his turn in Sound of Metal (yet to be released here), though he’s no less magnetic in this scrappier UK indie with several curious plot parallels to that film. As a British-Pakistani rapper facing a career-stalling health crisis just as the big time beckons, he acts, writes and raps with seething, spitting conviction.

Song Without a Name
Peruvian director Melina León’s haunting, beautifully composed debut builds its story from the horrific facts of Peru’s baby-trafficking crisis in the 1980s. Following an indigenous Andean woman as she seeks the child who was taken from her on delivery, it blends sober verite with surreal atmospherics.

BFI Future film festival
(BFI Player)
Ranging from handcrafted animation to topical pandemic realism, 45 shorts by young film-makers aged 16to 25 are showcased in this digital festival, all available to stream for free on the BFI Player for the rest of the weekend. Dip in and see what you find.

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