It’s something of a quiet week in terms of new releases on streaming, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing good to watch – just a refinement of options.
It’s an opportune time to catch up on some unsung pillars of cinema, via the BFI Player’s week-long event Who We Are, a celebration of Black British filmmakers that have too often gone unnoticed. Among that selection of films is Shola Amoo’s The Last Tree, an excellent examination of what it’s like to come of age between nations, and between different spaces even in the UK; what it means to grow up (while Black) rurally, as well as in the city.
There’s also their online premiere of the delightful animation oddity Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, a hand-drawn biopic that explores the surrealist filmmaker’s foray into documentary as he makes Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread, which innovated styles still used by many a documentarian today.
Outside of that, via Now TV, Sky Cinema is showing off some of the strongest releases of 2019, with the high school set thriller Luce (which features astounding work from young actor Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as well as The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a beautifully realised reflection on gentrification and home ownership in the Bay Area.
Read more: The most-watched Netflix Originals
After the blockbusters of the past couple of weeks, it’s a good time to explore some quieter, but still powerful work.
Please note that a subscription will be required to watch.
Bad Education - Sky Cinema and Sky Cinema Pass on NOW TV
Following up his wry, acerbic debut film Thoroughbreds, Cory Finley’s new film Bad Education, a based-on-a-true-story drama, continues his smooth transition from stage director to filmmaker. Following the real life scandal of embezzlement by the senior staff of a high school, it’s anchored by an excellent and self-conscious performance from Hugh Jackman, weaponising his showmanship by having him play a vain man with a carefully constructed social image to hide the selfishness and insecurity within, that image becoming challenged by his prized institution falling to pieces.
Where Thoroughbreds looks at the sociopathy and self-entitlement of rich teens, Bad Education mesmerises simply by showing an already bad situation get worse. As the true depths of the scam are revealed to go further and further, it’s truly remarkable how Finley manages to empathise with the corruptible adults who let things get this far, illustrating the series of compromises that lead to a fraud on this level. Surprisingly exciting watching, and perhaps one of this year’s best.
Ad Astra (2019) - Sky Cinema and Sky Cinema Pass on NOW TV
Ever since Dave gazed into the monolith and saw his eventual decay in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and perhaps even before that, the void of outer space has long provoked filmmakers into examining the void within. In James Gray’s Ad Astra, that existential crisis belongs to Roy McBride, a member of a future space force left completely numb as he forms a shell around himself, so he can never be hurt again. The root of that is of course his father, who has seemingly gone full Colonel Kurtz on the opposite end of the Solar System, sending threats and EMPs back towards Earth.
McBride’s journey to confront his father, as well as being visually astonishing thanks to excellent lensing from Hoyte Van Hoytema (who also did fantastic work on fellow existential space film Interstellar), is a wry examination of what our future amongst the stars might look like: devoid of wonder, just a new frontier for capitalism. For all the astonishing sights the film has to offer, the sight of an Applebees restaurant on the moon has to be up there (and that’s well before we see the space monkeys).
As loopy as it may sound, Gray’s exploration of space, depression and the prospect of alien life is grounded by Pitt’s stoic, profoundly sad performance. WIth delicate and hugely moving compositions from Max Richter and even songs by Nils Frahm, Ad Astra is visually and sonically astonishing. It can appear a little didactic to some, but it’s effective regardless - another patient and thoughtful hit from an often unsung master craftsman.
Also new on Now TV: Luce, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Bad Education
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (2018) - BFI Player
As things are, hand drawn 2D animation is an increasing rarity, especially in the West – and even more so with films that are aimed at adults (as unfortunately, it’s a medium that is all too often treated as juvenile). So it feels like a rare treat to get something like Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, a smart yet unpretentious biopic about the making of filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s surrealist short documentary/travelogue titled Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread.
A delightful mix of intimate hand-drawn animation with live-action clips from Buñuel’s work, Salvador Simo’s film is a fascinating and funny multi-faceted look at the best and worst aspects of the surrealist filmmaker. It’s a very honest portrayal – not flinching away from the rather brutal acts that Buñuel committed (towards animals) in order to make his art, as well as his stubbornness and standoffishness towards his friends, crew and benefactors. But it also seeks to understand why he might act this way, the events of his lifetime and the human jealousies, insecurities and passions that drive him.
Also new on BFI Player this week: A Prophet, The Last Tree
The Salt of the Earth - MUBI
Charting the life of photographer Sebastião Salgado, this Wim Wenders documentary (co-directed by Salgado’s son Juliano, who went with him during his last journeys), this biography looks at 40 years of work by the Brazilian photographer.
That story is told through Salgado’s own work, which took him across several international conflicts, starvations and exodus, his black & white photographs capturing grandiose landscapes and human struggle with equal weight. This approach to the anthropology of the photographer’s work could appear impersonal, but the presence and guiding hand of the younger Saldago helps stave that off.
It’s probably Wenders’ best work in a while as well, the filmmaker’s talent for original stories having fizzled out somewhat - but this ode to the power of image, even still ones, is plenty affecting.
Also new on MUBI this week: Good Manners, Juliet of the Spirits