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With people are gearing up for new cinema releases starting from next week (UK cinemas can reopen from 17 May) there are still some excellent offerings to be found online. For starters, new work by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins is here in the form of The Underground Railroad, a powerful and smart and visually astonishing work that will probably have people arguing whether it’s TV or cinema.
Disney updates its ever-expanding library with the works of old competitors, and iPlayer has some solid rom-coms if you need to give your brain a rest.
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The Underground Railroad - Amazon Prime Video
Now, this is me cheating a bit here. The Underground Railroad is a limited series coming out on Prime, but it’s a limited series entirely directed by Barry Jenkins. The results are as incredible and visually ravishing as you might expect from the director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, thematically rich not just how it connects capitalism and slavery, but also in how it depicts the grace and strength of the Black people who survived.
The story is that of Cora, a runaway from a plantation in antebellum Georgia, who escapes via the Underground Railroad - here not just a series of secret routes and safehouses, but a literal train underground. It’s a fascinating magical realist touch that fits perfectly with Jenkin’s almost dreamlike but always humanist stylings, another part of this world that feels as confrontational as its characters’ gaze right into the camera. The first episode, mostly set on a plantation, is unflinching in its portrayal of the violence that built America, but not exploitative. It’s a difficult watch, but then Jenkins puts his characters first, it’s not simply shock.
Watch a trailer for The Underground Railroad
His usual collaborators are doing some of their finest work - James Laxton’s aforementioned cinematography packs more emotivity thematic significance into every frame than perhaps any of his contemporaries, Nicholas Britell’s score is powerful and entrancing. It’s one of the greatest visual works of the year to this point - and it deserves better than being dropped all at once by Prime over a single weekend. While your viewing habits are entirely your own this isn’t a show that benefits from binge-watching, each instalment is often harrowing and thematically dense (and practically feature length for the most part), and would do better when unpacked over time. I can only hope that the conversation about it extends beyond the more limited time that it's been given, because it is truly landmark stuff.
Also on Amazon Prime:Stormbreaker
Anastasia (1997) - Disney+
Gary Goldman and Don Bluth’s Anastasia is deceptively daring in its aesthetic construction. Despite some now questionable framing of the 1917 Russian Revolution (orchestrated by an evil wizard Rasputin rather than based in genuine working class unrest and desire for change), it’s a frequently ravishing tale that deftly mixes cel animation with still-young CG techniques. That said, while it’s great it’s widely available still, it’s a little disturbing to see Disney reclaim it as their work, considering that Don Bluth left Disney to strike out on his own, and even became their main competitor.
The story itself is that of the lost daughter of Russia’s last czar. Rasputin (here an evil mage) places a curse on the Romanov family, and Anastasia and her grandmother, Empress Maria, are separated. Anastasia grows up in an orphanage, until one day she encounters two Russian men seeking a reward offered by Empress Maria for the return of her granddaughter. And so the three travel to Paris. The scripting is haphazard and while the animation itself is fluid and has stood the tests of time for the most part, the character drawings (especially in the faces) can be… a little rough. Still, it’s an accomplished and excited animated fable with some great musical numbers to boot.
Also on Disney+:The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, This Means War
Long Shot - BBC iPlayer
A film that relations romantic compromise between a journalist and a member of the US government to actual politics is of course simplistic in nature but Long Shot at least delivers on laughs and the other stuff you want out of a rom-com.
It’s well-performed, with Charlize Theron and O’Shea Jackson being clear standouts, all charming and funny enough that you can kind of get around the film’s completely muddled politics, mostly anyway.
Also on iPlayer:Inside Out, Catch Me If You Can, City Of Tiny Lights, The Elephant Man