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This weekend: civil rights biopics, animated robots, Martian survivalism and musical dramas. With the beginning of a new month comes an exciting breadth of new streaming releases, including some of the greatest works of the 1990s, and something a little more recent.
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Malcolm X (Sunday) - Netflix
Spike Lee’s epic biopic Malcolm X is gargantuan in scale but intimate in focus, spanning the entirety of the famous human rights activist's too-short life. The 201-minute film dramatises key moments in Malcolm X's life: his early criminal career and subsequent imprisonment which then led to his conversion to Islam, then his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam. And his later falling out with the group, his marriage to Betty X, then his pilgrimage to Mecca and finally, his assassination on February 21, 1965.
The man himself is played with great charisma by Denzel Washington, who had previously worked with Lee as the volatile lead of Mo’ Better Blues. His charm and energy is a perfect fit for this project; a truly mighty and transformative performance by one of the great American movie stars. A self-proclaimed dream project for the director, Spike Lee conducts the film with his typical humanism and humour, urgency and technical verve as his usual collaborators — cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, composer Terence Blanchard, costume designer Ruth E Carter — all put in some career best work. The result is a genuine epic, and arguably one of the finest works of Lee’s career. Denzel truly was robbed of that Oscar.
The Iron Giant - Netflix
Restricted to just a few words of speech and basic sounds of expression with grunts and whines, the rumbling baritone of Vin Diesel’s voice is used to great effect in The Iron Giant. Director Brad Bird’s breakout film is a bonafide animated classic, one that trusts in the emotional maturity of children without being too dour. Based on the children’s story The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, and set during the Cold War in 1957, the film is centred on a young boy named Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), who discovers and subsequently befriends a giant, pacifist alien robot (Diesel) who loves to eat scrap metal. With the help of a beatnik artist named Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.), Hogarth attempts to prevent the U.S. military and federal agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), from finding and destroying the Giant.
It’s a peculiar, retro-future Superman story that takes as much inspiration from old sci-fi serials as it does the idea of an alien outsider that’s big of heart and generous in spirit. Bird’s expressive and buoyant animation, Diesel’s booming voice is a vital connective thread for the film’s themes of militarism and xenophobia. With his loud metallic rasp, it’s clear that the potential to intimidate and yell is there but the Giant always emotes and speaks delicately, with all the innocence of a big robot who wants nothing more than to read comics and cannonball into lakes. It takes a heart of iron not to be moved by that final utterance of “Superman”.
Also new on Netflix: Afterlife of the Party, Worth, Rush Hour
That Thing You Do! - Disney+
Noted as one of the great successes of the late songwriter and Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger, Tom Hank’s directorial debut That Thing You Do! follows a Pennsylvania band that scores a hit in 1964 and rides the star-making machinery as long as it can, with lots of help from its manager.
It’s remarkable how the eponymous song — which picked up an Oscar for original song — so accurately replicates the kind of ear worm that would chart this way, at first intended as a ballad before being transformed into a Beatles-esque pop number on a whim.
As for the film itself, the underdog energy of the one-hit wonder story at the centre of That Thing You Do! is nothing less than utterly charming.
The Martian - Disney+
Perhaps one of the more workmanlike efforts of the great Ridley Scott’s later career, The Martian coasts on the director’s knack for capturing the everyman amongst the cosmos, this film appearing like the lighter side of his seminal sci-fi film Alien.
During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney survives, and finds himself stranded and alone on a hostile planet. With only his wits and limited supplies, Watney has to find a way to survive and contact Earth. While the film has a solid and star-studded cast Damon is left to carry a lot of the film’s comedy and drama though his survival efforts, and he does fine work as Scott captures his isolation across impressive vistas. The film’s love of process is infectious, and its minimalism makes for a fine, easygoing weekend movie.
Also new on Disney+: Happier than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles, The A-Team
Cinderella - Amazon Prime Video
The classic Cinderella fairy tale is back for an umpteenth movie adaptation, with Blockers director Kay Cannon delivering a feminism-inflected take on the story for Amazon, after COVID-19 scuppered its big screen run.
Pop sensation Camila Cabello is this film's Cinderella, who's more interested in dressmaking than in wooing Nicholas Galitzine's prince. With Idina Menzel, Billy Porter and Pierce Brosnan in the cast — the bizarrely omnipresent James Corden is there too, obviously — there's plenty of musical silliness to enjoy, even if there's very little that's actually new being brought to the table. After all, even Disney is sending up the tropes of the fairy tale now.
Also new on Amazon Prime Video: Ted 2, Jerry Maguire, 12 Years A Slave
Watch: The stars of Cinderella talk to Yahoo about the film's themes