Wondering what to watch? While there’s little in the way of notable original releases this month there is a wealth of overlooked cinematic gems to be found this week on streaming.
For starters, Netflix hosts the independent sci-fi film Vesper, which impresses with some imaginative (and economically deployed) effects work, and visuals that imply a much grander scope beyond the acute focus of its narrative.
Also recently landed on the service is Michael Mann’s striking Muhammad Ali biopic, Ali, one of the finest examples of the form lead by an excellent performance from Will Smith. While NOW adds 2021’s new stab at an adaptation of the brutal fighting game series Mortal Kombat.
Read more: New on Prime Video in January 2023
Please note that a subscription may be required to watch.
Ali (2001) | Netflix (pick of the week)
The first name uttered Michael Mann’s Muhammad Ali biopic isn’t the man himself, but Sam Cooke. The ‘King of Soul’ is the first on the stage, while the boxer diligently trains outside of the spotlight.
That’s to say that the film immediately signposts its interest and canniness about the history in which Ali was a piece, how he became ‘The Greatest’ in the surrounding struggle for civil rights is recognised as essential; the athleticism is a given, his cultural context is essential.
Read more: Everything new on Netflix in January
Mann focuses on how the man’s defiance of any attempt at ownership over him — whether that’s through a name or a military draft — affects his public, personal and professional lives. The film is no hagiography either.
To this day it’s one of the finest performances that Will Smith has ever given, his own starry charm and braggadocio turned a little more fierce with Ali’s infamous rhyming trash talking. Far more than just impersonation, Smith also plays him with a steely gaze but also an undercurrent of uncertainty.
While Ali has its rough spots as it traces Muhammad Ali’s personal life and cultural legacy, it has undeniable magnetic pull. Take the opening segment: it's an exhilarating collage of societal change and black self-determination that contextualises who Ali is, what he represents and what he will mean to people at this point in time — all before it barrels into a bout with Sonny Liston, an infamous match that dovetailed with Ali changing his name from Cassius Clay to Cassius X, before then changing it to Muhammad Ali in his conversion to Islam.
The fight itself is filmed with a visceral sense of impact through Mann’s incorporation of digital handheld camerawork, as well as a grace that feels as flighty as Ali’s footwork. At the same time it builds up the importance of his relationship with Malcolm X (who also gets a heavy share of the plot as it shows divisions in the Nation of Islam as well as surveillance of him), efficiently laying the groundwork for how it’ll affect his fame and how quickly the public turns on him when he begins displaying political belief and conviction (with some exceptions — the film tracing the unlikely arc of his friendship with Howard Cosell).
While the rest of the film — following his exile and subsequent comeback along with Fight of the Century and Rumble in the Jungle — doesn’t quite move with this same clip as it sprawls outwards, it’s a fascinating representation of both man and Black history all the same.
Vesper (2021) | Netflix
A relatively low budget science fiction film, starring Eddie Marsan, that frequently defies the restraint that might imply, Vesper’s scope is surprisingly grand, even as it focuses in on a humble microcosm of the world it imagines.
It shows a future ruined by climate disaster, dubbed “The New Dark Ages”. As ever, humanity has played too much with fire and set the house alight, and now the Earth is a toxic wasteland, destroyed by manmade viruses as well as synthetic organisms, originally created to shelter survivors from the aftereffects of the apocalypse.
Watch a trailer for Vesper
Of course, it’s the richest people who survive best, living in walled-off citadels which remain unseen to the viewer — we can only imagine their splendour. Instead, directors Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s dystopia focuses squarely on the 99%, living in ruined old machinery and burnt out villages, murky swamps and woodlands.
Read more: New on Disney+ in January 2023
The visual effects work stands out most, with disturbing hybrids of plant and creature as well as a striking realisation of fascinating art direction, where humanity’s attachment to nature, even as its spoilt, is reflected in the shape of their buildings and vehicles. The story itself finds some solid emotional hooks, though it’s the spectacle and imagination of this small scale feature that proves most interesting.
Also on Netflix: Jung_E (2022), JFK, 13 Hours
Mortal Kombat (2021) | NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership
This is not, in fact, the Mortal Kombat which is the source of that infamous theme tune. There’s no DJ yelling the title ahead of a 90s dance beat, because this is a slightly more self serious Mortal Kombat, one which aims for the blue-grey tones of contemporary MCU movies instead.
Read more: New on Sky/NOW in January 2023
Despite the headscratching decision to not make the film about the actual fighting tournament which the story revolves around there are some decent bouts, and perhaps some excitement to be found in seeing Scorpion throw down. Shame there’s no theme song, though.
Also on NOW: The Hanging Sun (2023)
Watch a trailer for Mortal Kombat