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Film hits: The best and worst to stream

Want the lowdown on this month's hyped new releases? Our film editor sorts the hits from the clangers.

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Want the lowdown on this month’s hyped new releases? Our film editor sorts the hits from the clangers. WandaVision. Photo: Disney+

If you thought 2020 was the year streaming peaked, 2021 looks set to prove you very, very wrong.

The film and cinema industries remain in disarray. Warner Bros. have announced that all new movies will debut simultaneously online, while Hollywood prepares to push back another batch of first quarter blockbusters – Morbius, Black Widow, Cruella, A Quiet Place Part II – and the eternally delayed James Bond film, No Time To Die. Make no mistake: 2021 is shaping up to be one hell of a year in the sofa ratings wars. Netflix, Disney+, Amazon, HBO Max, Hulu et al will be vying hard for your attention – and wallet – this year.

Netflix leads the charge, as per usual, having recently announced it will premiere a new movie every single week of this calendar year. To put that in perspective, its massive film slate so far counts 70 titles (not including TV shows), compared with 17 from Warner Bros. and HBO Max.

So, we’ve a busy year ahead of us. In the absence of cinema releases, here are our five streaming tips for January – four feature films and one series – so you know your Wonder Womans from your WandaVisions.

Wonder Woman 1984

Where: HBO Max

Watch or avoid: Avoid

Why: Because it’s an overlong mess which cribs from better films. Released straight to streaming after delays in 2020 as part of Warner Bros.’s new HBO deal, returning director Patty Jenkins’ sequel is very much a case of diminishing returns. We weren’t that keen on the first one, but, in hindsight, 2017’s Wonder Woman feels like a charming romp with wonder to spare.

For this latest instalment, we’re heading back to the 80s. Diana Prince / Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) has assembled a group of celebs to painfully warble John Lennon’s “Imagine” while mourning the death of her love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who sacrificed himself in battle in the previous film. When her new colleague Dr Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) happens upon a strange artefact, they discover that this magical stone can grant wishes. Diana decides to resurrect her beau, while Barbara goes full Tim Burton’s Catwoman. Meanwhile, Donald Trump stand-in Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) also has dastardly plans for the wishing stone.

There’s still some oomph to the action, but the bloated end product feels like a muddled blockbuster that’s desperately trying to be a capitalist critique, a political allegory, and a solidly inspiring movie, and fails on all counts. Worse, its attempts at social relevance come off as condescending. There’s also a deeply problematic plot point that goes unaddressed regarding the return of Steve to the world of the living: he’s been reborn into the body of a random guy (Kristoffer Polaha), thereby hijacking the latter’s existence.

‘Steve’ and Diana resume their relationship, and this Quantum Leap situation invites quite a few ethical questions, especially since a stronger script would have simply sidestepped this pickle by monkey-pawing Steve into existence and job done. As it stands, the sex doesn’t exactly feel consensual, and for a film about moral integrity and tackling toxic masculinity, it’s hard not to dwell on the fact that, had the gender component been flipped, this would have been significantly more controversial. Pass.

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Vanessa Kirby’s stunning performance in Pieces of a Woman should attract some very merited awards chatter. Photo: Netflix

Pieces of a Woman

Where to watch: Netflix

Watch or avoid: Watch

Why: Netflix gets off to a good start for their 2021 slate with the new film by Kornél Mundruczó (White God). Pieces of a Woman is an affecting exploration of grief that follows a couple (Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf) who experience the loss of their first child shortly after birth. It goes without saying that this is not a feel-good film. It’s a devastating and heartfelt depiction of motherhood and bereavement, and the way trauma is depicted here is incredibly bracing. The main talking point is the film’s opening act, which will leave you breathless. You could hear a pin drop in the theatre where it premiered in Venice last year, where Kirby won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress.

The scene in question is an intensely claustrophobic 23-minute single take which will put you through the ringer – throwing you into a home birth in real time. You want to turn away, but the absence of cuts keeps you fixated in horror. The acting is superb, and the way the couple interact and look at each other will bring tears to your eyes. As for the painful tragedy that awaits them, the authenticity throughout is never in question. It will go down one of the most memorable scenes you’ll see all year.

While the performances throughout the drama are excellent, the film does inadvertently suffer from the presence of Shia LaBeouf. On acting chops alone, he is excellent here, but some may find his performance uncomfortable, especially in light of abuse allegations levelled against the actor. For those who find it difficult to separate the art from the artist (or feel that one shouldn’t), this role might detract from the drama itself.

Pieces of a Woman is also undeniably let down by an ending that’s far too neat and disappointing in its tone. This comes with some very on-the-nose metaphors and truckloads of obvious symbolism about bridge-building and apples that would make any first year literature and cinema student cringe themselves into a coma. However, Pieces of a Woman is definitely worth a watch for that unforgettable opening act, and Vanessa Kirby’s stunning performance should attract some very merited awards chatter.

Also on Netflix: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Directed by Tony Award-winner George C. Wolfe, this Denzel Washington-produced adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name centres on the tensions that arise during a fateful recording session of “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey (the always wonderful Viola Davis) in 1927. Part of Wilson’s American Century Cycle series, which chronicles 10 stories of Black lives which span over each decade of the 20th century, there’s another bittersweet reason why this film works: it features a fantastic performance from Chadwick Boseman, who passed away last year. His final film role might be his best, and expect him and Davis to feature prominently in the acting categories when the Oscars come a-calling.

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Sound of Metal could go all the way to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. Photo: Amazon Prime

Sound of Metal

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

Watch or avoid: Rush to watch

Why: Having premiered in Toronto last year and done the festival rounds since, Sound of Metal finally ended up online at Amazon. It stars the fantastic Riz Ahmed as Ruben Stone, a heavy metal drummer whose life is thrown into free fall when he begins to lose his hearing. Voices are muffled, surrounding noises are muted, and the viewer is immersed in his existential crisis.

Ahmed is at his finest here, topping even his visceral performance as another musician in Mogul Mowgli, which screened in the Panorama sidebar section at last year’s Berlinale. He learned drumming and sign language for the role, and ensures that this character drama dodges the shop-worn clichés linked to disability. The film is stronger for it, as it never sensationalises the character’s condition and does justice to the community it is representing. A lot of the supporting cast are also deaf themselves, thereby heightening the authentic feeling of the universe we’re introduced to.

For his gripping and frequently moving feature-length debut, director Darius Marder and co-writer Abraham Marder sensitively handle the material and avoid all the award-baiting pitfalls that could have been. Speaking of which, don’t count out Ahmed for Best Actor gongs this season. There’s only one sticking point with Sound of Metal: it’s a shame it won’t be experienced in theatres, as Nicolas Becker’s sound design is intrinsic to the narrative, upping the tension and emotional stakes.

All in all, Sound of Metal is far more than a rock version of The Wrestler or the rehash of Whiplash many feared it could be. It’s an immersive and resonant sensory experience that could go all the way to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, and stands as our strongest recommendation for the start of 2021.


Where to watch: Disney+

Watch or avoid: Watch

Why: While Netflix’s streaming monopoly remains in full force, don’t write off Disney+ just yet. The platform released Pixar’s new movie, Soul, on December 25, and it’s a return to the glory days – especially after last year’s very underwhelming Onward.

Not content with simply personifying feelings in Inside Out, writer-director Pete Docter now anthropomorphises the concept of the soul in an existential tale that follows a middle school music teacher (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who dreams of being a jazz performer. Before he can get his big break on stage, he suffers an accident that causes his soul to be separated from his body and wander into The Great Before, a place where souls are assigned personalities. There, he teams up with 22 (voiced by Tina Fey) in order to return to Earth before his body dies.

Soul makes good on its concept: it deals with grabbing life by both hands and posits that there is happiness in knowing that life can’t be understood the first time around. Don’t be surprised if your face starts leaking. However, it doesn’t quite live up to the standard of Inside Out, and the way Docter tailored complex ideas for a ‘kids film’, whatever that means, in 2015. The finale also feels a tad rushed, with a feel-good ending arriving a bit too abruptly (there was apparently a bleaker ending being considered, the details of which can’t be revealed here in order to avoid spoilers).

Regardless, it’s still wonderful to see Pixar deftly and empathetically explore huge ideas about life, death and one’s purpose in life. Soul is excellent in this regard. Plus, the music by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste is nothing short of gorgeous. It provides the Pixar-shaped, heart-warming balm everyone so badly needs in these trying times, and it has a good chance of being the fourth Pixar film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, following in the footsteps of Beauty and the Beast, Up and Toy Story 3. The fact that Ratatouille missed out remains a travesty of the highest order.

Bonus renegade series recommendation to start the year:


Where to watch: Disney+

Watch or avoid: Watch

Why: Once again, Marvel has the edge on DC – you’re much better off spending your time with WandaVision than Wonder Woman 1984.

It’s been quite some time since our last dose of Marvel heroics – Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home back in 2019. Last year’s films have been delayed, and considering the way things are going, don’t hold your breath for Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or Eternals to keep their allocated 2021 release dates. Instead of big-screen adventures, we get a miniseries based on the Marvel characters Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) and Vision (Paul Bettany).

The show premiered its first two episodes on January 15 (each clocking in at a taut 20-odd minutes) and will run for nine episodes until March 5. Set in the MCU and marking the start of their Phase Four plans, WandaVision takes place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, in a new reality that moves through the decades of beloved sitcom shows. Both Wanda and Vision are living the suburban life in the town of Westview, trying to conceal their powers from the rest of the neighbourhood. But as the days go by, things begin to unravel: they can’t remember why they’re there, when they got married, and how Vision is still alive, as (spoiler alert for Avengers: Infinity War) Vision bit the dust at the gloved hand of Thanos.

The series is presented as a loving and clever ode to sitcoms of yore: for Episode 1, we’re introduced to a black and white homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show (laugh track and all), while the still-monochrome Episode 2 takes its cues from Bewitched. It’s a bold, postmodern concept that upends any past criticism of Marvel playing it safe, as the off-kilter nature of this mysterious sitcom effortlessly blends laughs with much darker Lynchian moments. Both Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are terrific and share a palpable chemistry that was often overlooked in the movies. Kathryn Hahn also shows up as a nosey sitcom neighbour who could be harbouring a dark secret, one that holds the key to the identity of the villainous puppet master behind all this madness…

Marvel have announced that they’re developing a number of limited series for Disney+, and whether you’re completely au fait with the mythology or a newbie, this is exciting stuff (though some prior knowledge regarding the MCU does help and loads some seemingly throwaway beats with eerie meaning). Based on the strength of only the first two episodes of WandaVision, this creatively courageous Phase Four is off to a very promising start.

There we have it. Go forth, stream to your heart’s content while cinemas are still sadly shut, pray to the celluloid deities that they’ll reopen soon, and, as always, stay safe.