As California dials back its reopening efforts, staying safer at home is good policy now more than ever. Our weekly roundup of movies and shows to stream will keep you entertained while you keep yourself safe from the COVID.
Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante’s new film finds its setting amid his home country’s post-civil war upheaval, where ghosts of Indigenous victims haunt the perpetrators of rape and genocide. Not to be confused with last year’s The Curse of La Llorona, AV Club credits it with being a “more intelligent” take on the legend of the Weeping Woman. Shudder
An original docuseries from Netflix takes a deep dive into wellness–from ancient practices to a modern, billion-dollar industry. Episodes look at subjects including ayahuasca shamans and a “cult-like pyramid scheme” selling essential oils. CNN’s Brian Lowry says that “the scientists and journalists interviewed paint a coherent picture of how people can be manipulated, and the…way these products are often promoted and sold through apparatus like multilevel marketing companies.” Netflix
I Used to Go Here
Indie filmmaker Kris Rey (formerly Kris Swanberg) was set to debut this comedy about the angst of being in your mid-30s at SXSW in March, but those plans were derailed by the pandemic. Love’s Gillian Jacobs stars as a writer who’s overwhelmed with nostalgia when she returns to the town where she went to college. Sheila O’Malley of RogerEbert.com says the movie could have been dark, but definitely isn’t. “I Used to Go Here, grounded by a beautiful performance from Gillian Jacobs, treats its subject light-heartedly, while still managing to be honest,” she says. VOD on multiple platforms.
Produced by National Geographic, this documentary about Jane Goodall shows the her doing the work with chimpanzees that has come to define her life. Much of the archival footage of the young naturalist–shot on 16mm by Nat Geo photog (and later, Goodall’s husband) Hugo van Lawick–has never been previously released. Disney+, Hulu
This 1992 satire of the movie business-slash-murder mystery, now on Criterion Channel, was directed by Robert Altman and features an “astonishing Hollywood who’s who” of the ’90s. Criterion recommends staging a double-feature of The Player along with Robert Townsend’s 1987 film, Hollywood Shuffle for best effect. Criterion Channel
Each year, 1,100 teen boys from across Texas head to the state capitol in Austin to stage a mock government. This documentary, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance back in January, follows one session–including watching how Steven, a progressive child of Mexican immigrants, navigates the overwhelmingly white, conservative space. Apple TV+
Past recs …
Slay the Dragon
As we enter yet another election year and wrap up the 2020 census, this documentary following a group of grassroots activists in their fight against partisan gerrymandering feels particularly timely. According to Variety, “it may prove to be one of the key political films of the decade.” Multiple Platforms
An American Pickle
Based on Simon Rich’s novella of the same title, this fish-out-of-brine story follows Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogan), an immigrant laborer preserved in pickle brine for 100 years, who wakes up in modern-day Brooklyn. He meets up with his great-grandson (also Seth Rogan) for help navigating contemporary life. HBO Max
The Speed Cubers
Maybe you feel like you’re just sitting at home, twiddling your thumbs–but you’re not on the twiddling level of Cerritos-reared Max Park and his friend–and arch rival–Feliks Zemdegs, the pair of superstar competitive Rubik’s Cube-solvers at the center of this new documentary. Netflix.
Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis, and Dolly Parton are among the ensemble of this classic 1989 mom-comedy/drama based on a true story. Southern twangs, pithy put-downs, and enormous ha(aaaa)ir abound. Amazon Prime.
Black Is King
Beyoncé’s third visual album is streaming on Disney+ and, according to Rolling Stone, it’s her “most elaborate visual work yet.” An abstract version of the Lion King narrative (which was based on Hamlet), Black Is King explores the idea of Africa, “paying respects to the continent’s very real inhabitants and cultures while also presenting it as a symbolic North Star for generations of Black people around the world to come.”
Set in the World War II-era English countryside, Summerland stars Gemma Artherton as a woman who doesn’t fit in—as explored in two different periods of her life. Her love interest is Gugu Mbatha-Raw in this soapy, grown-up drama by playwright-director Jessica Swale, whose “gentle creation allows for the possibility of magic—or, at the very least, good things—to work their way into even the worst of times,” says Indiewire’s Kate Erbland. “Even when the film leans toward predictability, the sense of reality melding into fantasy aids in digesting some of the film’s bigger risks.” VOD on multiple platforms.
The Muppets have been around since before the moon landing, and their adventures on the screen have been as dramatically up and down—especially after creator Jim Henson died and veterans like Frank Oz retired their puppeteering hands. But by all accounts Disney’s newest iteration, made in typical meta fashion for the YouTube era, restores the characters to their early, variety show glory. “In this beyond-stressful world, who doesn’t need some Muppets in their life?” says Jen Chaney of Vulture, who argues that any generation can enjoy this new series “and believe it connects directly to their own sensibility, a quality that the overly adult, straining-to-be-edgy The Muppets lacked.” Disney+.
This film about a family of Mexican immigrants in New Mexico, starring two real-life brothers and rooted in autobiography, reminded Eric Kohn of The Florida Project. “The bittersweet new feature from director Samuel Kishi plays like a thematic variation on the same beguiling premise in the context of the American immigrant experience. The result is an absorbing coming-of-age story about migrant life through the prism of its most innocent figures.” HBO Max.
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind and The Go-Go’s
This weekend brings two new music documentaries with very little overlap. Gordon Lightfoot, the Canadian troubadour who took American ears and emotions by storm in the 1970s, is celebrated by filmmakers Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni in “a thoroughly engaging retrospective of a hard-working, hard-living performer who survived to tell the tale,” says Kevin Crust. Meanwhile, the first all-girl band in America to write and perform their own songs are chronicled in all of their chart-topping highs and attendant lows (a misogynistic music industry, drug addiction). “The story of The Go-Go’s is prime fodder for a documentary like this one,” says Gwen Ihnat, “even if the stories behind the songs … are likely darker than some fans would have expected. [Director Alison] Ellwood’s most valuable views are these more candid, honest looks, as there’s something refreshing about the band coming clean, revealing all its dirty laundry in a no-holds-barred manner.” Virtual cinemas / Showtime.
Ron Howard continues to train his softhearted gaze on non-fiction stories with this documentary about the 2018 wildfires that turned Paradise, California into Dante’s inferno. The film opens with a montage of “devastatingly cinematic images” from that November day, says Ben Kenigsberg, and “while the subsequent visuals aren’t as striking, the drama scarcely ebbs.” Virtual cinemas.
She Dies Tomorrow (Drive-In Release)
Director-actress Amy Seimetz continues to prove her flair as a filmmaker with this darkly comic, apocalyptic thriller starring Kate Lynn Sheil as a broken, alcoholic woman living in a state of confusion (in suburban Los Angeles). She Dies Tomorrow “combines classic David Cronenberg body horror with the scathing surrealism of Luis Buñuel,” says Eric Kohn of Indiewire. “Envisioning a disease where the afflicted believe they’ll die by morning, the movie taps into a timeless anxiety with hilarious and disquieting results, often delivered in the same dose.” At Vineland Drive-In and Mission Tiki Drive-In and on VOD starting August 7.
We Are the Radical Monarchs
If your heart is weary from images of tear gas and violence, here’s an uplifting protest story about a troop of alternative Girl Scouts who are trying to save the world. The Oakland-based Radical Monarchs “create opportunities for young girls of color to form fierce sisterhood, celebrate their identities, and contribute radically to their communities.” In this documentary, which was completed in 2018, director Linda Goldstein Knowlton “presents a vibrant view of the Oakland community,” says Kevin Crust of the L.A. Times. “To see the girls embrace subjects such as Radical Beauty and Radical Pride that speak to who they are and where they live and meet inspiration Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, is to feel a surge of optimism.” PBS.
It took five years and a few regime changes to come out, but this animated kids musical—which involves magical cookies and is filled with A-list vocal talent (John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Ian McKellan, Danny DeVito, Sylvester Stallone)—is finally here and it’s… fine. “If Animal Crackers is another hideous reminder of how aesthetically catastrophic the rise of computer-generated animation has been for low-budget kids fare,” David Elrich says with extreme lukewarmness, “[director Christian] Sava’s debut is also proof that a decent script, some delightful voicework, and a few choice Lord of the Rings references can blend into the kind of charm that money can’t buy. For all of its limitations, the movie is good. Ish.” Netflix.
Jim Gaffigan: The Pale Tourist
Jim Gaffigan definitely has a lane—self-effacing jokes about being overweight, eating junk food, and raising five kids in New York City—and he owns it. But few veteran stand-ups are as reliably funny and endearing, and The Pale Tourist takes him out of his home and around the world for two specials based on his international travels…and the pale, American observations he made along the way. Since you’re unlikely to travel the world or see Gaffigan perform live anytime soon, this is a nice virtual substitute. Amazon Prime.
The filmmaking debut of actor Romola Garai (Atonement), this “feminist horror movie” is about a former soldier in London with guilt-loaded PTSD who becomes a live-in repairmen in a house with a dying old woman…who might just be cursed. The film slowly transforms “from an eerie cerebral horror fantasy into a full-blown rape-revenge parable of cowardice and sin,” says Toussaint Egan at AV Club. “Amulet elevates these themes of repentance and sin through deft editing, strong performances, and a chilling score. It’s an evocative, confident debut, recalling the metaphorical horror of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook or Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow, even as it announces the arrival of a singular new voice.” VOD.
This new noir—directed, written by, and starring Edward Norton—wasn’t well received by critics when it came out last fall, and was completely ignored by the Academy. But for my money, it’s a worthy successor to Chinatown, a jazzy, moody tale of bureaucratic corruption and double crossing, packed with an impeccable cast (including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, and Cherry Jones), boasting a melancholic Thom Yorke ballad, and skating on the live wires of racial discrimination and Tourette syndrome with grace, humor, and sympathy. It’s a rarity: a smart, winning, romantic studio movie for grownups. HBO Max.
Before he returns as Bill (of the “excellent” Bill and Ted) this fall, Alex Winter directs this documentary about the light and dark sides of being a child actor—and the unique obstacles to surviving into adulthood, both literally and vocationally. Winter, a former showbiz kid himself, rallies the likes of Henry Thomas, Mara Wilson, Wil Wheaton, and Evan Rachel Wood for an unflinching, empathetic portrait of a glamorized but grueling way of being a kid. “While each of the grown actors has an individual story to tell, clear themes emerge from their collective memories,” says CNN’s Brian Lowry. “They’re the kind that make you want to grab the contemporary kids—the ones whose families still harbor those dreams of Technicolor stardom—and urge them to click their heels and go back home.” HBO Max.
30 Rock: A One-Time Special
Unlike the early pandemic reunion of its NBC sister Parks and Recreation, this hour-long special liberates the 30 Rock cast (Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan) from the halting horrors of Zoom and, somehow, brings them out into the remotely filmed sunshine. It’s partly a lavish commercial for NBC’s new streamer, Peacock—to the point of inspiring several local affiliates around the country to boycott airing it, though thankfully not in L.A.—but it wouldn’t be 30 Rock if it didn’t feature the TGS crew roasting its corporate daddy. Help us, Liz Lemon; you’re our only hope. Airs Thursday at 8 p.m. PT; Peacock on Friday.
Brave New World
Speaking of Peacock, NBC attempts to play with the big boys with this new adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian saga, starring Alden Ehrenreich and Jessica Brown Findlay. With some technological upgrades and lots of NSF-NBC orgies, the story about a drug that keeps citizens euphoric but numb feels all too timely—and maybe an apt metaphor for yet another streaming service. “You realize the show isn’t just commenting on the modern world, but its own role within it,” says Ben Travers of IndieWire. “As long as it’s not boring, people will keep watching, and if people keep watching, they’ll keep using Peacock, and the world will go round and round without anyone questioning the nature of this self-perpetuating hype cycle.” Thankfully, Travers argues, this Brave New World is “an emotionally intelligent thriller, and it looks damn good to boot.” Peacock.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
This quasi-documentary, about the motley regulars drinking out the last day at a Las Vegas dive bar, shakes and stirs the line between scripted drama and reality. But it’s so “bursting with humanity, grounded in humility, and in love with the poetry of faces,” says Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com, that it doesn’t really matter what’s real and what’s not. “This movie appreciates every person that passes in front of its lens. It throws spotlights on magic moments even when the people they’re happening to don’t know they’re happening. It sees people’s potential even if they’ve never capitalized on it. It sees their pain when they can’t admit or describe it. It sees their struggle when they try to hide it. It’s a documentary of compassion.” VOD on multiple platforms.
Broadway sensation Cynthia Erivo emerged a full-fledged movie star from this biopic about Harriet Tubman, a real-life wonder woman whose superpowers include divine visions and a singing voice to call her sisters and brothers to safety. Directed by former actress Kasi Lemmons and co-starring Janelle Monáe and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., Harriet is “a rousing and powerful drama, respectful of both the historical record and the cravings of modern audiences,” says The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott. And despite the tale’s supernaturalism, “Erivo’s performance is grounded in the recognizable human emotions of grief, jealousy, anger, and love. There is also a formidable intelligence at work, both tactical and political, and an elusive, almost mysterious quality as well. This is someone you want to know more about.” HBO Max.
Before the world ended, this Lonely Island sci-fi-rom-com made headlines as the priciest purchase ever made at Sundance. No doubt Neon, who co-bought it with Hulu, had big theatrical plans for the film, about a guy (Andy Samberg) and a gal (Cristin Milioti) stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque infinite time loop at a wedding in the desert. But then, maybe our quarantine time loop is the perfect backdrop for watching such a story. “It’s certainly funny,” says Vince Mancini, “but seems to have more in common with Charlie Kaufman or Michel Gondry or the Coen Brothers—as stylish as those in its construction, but with a more internet-age sense of comedy and timing.” Hulu.
The Old Guard
Here to save the superhero genre from a slow, exhausting death of artlessness is Gina Prince-Bythewood, director of Love & Basketball, who infused this tale about immortal warriors with her own mortal sensibilities. Starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne, The Old Guard “is filled with such human moments, both frivolous and profound—quiet reveries, declarations of love, dreams about eternity, regrets over families and loves left behind and lost forever—and in the balance of the film, they hold equal weight with the action scenes, because ultimately everything feels connected,” says Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. “I watch The Old Guard and try to imagine a new world, one where other comic-book movies are this well made and breathtaking.” Netflix.
Another female director offering a very different take on an old genre (the Western prefigured our current superhero glut), Kelly Reichardt slows the mythology of the frontier down to a gentle, soft-spoken trickle with a story whose central action is literally stealing milk to make biscuits. It’s sure not to be everyone’s cup of buttermilk, but critics went gaga for First Cow when it quietly played theaters in March. The L.A. Times‘ Justin Chang said it “may be the most suspenseful and entertaining demonstration yet of Reichardt’s rigorous attention to detail—her patient, genuine and remarkably cinematic fascination with the workings of process and minutiae. All of which makes First Cow both a captivating underdog story and a brilliant demonstration of the pluck and ingenuity of American enterprise in action.” VOD on multiple platforms.
A cynic could argue that, like Wes Anderson or Nicolas Cage, Tom Hanks has become a self parody—leaning so heavily into being America’s Dad that he’s folded into himself like a black hole. But Hanks gonna Hanks, and Greyhound finds him playing yet another good-guy daddy hero, a Navy captain guiding Allied boats across the Atlantic with German U-boats in hot pursuit. (The actor even wrote the screenplay.) “There’s enough juice in Hanks’ personal, human-scaled interest in ordinary heroism under fire to make the movie … work on its own terms,” says the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips. “At its sharpest Greyhound uses its preferred Law & Order pacing and frequent fade-outs and fade-ups between scenes to roll forward, while the actors keep the one-to-one interactions as honest as possible.” Apple TV+.
Mental illness meets haunted-house terror in this debut from director Natalie Erika James. Starring Emily Mortimer as a middle branch in a sick family tree, Relic fits into the “intergenerational trauma” subgenre of horror alongside Ari Aster’s Hereditary. “James’s slow-burn horror is an incredible achievement of patience for a first feature, and the gradual suspense…eventually builds to a monstrous climax,” says Dilara Elbir at the Playlist. “While horrifying and tense throughout, Relic has a sharp awareness of stigmatizing mental illness and disorders like dementia and refuses to lean into easy exploitation.” VOD on multiple platforms.
Have you heard of this musical? OF COURSE YOU HAVE. But you may not have been one of the lucky ones to score an exorbitantly priced ticket to see the original cast, and now you get a prime seat at the feet of Lin-Manuel Miranda and company in New York, circa 2016, from the comfort of your own butt-dimpled couch. “It’s hard to imagine a more receptive backdrop for a drama that ingeniously recasts the Founding Fathers as people of color, placing America’s oft-repeated ‘nation of immigrants’ rhetoric into the most literal terms imaginable,” Justin Chang says about watching Hamilton in July 2020. “Nor can I think of a better moment for a musical that reminds us anew that the language of hip-hop is a language of protest.” Disney Plus.
John Lewis: Good Trouble
The 17-term congressman who marched with MLK in Selma, who’s been making waves and getting arrested for all manner of “good trouble” during his incredible life, gets a well-deserved documentary from Dawn Porter—a former attorney who has trained her legal eagle eye on the camera (see: Bobby Kennedy for President). “Unlike King, Malcolm X and other assassinated civil rights figures, Lewis isn’t frozen in time as a symbol. He’s a living, legislating link to our recent history, and a reminder that the battles fought for desegregation and voting rights weren’t all that long ago,” says Katie Walsh, who called the film “a lovely tribute to Lewis, with so many moments from his story remaining urgent and relevant.” VOD on multiple platforms.
Family Romance, LLC
Werner Herzog is back and weirder than ever in this quasi-scripted documentary about the Japanese industry of rental families (and other social units). Blurring the line between fact and fiction, a man who runs one of those operations plays a version of himself, hired to play the father of a girl whose real dad abandoned her when she was little. “They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional,” says Diego Semerene. “It’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.” MUBI.
Another film from Japan (sort of) about actors playing actors, this is writer-director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s follow-up to Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or in 2018. The Truth is actually his first non-native feature, and stars French acting legend Catherine Deneuve as a French acting legend, Juliette Binoche as her daughter, and Ethan Hawke as her son-in-law. It’s a story about “the permanence of film versus the impermanence of memory,” says David Erlich, “suggesting that even the living can entomb themselves in the memories we invent for ourselves. Memories are what moor us to the world, and they’re also what make it so difficult for us to move through it freely. They may not be accurate, but they tend not to change once the die is cast; when something is printed on the film of our minds, it’s often projected through us for the rest of our lives.” VOD on multiple platforms.
The Baby-Sitters Club
“You couldn’t be a young girl in the 1990s and not know of Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club,” says Kristen Lopez. Well, I was not, and I did not—although I did laugh (a lot) at The Baby-Sitters Club Club, a podcast where two lovable idiots tackle it book by baby-sitting book. Regardless, Netflix’s new adaptation of the beloved series, created by Glow producer Rachel Shukert, is drawing raves. Lopez says it “isn’t just the perfect show for girls right now, it’s the balm for the soul we need as an audience. Watching a group of intrepid young women start a business, deal with irresponsible teens, and get their homework done is a level of responsibility to which we should all aspire.” Netflix.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Michelle McNamara introduced herself to the world in the pages of this magazine, with a 2013 investigative essay about a serial rapist and murderer from the 1970s and ’80s that she dubbed the “Golden State Killer”—a disturbingly prolific predator most of us had never heard about. That led to a book deal, and she was hard at work on I’ll Be Gone in the Dark when she died in her sleep in 2016. Her passing was tragic for many reasons—not least because, soon after the book came out posthumously, the killer was captured. This six-part HBO docuseries is as much McNamara’s story as it is the killer’s, and much like the author’s powerful and deeply empathetic writing, the focus is on the beautiful lives that were lost. Premieres Sunday on HBO.
The third season of this murder mystery-slash-comedy, starring Alia Shawkat and John Early, moves from TBS to HBO Max after a hiatus of more than two years—and it arrives as a breath of pandemic-free fresh air. “Search Party’s earlier seasons found joltingly dark humor in the absurdity of four clueless, sheltered, relatively young adults playing detective and then committing and covering up a murder,” writes Niv M. Sultan at Slate. This season, which features Louie Anderson in a small part, “rivals its predecessors in its intoxicating blend of bleak cynicism and irreverent comedy, but embraces a more exaggerated, madcap sensibility.” HBO Max.
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
The great jazz singer gets her due with this documentary, which features a trove of archival footage and interviews with family members and famous admirers. “A suitably affectionate documentary portrait that walks us through her life and career, from her first appearance, as a skinny, nervous teen, on the stage of the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night, to her death in 1996,” says Michael O’Sullivan at the Washington Post. “The film’s most satisfying passages are when the talking heads shut up for a moment and let us listen to Fitzgerald, who … ‘almost single-handedly elevated the American popular song to the status of art.’” Streaming at theavalon.org, afisilver.afi.com, themiracletheatre.com, and cinemaartstheatre.com.
Not an easy watch, but an important excavation of the case against predatory Olympian doctor Larry Nassar and the system that protected him for so long. Told through the lens of the complaint brought against him by American swimmer Maggie Nichols, “Athlete A works as both a meticulous unpacking of the case against Nassar,” says IndieWire’s Kate Erbland, “and an emotional unburdening for his many victims. By its end, however, its revelations demand nothing short of the full-scale dismantling of every facet of USA Gymnastics.” Netflix.
St. Elmo’s Fire
Joel Schumacher died this week, causing many people to revisit his long and wildly diverse filmography. Even though it was poorly reviewed at the time, one of his most cherished films is about a group of 20-something friends who run up against the difficult, and even tragic, reality of adulting. As L.A. Times’ Mary McNamara wrote this week, St. Elmo’s Fire offered “the relatively new notion that friend groups could save us, even from ourselves. Adult friends were, in fact, the new, improved family.” Showtime.
The Princess and the Frog
An underrated, post-’90s renaissance film from Disney, this was their first fairytale to feature a Black princess, a return to hand-drawn animation, and a vibrant celebration of New Orleans music, food, and culture. It also undoes some retrograde princess morals, and features one of the creepiest, most seductive villains in the canon and a rollicking songbook by the Louisiana-loving Randy Newman. Disney just announced that they will re-theme the ride Splash Mountain from its current Song of the South trappings (a film so tainted by racist stereotypes that the company buried it long ago) to a Princess and the Frog theme—a great excuse to remember this latter-day classic. Disney Plus.
First-time filmmaker Oge Egbuonu was ready to share this timely documentary with the world before the pandemic hit, and now it only feels more crucial. “A love letter to Black women,” the film “brings to light the invisible otherizing of African American women in America,” according to Julie Miller at Vanity Fair. “It features Black female academics and everywomen looking back on the historical oppression of Black women, honoring the strength and perseverance of generations rendered invisible by society, and reframing the narrative around the population in their own words. As Egbuonu, an associate producer on 2016’s Loving, [said], “This is me saying, ‘I hear you. I see you, and you matter.’” VOD on multiple platforms.
A former beauty queen and single mother tries to convince her teenage daughter to sign up for the Miss Juneteenth pageant she won—the top prize being a scholarship to a historically black college. This debut feature by Channing Godfrey Peoples contends with the legacy of slavery and racism in the more intimate context of black girlhood. “Instead of just depicting the myriad ways black women carry their communities,” writes Lovia Gyarkye at the New York Times, “the movie goes further to explore how these women and black girls support each other in a world that often fails them. VOD on multiple platforms.
You Should Have Left
Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried vacation in a cool house in Wales—and, in the grand tradition of haunted house stories, the home has other plans. Directed by David Koepp (better known as the screenwriter behind movies like Jurassic Park), it’s a concise, tightly wound thriller and a “rare horror film that makes more sense the more you think about it,” says the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle. “It’s more than an adrenaline rush. There are ideas here.” VOD on multiple platforms.
This ain’t your grandmother’s Perry Mason. The new HBO series casts Matthew Rhys (The Americans) as the famous defense attorney in his younger years—before he was a bear in the courtroom and still a scrappy private eye investigating lurid crimes in 1930s Los Angeles. Also starring John Lithgow, Tatiana Maslany, Juliet Rylance, and Stephen Root, “the greatest joy of viewing Perry Mason comes just from having so many amazing performers playing off of each other,” says AV Club’s Gwen Ihnat. “Rhys deftly unfurls the enigmatic character layer by layer, crafting this degenerate into a more recognizable version of the legal icon revered for decades.” Premieres Sunday on HBO.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt hasn’t been seen on the screen since 2016, and this claustrophobic thriller gives the actor a welcome showcase for his return. A tense story of a hijacked airplane, told entirely from the confines of the pilot’s cockpit, “the result overcomes the reductive premise and archetypal characters through its adrenaline-pumping pace, dexterous camerawork, and a frantic performance by [Gordon-Levitt] that ranks as one of his subtlest turns,” says IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. Amazon Prime.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee doesn’t pussyfoot around. His last film, BlacKkKlansman—which earned the director his first Oscar nomination—may have found humor and undercover-caper fun in the true story of detective Ron Stallworth, but it was also angry, political, and finally a gut punch of denuded racism. His newest, Da Five Bloods, is a treasure-hunting adventure set in Vietnam with its own funny bone—but it, too, is mainlined Spike. “This long, anguished, funny, violent excursion into a hidden chamber of the nation’s heart of darkness,” says the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, “isn’t like anything else.” Netflix.
Far from a staid history lesson your substitute teacher might wheel in on a sleepy afternoon, Ava DuVernay’s film—about Martin Luther King Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) strategic campaign of nonviolent protest to force America’s hand on suppressing black votes—is a poetic, subtle, beautiful film full of channeled rage and optimism, and the herald of a major talent (even if the Academy ignored it out of spite). The Oscar-winning end song by Common namechecks the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri—a fierce declaration that this story doesn’t reside in the past. Amazon Prime.
Aretha Franklin returned to her gospel roots and gave the performance of a lifetime at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts in January 1972. Amazingly, it was captured for posterity on film—even though it took 40 years to be seen—and it is a church service that might convert the devil himself. “The lift-you-to-the-rafters intensity of Franklin’s voice remains so pure and galvanic that Amazing Grace is one of the few movies you could watch with your eyes closed,” wrote Justin Chang at the L.A. Times, “though you would hardly want to.” Hulu.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
The Academy completely and inexplicably ignored this gem from last year, about a young man named Jimmie Fails (played by… Jimmie Fails) squeezed out of his beloved but rapidly gentrifying city, trying to hold on to the last remnant of his little piece of it—an old house that once belonged to his family. Stylized almost like a fairy tale, but grounded in hardscrabble reality, it’s a gorgeous and moving film that features a glorious score and a stunning performance by Jonathan Majors. Amazon Prime.
The influential jazzman, mogul, record producer, film composer, mentor, and legend, “Q” has been there from “bebop to doo-wop to hip-hop to laptop,” in his words, and this touching documentary is a celebration of his legacy that also captures the magic and inspiration he seems to effortlessly exude, despite an unthinkably painful childhood and no shortage of racist BS. Watching the film is like sitting by Quincy’s side, wrote IndieWire’s Jude Dry, “holding his hand as he narrates one of countless stories stored away in his ever-sharp and creative mind.” Netflix.
This film escaped a lot of 2019 year-end lists and the Academy Awards conversation, which is a shame. Destin Daniel Cretton’s drama is about real-life civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, played by a riveting Michael B. Jordan, trying to free an Alabama man (a stellar Jamie Foxx) wrongfully on death row. The film “keeps its emotions on a low simmer,” wrote the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, “its absorbing, tautly designed drama finally coming to a climax that is satisfying on one level, and absolutely shattering on another.” Free on VOD in June.
Spike Lee’s newest joint, Da Five Bloods, drops next weekend on Netflix. In the meantime, catch his 1992 opus about one of the defining black leaders in American history, played by Denzel Washington in an Oscar-nominated performance. It “showed that epic filmmaking could be politically urgent, and that a biopic could contain multitudes,” A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times. “Malcolm X, changing its visual palette and its mood to match each decade of the story, is a comedy, a love story, an almost-musical and a whodunit, held together by Denzel Washington’s somber, witty, altogether electrifying performance.” Netflix.
If you want to understand just how much the deck is stacked against anyone born black in this country, watch Ava DuVernay’s gripping, righteous documentary about the legacy of slavery in our modern incarceration system. “Powerful, infuriating, and at times overwhelming,” the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote, the film “will get your blood boiling and tear ducts leaking. It shakes you up, but it also challenges your ideas about the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States.” Netflix.
I Am Not Your Negro
One of America’s most insightful, incisive writers on the subject of race was James Baldwin (If Beale Street Could Talk), who is both the subject and posthumous author of this 2016 documentary directed by Raoul Peck and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson from Baldwin’s own words. “By assembling the scattered images and historical clips suggested by Baldwin’s writing, I Am Not Your Negro is a cinematic séance,” wrote The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman, “and one of the best movies about the civil rights era ever made.” Amazon Prime.
This Sundance winner from director Josephine Decker, an imaginative portrait of horror novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) told through the prism of the author’s gothic style, features an original score by Tamar-kali—a composer who made her scoring debut with Dee Rees’ Mudbound. Tamar-kali’s background as a punk rocker and classically trained singer lends a unique vibe to her scores, which also never forget the importance of subtle suggestion and storytelling. Shirley was one of three films she scored that premiered at Sundance (The Assistant and The Last Thing He Wanted being the other two), and together they “announce her as a major player in the almost lost art of old-fashioned (in the best sense) film scores,” says Sheila O’Malley at RogerEbert.com. VOD on multiple platforms.
Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992
“What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare said, and this sober, human documentary from 2017 about the Rodney King uprising—and the accumulating mountain of grievances and tension that formed in the decade prior—is incredibly enlightening in our city’s current moment of protest. The two events differ in many ways, but there are so many echoes, it’s eerie. Director John Ridley deftly wove archival footage into an extensive oral history with a vast number of former police officers, South Central residents, key witnesses, and bereft family members—resulting in an opus that is “so powerfully elucidated by the movie’s commitment to context and nuance,” wrote the New York Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis, “that even too-familiar tragedies—like the agonizing beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny—arrive freighted with fresh insight.” Netflix.
The Vast of Night
A paranormal mystery set in 1950s New Mexico, this debut feature by Andrew Patterson stirs a little bit of The Twilight Zone, H.G. Wells, vintage Spielberg, and even the Coen brothers into a throwback to classic drive-in fare. (You can, in fact, see it at the Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair tonight.) Justin Chang at the L.A. Times calls it “ingenious,” and says the film “exists somewhere at the intersection of radio, television and cinema, and … excavates some of our fondest old-timey memories of all three in order to build something playfully, strikingly new.” Amazon Prime.
Yes, this is a recommendation for an entire streaming service. The latest heavyweight to enter an overcrowded ring—mustering the armies of HBO, Warner Bros., DC, New Line, and the Turner family—debuted this week, and it offers a feast to just about every taste. Whether you love classic films (from Casablanca to Apocalypse Now), classic sitcoms (from Friends to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Studio Ghibli anime, dramatic TV masterworks (The Sopranos), Batman, Harry Potter… you get the idea. If you don’t already have free access through an existing HBO subscription, you can sign up for a seven-day trial.
On the Record
One of several new offerings on HBO Max is this “absorbing, emotional gut-punch of a documentary,” according to the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, about music executive Drew Dixon and her 2017 sexual assault allegations against Russell Simmons. “On the Record would be mesmerizing enough simply as a portrait of a young woman who, having majored in history at Stanford University, pursued the music she loved all the way to its sizzling epicenter in the 1990s,” Hornaday says. But directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering “wisely pull the lens back to enlist an impressive group of black feminist intellectuals to comment throughout,” turning “an already worthy portrait of individual courage into a breathtaking and deeply moving survey of the precarious position occupied by women of color throughout history.” HBO Max.
Somebody Feed Phil
On the way lighter end of the spectrum is the new third season of this travelogue food show, hosted by the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. Phil Rosenthal is a goofy, lanky, lovable embodiment of dadhood, and he is admittedly far from an expert on culture or cuisine. Instead, he brings boundless enthusiasm, curiosity, and wry humor to his adventures—this season, that includes to Seoul, Marrakesh, and Montreal. Skype calls to his adorable parents and an emphasis on our planet’s shared humanity just add to the delight. Netflix.
End of Sentence
This father-son drama stars John Hawkes and Logan Lerman, here playing against type as a hardened criminal, in a story about inherited trauma and the fallout from bad parenting. “Lighter than it sounds,” says IndieWire’s David Erlich, the film is “casually cathartic at times, cathartically casual at others, [and] knows that some wounds never heal, but it’s never too late to stop the bleeding.” VOD on multiple platforms.
In a phrase that was unimaginable ten years ago, Julia Roberts starred in the first season of this Amazon original series based on the popular podcast. Season two subs in Janelle Monáe as an amnesiac trying to piece together the mystery of who she is and why she wakes up on a rowboat in a lake. It continues the first season’s narrative about the Geist Group and its meticulous homage to 1970s thrillers, but expands more into psychological territory, surrounding Monáe with the luminous likes of Chris Cooper and Joan Cusack. It’s a handsomely made, deliciously bingeable (30-minute episodes!) throwback to tight, old-school mysteries, and it also features a glorious musical score. Amazon Prime.
Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, writer Emily V. Gordon, have been keeping my wife and I sane and laughing in sync with their quarantine podcast, so the least I can do is recommend his new movie. Originally scheduled for theaters (weren’t we all?), this action rom-com reteams Nanjiani with The Big Sick director Michael Showalter, and pairs him with Insecure star Issa Rae. “A farcical murder mystery, it turns out, provides just the right backdrop for an exploration of why long-term relationships can fizzle out—and why doing the work necessary to maintain them can be worth it,” says Beandrea July at the Hollywood Reporter. Netflix.
The Trip to Greece
Dueling celebrity impressions, bromance road trips, five-star cuisine, and gorgeous travelogues, The Trip films are also sneakily somber meditations on aging, marriage, and grief. The fourth and final trip finds Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, in the land of Odysseus. “The film doesn’t try too hard to adhere to any kind of mythic structure,” says Bilge Ebiri at Vulture. “But what does remain at the end of this final and most despairing of the Trip entries is a sense that the past is never quite done with us, that today’s heartbreaks and passions and tragedies are merely variations on ancient patterns.” VOD on multiple platforms.
The Wolf House
Ben Wyatt expressed his cooped-up depression through stop-motion animation, and now you can relieve your own with someone else’s. Two Chilean filmmakers created this strange, surreal nod to the Three Little Pigs story—from the pigs’ perspectives—using painstaking stop-motion and hand-drawn animation. “How does one go about describing the stomach-churning terrors of Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León’s The Wolf House?” asks Matt Fagerholm at RogerEbert.com. “Its visual landscape is unlike any I’ve experienced, and though everything about it is aggressively repellant, it still managed to hold me in a constant state of gobsmacked awe.” “These filmmakers have a perspective and a voice that feels entirely new,” says the New York Times’ Glenn Kenny. “The film surprises, with incredible force, in every one of its 75 minutes.” KimStim Virtual Cinema.
Another week, another heartbreaking loss—this time it was funnyman Fred Willard. (I’m lucky enough to have interviewed Fred a few times, as recently as April.) There are plenty of great performances to remember him by, but I’m going to recommend a less celebrated but no less deserving one. Christopher Guest’s most recent (and possibly last) faux-documentary took the competition conceit of Best in Show to the world of mascots, and features many of his regular players and an all-timer, cry-laughing routine involving a plumber and an oversized toilet (trust me). And as with basically every movie he ever graced, the funniest scenes are the ones with Fred Willard, here playing an aging mascot trainer with no filter. Netflix.
Josh Trank had gloriously ascended from directing his first feature at 27 (Chronicle) to being handed the keys to his own Star Wars film and the star-studded Fantastic Four reboot…before he gloriously flamed out on the set of the latter bomb. Now the local prodigy is back with a vengeance—writing and directing a brash, ballsy tale of the final days of Al Capone, played by Tom Hardy. The actor is known for going to extremes (Rob Harvilla describes his voice here as sounding “like a Muppet gargling the remains of another Muppet.”) But “Trank and Hardy are firmly entrenched on the same earnestly grim wavelength,” says Scout Tafoya at Consequence of Sound, “and their joint creation…is so unwieldily that even if it didn’t work (it does), the sheer volume of effort to create something so deliciously antisocial and grotesque would still have to be commended.” VOD on multiple platforms.
Muppet Guys Talking
Jim Henson died 30 years ago this weekend, and his old pals Frank Oz and Dave Goelz are reuniting with two other Muppet veterans (Bill Barretta and Fran Brill) to talk about him and his legacy—via laptop cameras, of course. Oz (the Bert to Henson’s Ernie, the Fozzie to his Kermit) directed the similarly themed documentary Muppet Guys Talking in 2018—but if you’re like me, you can’t get enough of Henson and his merry band of misfits. Oz, who’s using the event to raise money for non-medical hospital workers in Queens, told Los Angeles’s Jared Cowan, “I’m going to find out things about Jim that I didn’t know, I betcha.” Streams Saturday at 1 p.m. PT at muppetguystalking.com/jim.
I Know This Much Is True
A number of actors have played twins on screen: Nicolas Cage, Jeremy Irons, Armie Hammer, Zach Galifianakis. Add to the list Mark Ruffalo, blessedly freed from Marvel prison to do some dramatic heavy-lifting as Dominic and Thomas Birdsey in this six-part HBO adaptation of a 1998 novel by Wally Lamb. It’s a dark story about abuse and trauma, and “often a tough watch,” says Sheila O’Malley at RogerEbert.com. “There are times when ‘compassion fatigue’ sets in, particularly in the final episode. But seeing actors do what they do best, with [writer/director Derek] Cianfrance giving them the space to do it, makes I Know This Much is True a real feast.” HBO Go.
Marie Antoinette meets The Favourite meets an R-rated The Princess Bride in this loosey-goosey telling of Catherine the Great’s mission to enlighten a barbarous Russia. Elle Fanning stars (she’s also an executive producer) alongside a grinningly, callously awful Nicholas Hoult as Peter III. Written by The Favourite’s Tony McNamara, it’s a crude, contemporary spin on history that—at ten nearly hour-long episodes—may be a bit too long. Still, “the caustic brilliance of McNamara’s scripting cannot be overstated,” says Paste’s Allison Keene, “but I was also truly emotionally invested in the season’s final crescendo to Catherine’s desperate power grab. … The Great’s exceptional, understated cast made me genuinely care for all of these madcap players, and the stakes became incredibly high.” Hulu.
Notes on an American Film Director at Work: Martin Scorsese
A detailed peek behind the scenes of one of our great directors, Martin Scorsese, collaborating with one of our great actors, Leonardo DiCaprio, on one of the great modern crime dramas, The Departed, is now streaming for free. The late avant-garde director Jonas Mekas was given VIP access on the set of the 2005 film, and the result “gives Martin Scorsese fans an up close and personal look at the filmmaker,” says Zach Sharf at IndieWire. “Mekas’ approach is unobtrusive and much of the documentary is real-time footage, providing one of the best windows into Scorsese and his cast and crew at work.” Vimeo.
Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl
For Angelenos, one of the most crushing casualties of the pandemic was announced this week: the complete and utter cancellation of the Hollywood Bowl’s 2020 season. It’s almost too painful to imagine a whole “summer” (for now it can only be summer in name only) without it—but thankfully, the iconic amphitheater has appeared in many films, TV shows, and Bugs Bunny cartoons over the last century, so why not take a virtual trip to the Bowl? This 1980 concert film “may be accurately described as Python lunacy of a purer grade,” wrote the New York Times’ Vincent Canby when it was released in 1982. “This photographed recording of the stage show is not a conventional film, but it’s the next best thing to seeing the Python troupe in person.” Amazon Prime.
Damien Chazelle clearly loves jazz. The director introduced himself with Whiplash, a blood-soaked diary about the highs and lows of being a jazz drummer, and he won an Oscar for La La Land—which let Ryan Gosling (a guy from the Mormon, Canadian suburbs) explain why jazz is so great. Chazelle directed the first two episodes of The Eddy, a new miniseries about an American musician (André Holland) who runs a struggling jazz club in Paris, and Vulture’s Jen Chaney says the show itself “behaves like a work of improvisation. It meanders into various lives and musical performances while telling a story that bops from crime thriller to meditation on grief to portrait of the thrilling agony of being a musical artist.” Netflix.
Brian Dennehy, the great bear of a character actor, died in April—and one of his final roles was in Driveways, an indie movie about grief and the unlikely bond between a little boy and Dennehy’s gruff widower, Del. Far from a cliché retelling of similar stories, Justin Chang at the L.A. Times says the movie often lingers “in that rueful gray zone between humor and sorrow,” and called Del “as forceful and tender a creation as any in this great actor’s body of work.” VOD on multiple platforms
Dead to Me
For many of us, dark humor is the best humor—especially in dark times. This Netflix series, starring Christina Applegate as a new widow and Linda Cardellini as her new friend (with a secret), likes to splash around in the inkiest part of the comedy ocean. “A funny thing happened between Dead to Me’s very good first season and its second,” writes CNN’s Brian Lowry. “[It] became an even better, twistier show, with—in very Big Little Lies-like fashion—a female friendship frequently tested by one impulsive act, and the escalating consequences that flow from it.” Netflix.
In Brockmire, Hank Azaria—best known for his circus of Simpsons character—plays a disgraced baseball commentator who has gone from the minors to the majors, to now flat-out running Major League Baseball. The series came to an end on Wednesday, and even though the fourth season depicts a blisteringly bleak near future (riddled with scorching climate, lawlessness, food shortages, and “supercancer”), Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall argues that “among the amazing accomplishments of these last eight episodes is how they wind up feeling oddly comforting for this strange and scary moment in which we all find ourselves.” First three seasons streaming on Hulu, fourth season on IFC.
How to Build a Girl
Beanie Feldstein, whose supernova charm expanded from a supporting role in Lady Bird to co-leading last year’s Booksmart, is finally headlining her own movie. And doing it in a convincing British (specifically Wolverhampton) accent to boot. Adapted from British music journalist Caitlin Moran’s memoir-novel, How to Build a Girl is a coming-of-age comedy that’s “as fun as a night in the mosh pit with your best mate,” according to Leslie Felperin at the Hollywood Reporter. “[S]upercharged by Feldstein’s intense charisma, this crowd-pleasing comedy has smart things to say about class, sex, and female identity.” VOD on multiple platforms.
In the “sadcom” spirit of Fleabag and Catastrophe comes Trying, a new series about a young couple (played by Esther Smith and Rafe Spall) who work humdrum jobs and, having failing to conceive a baby, decide to adopt. What begins with “a simmering goofy energy,” says IndieWire’s Steve Greene, crystallizes “into truer, more endearing doses of reality.” Apple TV+.
A Parks & Recreation Special
Only a pandemic could convince this band to get back together. And even though the lousy legacy of TV reunion specials—and the prospect of an ensemble comedy shot on iPhones where every actor is isolated from each other in their own actual homes—doesn’t necessarily portend success…doggone it, this is one of the best comedies ever made, and it’ll just be nice to see everyone in character again. As someone currently on their fourth rewatch of the series on Netflix, I can attest to the salve of escaping into a consistently funny utopia where hardworking, unfailingly optimistic people work in American government. Hopefully this special will, if nothing else, provide a taste of that delicious sauce. Airs Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on NBC; streaming on NBC.com and Peacock starting May 1.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live Riff-Along
At this point we’re probably all riffing movies, both good and bad, at home—so why not let the professionals take over? Forced off the road but running on the momentum of their recent live tour, a new traveling company of human and robot riffers will apply their sarcastic craft to the short Circus Day (circus-related shorts are a grand tradition in MST3K), and will riff an ancient 1990 episode, Moon Zero Two, alongside the original joke track from the show’s OG Comedy Channel cast. “We tend to ignore the first season, because we got so much better the next season,” Joel Hodgson told AV Club, but “there’s so much in there.” The creator and original host of MST3K will also be on hand to answer fan-submitted questions on social media. Airs on Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook on May 3 at 3 p.m. PDT.
We lost the respected Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan this week—a great excuse to rewatch some of his films and pay special attention to his quiet, unassuming charisma. Khan was already well into his acting career in 2008, but Danny Boyle’s vibrant, Oscar-sweeping film introduced him to American audiences. As the detective who questions Dev Patel’s teenage character, “Khan’s mixture of tough, careworn authority with a hint of gentleness makes him just right for the role,” says Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian. HBO Go.
Never Have I Ever
Mindy Kaling co-created this teen rom-com, loosely based on her own experience as a first-generation Indian growing up in America. Kathryn VanArendonk at Vulture compared it to Jane the Virgin, both shows possessing “a fizzy combination of a slightly heightened fictional world that’s grounded in insistently realistic emotions.” “I watched every episode as quickly as I possibly could,” VanArendonk says, “and when it ended I was furious I hadn’t forced myself to slow down.” Netflix.
Star Wars Day on Disney+
Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion may be a literal ghost town right now, but don’t feel bad for the colossal corporation: they’re still printing money thanks to endless new Star Wars content. But some of that content’s pretty good! On May the Fourth (get it?), you can watch the finale of the popular animated series The Clone Wars, stream the “final” entry of the nine-part movie saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and dive back into Baby Yoda’s world courtesy of the eight-part documentary series, Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian. Mandalorian is arguably the best thing to come out of the galaxy far, far away in a long, long time, and this promises a rich bounty of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage of Werner Herzog interacting with adorable puppets. Disney+ starting May 4th.
Since we’re all thinking about death a little more these days, it might as well be funny. Greg Daniels applies his satirical skewer to the afterlife in this sci-fi comedy about a man at death’s door, after a terrible car accident, who opts to “upload” himself into a virtual heaven. It’s a darker and more adult show than Daniels’s previous creations, Parks & Recreation and The Office—and than co-creator Mike Schur’s cousin series, The Good Place—but “despite the big concept central to the show’s premise,” says Adam Chitwood at Collider, “deep down Upload is very much a show that’s interested in humanity—the best and worst of us, and how we persevere in the face of a stacked deck and insurmountable odds.” Amazon Prime.
Better Call Saul
It’s gone from a suspect, even foolish-sounding concept—a prequel series to the untouchably great Breaking Bad, centered on the fun but almost cartoonish lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk—to proving one of the best dramas ever made. Better Call Saul wrapped its penultimate season this week, in cliffhanging fashion, so if you haven’t caught up with the whole series yet, now’s the perfect time. Season five “was a bleak, beautiful masterpiece,” says Miles Surrey at the Ringer, “a triumph on the levels of writing, performance, cinematography, direction, and, of course, dank montages. This was always a great, if somewhat underappreciated show, but there’s never been a better time to say the other quiet part out loud: Better Call Saul has surpassed Breaking Bad.” First four seasons streaming on Netflix; season five available on AMC.
Little Fires Everywhere
Another critically hailed drama wrapped up this week. It may sound like something Hulu executives cooked up while playing Big Little Lies bingo—adapting a popular airplane read with a similar-sounding title, starring Reese Witherspoon in a women-centric melodrama. But this series is its own midwestern animal, which has “gone from a slow start to a straight-up explosive drama,” says AV Club’s Saloni Gajjar. “The show overall acts as quite a showcase for [Witherspoon] and Kerry Washington’s talent. Every expression they serve up, ranging from despair to heartbreak to seething rage, is spectacular.” All episodes now streaming on Hulu.
An animated film, starring the voices of Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, Will Forte, and Maya Rudolph, adapted from a Lois Lowry children’s book about a kooky family cooped up in their house together. Too soon? Maybe, but this darkly comic tale in the spirit of Roald Dahl is a movie that Monica Castillo at RogerEbert.com argues, “For all its candy-colored silliness, The Willoughbys is a surprisingly sweet story about chosen families. … It’s a message both timely and timeless told through a whimsical story fit for most children of any age.” Now streaming on Netflix.
Peter Debruge at Variety calls this HBO film, based on a true story, the best work Hugh Jackman has ever done. The charming Aussie plays a charming superintendent of a New Jersey school district who is secretly embezzling millions of dollars, with the help of a superb Allison Janney. “Here’s a star at the height of his powers leveraging his own appeal to remind that even our heroes are fallible and that you can never really judge someone from the outside.” Premieres Saturday on HBO.
Beastie Boys Story
Spike Jonze started out as a music video director, working with bands including the Beastie Boys, before “going pro” with feature films like Being John Malkovich and Her. Now, Jonze has reunited with the surviving Beastie boys, Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond, for a “live documentary” filmed in Brooklyn last year, which A.O. Scott at the New York Times says is “a jaunt down memory lane and also a moving and generous elegy.” Streaming on Apple TV+.
It’s never too late to visit Bakersfield, where Zach Galifianakis plays twin brothers—Chip, a sad sack rodeo clown, and Dale, the dean of “the first open-carry career college”—and Louie Anderson plays their exasperated mother, Christine. In the fourth and final season, Christine “continues to anchor the series with an immense amount of heart,” says Allison Keene at Paste, “which has helped turn Baskets from just an experimental comedy to an essential, emotional watch.” All seasons now streaming on Hulu.
Ricky Gervais is one of the more polarizing comedians in the biz. You either find his acerbic, take-the-piss-out-of-Hollywood shtick insufferable…or hilarious. You either find his performance as Derek, a nursing home worker with special needs, heartwarming and hysterical…or saccharine and obnoxious. But if you like the cut of his jib, you’ll likely love After Life, another Netflix series he created where he plays a caustic widower in a small English town. Allison Shoemaker at RogerEbert.com says the new season continues to feature “a career-best turn from Ricky Gervais; a willingness to let tart and even bitter punchlines rub alongside things much more fragile; ongoing acknowledgment of the complexity and messiness of grief; a complete disinterest in saintly suffering.” Both seasons now streaming on Netflix.
Cate Blanchett plays anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly in this ten-part miniseries about the 1970s feminism movement, with Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem and a host of other great actors including Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale, Tracey Ullman, and Elizabeth Banks. “At its best, the series gives you the contact high of a heist picture,” writes Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz. “The vault is patriarchy, the locked-up fortune is equal rights and equal wages, and the recurring strategic question is whether to keep gently turning the lock back and forth until the right combination reveals itself, or just blow the bloody doors off.” First three episodes are streaming on Hulu.
The Last Show on Earth
Saturday Night Live is having to adapt to the new abnormal, and now one of its farm teams—the Second City—is doing it too. Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock fame hosts this home-quarantined version of a weekly sketch show, featuring new sketches by current cast members and famous alumni, musical performances, and even rare archival footage. The premiere episode has Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Fred Willard (one of sketch comedy’s elder statesmen), and Saff from Tiger King. Airs Thursdays on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
What We Do in the Shadows
TV adaptations of films don’t always work, but Jemaine Clement figured out a way to turn his and Taika Waititi’s 2014 film, a mockumentary about the quotidian grind of a group of vampires, into episodic gold. The second season premiered this week, and AV Club’s Katie Rife says that “it’s exciting to see that the show is getting a little more ambitious in its action scenes and with its special effects—ghost-Jesk’s demonic severed head looked great!—while keeping all the things that made the first season click.” Airs Wednesdays on FX; first two episodes are streaming on Hulu.
The Innocence Files
Netflix has been as responsible for the recent glut of true crime documentaries as any other entertainment company. But in contrast to some of the more salacious fare it’s produced, this new series focuses on the consequential work of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that’s been fighting to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners since 1992 (mostly through DNA evidence). Across nine episodes, the series “delivers a captivating and powerful exposé that balances frustration and outrage alongside triumph and hope,” says Tom Reimann at Collider. “In short, it’s some of the best nonfiction television Netflix has ever produced.” Streaming on Netflix.
The Last Dance
For anyone missing live sports—or anyone (like me) who prefers a riveting sports documentary to an actual game—ESPN is here to scratch your itch with a sprawling, ten-part docuseries about the glory days of Michael Jordan’s 1997-98 season with the Chicago Bulls. The show, which features rare footage and interviews and has been compared to O.J.: Made in America, is “both a perfect diversion and a tribute to shared sacrifice,” writes Phil Rosenthal in the Chicago Tribune. Premieres Sunday on ESPN.
Tales from the Loop
This American spin on a Swedish sci-fi art book about a midwestern town built on top of a device “built to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe” is part Twilight Zone, part ’80s Amblin movie, with a uniquely ponderous and melancholy tone. The series features Jonathan Pryce and Rebecca Hall, and “is that rare sci-fi show,” according to Jacob Oller at Paste, “that trusts us to breathe in deep the oddities of its world, accept that we aren’t going to know everything, and climb aboard anyways. That trust, built with its tactful scene-setting and human-sized troubles, allows for easy investment in deceivingly simple dramas.” Streaming on Amazon Prime.
A Goofy Movie
It’s the goofy, gawky little brother of the Disney animation renaissance, slipping out in the wake of pretty princesses and dashing boy heroes. But for a certain wave of ’90s kids, A Goofy Movie is up there with the best of cartoon releases. The father-son-road-trip musical turns 25 this week, and Disney fan club D23 is throwing a virtual watch party and cast-crew reunion Friday night. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager can relate to Max’s feelings of embarrassment about his, well, goofy dad—and anyone with a heart will enjoy their journey to warm understanding. (And Powerline still slays.) The reunion starts at 4:30 p.m. PDT on Disney+.
The slow-burn-to-beloved series came to an end this week, which means you can finally binge the entire run from start to finish. Starring Canadian comedy royalty Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara and introducing new talent—including two of Levy’s children, Sarah and Dan, who cocreated the show with his dad—Schitt’s Creek was the little Pop TV series that could and a welcome escape from pandemic panic into a rustic wonderland of heart-filled humor. While it began as a somewhat broad, rich-people-out-of-water farce, over the course of six seasons, “everything about Schitt’s Creek has grown warmer,” writes Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk. “The Rose family has become a bedrock of supportive love for one another and the community.” Seasons 1–5 are on Netflix; season 6 is on the Pop Now app.
Her Royal Highness, Dame Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is back on the small screen. After a dizzying victory lap for her show Fleabag, Waller-Bridge reteams with creator-director Vicky Jones (who helmed the stage production of Fleabag) as an executive producer and in a small supporting role in Run, a new HBO limited series about two old flames (Merrit Weaver and Domhnall Gleeson) on a train, which mixes comedy and Hitchcockian mystery. But this is really Weaver’s show, as Alan Sepinwall writes in Rolling Stone, “the star vehicle she’s earned through years of endearingly loopy scene-stealing work in TV and film.” Premieres Sunday on HBO
There’s a good chance you’ve already seen the Best Picture-winning, buzz-heavy black comedy from South Korea; it was one of the rare non-English-language films to find a broad audience in America, a film that seduced every last critic—like Justin Chang, who says it “begins in exhilaration and ends in devastation, but the triumph of the movie is that it fully lives and breathes at every moment, even when you might find yourself struggling to exhale.” But in case you haven’t seen it, or you just want to go back inside the Park mansion to revel in the Rube Goldbergian twists and turns in Bong Joon Ho’s serrated dissection of class war, Parasite is now streaming. Watch it before HBO turns it into an American miniseries. Hulu
Just in time for the first Passover via Zoom, this four-part series, loosely based on a popular memoir, is about a teenage bride who escapes her marriage and her uber-conservative Hasidic community in Brooklyn, fleeing to Berlin to find her estranged mother. Detailed, sympathetic, and timely, “it’s a kind of espionage caper,” writes James Poniewozik in The New York Times, “a thrilling and probing story of one woman’s personal defection.” Netflix
The CW musical comedy ended last year after four seasons, but now’s as good a time as any to discover Rachel Bloom’s messy antiheroine fantasia—which Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz praises for “going the distance,” “digging progressively deeper into its heroine’s psyche, and continuing to deliver consistently clever, sometimes dazzling musical numbers.” Most of those songs were cowritten by Fountain of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, who, at just 52, was one of COVID-19’s victims. Schlesinger earned five Emmy nominations for his work on the show; watch it for his hilarious and catchy numbers if for no other reason. Netflix
Tim and Eric are back on Adult Swim, this time skewering the ’80s/’90s family-sitcom format. They’ve played with these conventions (phony laugh tracks, corny theme songs) before, but Beef House is a full-on series in the Full House mold—they even employed the same cameras used on Fuller House—only here that mold is filled with the funky Jell-o of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s cockamamie, cheerily dark style of non sequitur humor. The cast features several Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! alumni, and the AV Club says it’s “cooked to perfection.” Airs Sundays at 12:15 a.m. on AdultSwim.com; first episode can be streamed at AdultSwim
Some Good News with John Krasinski
Fighting off the pandemic of bad news (and his own encroaching cabin fever), Krasinski created a YouTube show to supplement your seventh time binge watching him as Jim on The Office. In the first episode (of how many, and how often, we don’t know), he highlights several recent acts of kindness and humanity that were shared on the internet, interviews a teen girl who recently finished chemo, and reunites with Michael Scott himself, Steve Carrell (via Zoom). Uplift yourself! YouTube
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
One of many buzzed-about films set adrift in the lockdown’s shuttered theatrical release market, this intimate drama concerns two teenage girls on a journey from rural Pennsylvania to an abortion clinic in Manhattan. Critics gave the film, directed by Eliza Hittman, near-unanimous high marks—with Variety’s Andrew Barker writing: “At once dreamlike and ruthlessly naturalistic, steadily composed yet shot through with roiling currents of anxiety, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quietly devastating gem.” VOD on multiple platforms
Want to escape humans for a while? Travel somewhere exotic? Hear the silky strain of your new Angeleno neighbor, Meghan Markle? Elephant checks off all the boxes, as the Duchess of Sussex narrates a Disneyfied story built from sumptuously shot footage of real elephants (in the grand tradition of Disney nature documentaries, going back to Walt’s day—many of which can also be found on Disney+). Justin Chang of the L.A. Times says it “emerges a generally charming, sometimes cloying exercise in wildlife anthropomorphism.” (Also dropping this weekend is the Natalie Portman-narrated Dolphin Reef.) Disney+
Shudder, the one-stop-shop horror streamer, offers a free seven-day trial—and now is a good time to bite. Its new original series, Cursed Films, explores the freaky accidents, deaths, and (possibly) supernatural shenanigans that have plagued several famous horror movies. The first episode delves into The Exorcist and the many mysterious deaths and on-set traumas linked to William Friedkin’s 1973 classic; future episodes will cover The Omen, Poltergeist, and Twilight Zone: The Movie. Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com says the series “isn’t some cheapo scare tactic, focusing just as much on human stories and on-set details as it does the rumors of curses and bad karma around these movies.” First episode on Shudder.com
This seven-part docuseries is like the wildest of white-trash reality shows … but it’s actual reality, told in prestige documentary style. The addictively bingeable story has polygamous sex cults, throuples, guns, amputations, blood feuds, contract killings, bad country music videos, mullets, expired meat—and lots and lots of tigers. Vanity Fair says it’s “a portrait of a world that’s entirely alien, and yet also reflective, and diagnostic, of this country as a whole.” Netflix
Some of us like to imagine worst-case scenarios in the midst of a disaster—or at least commiserate with A-list actors in a similar situation. Contagion may be the bleaker and more recent pandemic movie, but Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak has 1995-era Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman, Rene Russo … and monkeys. Its fictional virus kills you within 24 hours by liquefying your organs, so it might actually cheer you up about COVID-19. In his review, Roger Ebert calls it “the kind of movie you enjoy even while you observe yourself being manipulated.” Netflix
The O.J. Simpson Trial
Speaking of 1995: that summer was a simpler time, when the world was sheltered in place not because of a pandemic, but to watch the “trial of the century.” Now you can watch the actual murder trial of O.J. Simpson, unedited and in all of its undramatized, VHS-era glory. YouTube
Alex Garland, the writer-director mastermind behind modern sci-fi gems Ex Machina and Annihilation, takes to the small screen (via FX and Hulu) for a slow-burn murder mystery set at a mysterious tech company. The series id led by Nick Offerman with serious ancient-prophet hair energy. The New York Times calls it “a cold and beautiful machine.” Hulu
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution
This Sundance darling documentary, produced by the Obamas, is a time machine to the Catskills in the 1970s, at “a summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies.” Directed by a former camper and using a bounty of archival footage, it’s a feel-good sleepover that has a social activism motor. It’s “buoyant and inspiring,” according to Vox, “a tale of people working together through difficulty and opposition to change the world.” Netflix
The Way Back
You may have missed it in theaters, where it came out way back on March 6, so Warner Bros. has conveniently made it available to view in your home-quarantine theater. Ben Affleck plays a divorced alcoholic who gets conscripted to coach a boy’s basketball team at his old Catholic high school. What sounds like a recipe for cornball cliché is actually an understated, complicated character study that feels like it’s flowing out of Affleck’s actual opened veins. “[T]his sober little studio movie is so uncommonly effective because of its steady insistence that life can’t be lived in reverse,” IndieWire says; “that, contrary to its title, there’s no going back.” VOD on multiple services
The Imagineering Story
If you’re one of the many people desperately missing Disneyland and other Disney parks, you can scratch that itch with The Imagineering Story on Disney+. The six-episode series is a delightful well of archival and behind-the-scenes footage, tracing the story of cutting-edge animatronics and family-friendly thrill rides from Walt’s original vision to occasional missteps to the latest innovations. It may be “sentimental” and “self-congratulating,” The Hollywood Reporter writes, but it’s also “by far, the most appealing and intellectually engaging offering from Disney’s new nostalgia-driven SVOD streaming service.” Disney+