Charming 2018 ****

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If you’ve ever wondered what kind of film might involve Sia and John Cleese, Charming is the answer; a bright, poptastic animation from John Williams, a Shrek producer who gets how a post-modern take on fairy tales might work. The result is for anyone who dug the scenes between the various Disney princesses in Wreck It Ralph2: Ralph Breaks the Internet; Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are all featured here in competition for the hand of Prince Charming.

Prince Philippe Charming (Wilmer Valderrama), to give him his full name, is a man cursed with weapons-grade charm, so powerful that all women fall in love with him. It is, quite literally, a curse, and his father sends him out to run The Gauntlet, a series of challenges. Of course, the prince is actually a vain fop who cannot shoot an arrow or drive a cart, and he depends on a mysterious stranger for guidance. The stranger is a woman disguised as a man, and her name is Lenore (Demi Lovato), a jewel thief; she has similarly been cursed with an inability to fall in love. As they bond on their voyage through the trials set against them in the gauntlet, Phillipe and Lenore fall in love, but where will that love take them?

Some of the animation, particularly the faces, doesn’t feel top drawer, but Charming gets a quite a few key things right; the narrative stops for a few good, solid songs by Sia, performed by Sia and Lovato, and a upbeat anthem Trophy Boy by Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy. Classic Disney soundtracks always hark back to what the parents want to hear; it’s refreshing to hear modern music rather than retro-classics. The cast are familiar, and identifiable; even John Cleese’s bits, as a Fairy Godmother and an executioner, are specific comic characters that are similar to, but not the same as, vintage Python. And the story’s heart is in the right place; the character of Prince Charming is undefined in many fairy-tales, and writer/director Ross Venokour hits the right groove in identifying gender bias and making turning sexist archetypes upside down.

There’s something of the meta-fictional zest of hit Hoodwinked here; a section where Phillipe and Lenore is caught by a race of Amazonian women called Matilija, with huge, zombie-like eyes has a strong visual flair, and for the most part, Charming manages to be quite literally what the title says.

In the UK, CharmingMovie is in cinemas nationwide 2 August 2019.

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Vox Lux 2018 *****

Catnip for the Black Swan audience, Bradley Corbett’s Vox Lux spins a familiar trope into something original and yet familiar; a backstage story of a nervous female performer straggling with the pressure of on-stage performance. It’s remarkable then, that Vox Lux captures something different from other films on the subject; driven by a huge performance by Natalie Portman, Corbett seems to be leaning specifically on the circumstances involving Ariana Grande and the Manchester bombing. Portman’s pop-singing diva originally came to prominence in the aftermath of a high-school shooting, depicted in jarring in-your-face visuals in the opening scenes. Vox Lux drifts some way from her original demure stage persona, and she is seen struggling with substance abuse, as well and questionable relationships with her family and her agent (Jude Law, embracing his sleaze in a Dom Hemingway style). Vox Lux could have gone in several melodramatic ways, but Corbett continually dials the narrative back, creating a grounded yet soaring finale that’s got a real edge. Not for the masses, Vox Lux is a deconstruction of pop and womanhood that observes a fragmenting subject with a keen, dispassionate eye. Songs by Sia.