Mark Naglazas takes in new releases, television series and classics as he sifts for gold on streaming platforms. There’s treasure for everyone on this list.
Anyone panning for cinematic gold on the major streaming services is going to sift through a lot of dross. While great movies are being released through digital platforms — last year’s Oscars brought us Marriage Story, The Irishman and The Two Popes — almost all quality movies still start their run in arthouses and multiplexes, which are locked down with the rest of the world.
In a few months there will be an explosion of quality as all those withheld movies are released. But until those floodgates are open movie buffs will have to be content with a second look at movies that have been kicking around for the past few years, films that in the old days would have been called straight-to-video (the romcom Love Wedding Repeat) and a few that through the circumstances of the pandemic have made their way to a streaming service (the Blumhouse horror-thriller The Hunt).
The situation with television series is entirely different. Here the quality continues to flow, with a gripping new series about the hidden world of American Hasidic Jews, Unorthodox, the return of the British sensation Killing Eve and season two of My Brilliant Friend, the magisterial adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s cherished quartet about the intertwining lives of two Neapolitan girls.
And, of course, you can still find classic movies. The two I’ve selected this week are from the 1980s, Steven Spielberg’s epic masterpiece Empire of the Sun, and The Accidental Tourist, Lawrence Kasdan’s beautifully judged adaptation of Anne Tyler’s novel about a shut-down travel writer brought back to life by a vivacious, unstoppable dog trainer.
Love Wedding Repeat (Netflix)
Ever since Cary Grant’s Dexter Haven gate-crashed to the nuptials of his former wife Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) in The Philadelphia Story the awkward wedding has become a standard of the rom-com genre. The new British Netflix offering Love Wedding Repeat pushes that embarrassment to post-Apatow gross-out levels, with the bride’s ex arriving at the Italian villa where her wedding is taking place coked to the eyeballs and armed with a marriage-wrecking secret. Things get even crazier when the bride (Eleanor Tomlinson) persuades her brother (Sam Claflin) to drug her infatuated former lover. Insanity ensues. Writer-director Dean Craig penned A Few Best Men and the West Australian-set A Few Less Men (as well as Death at a Funeral). Craig’s new film (he also directs this time) has all the strengths and weakness of his iffy oeuvre. He’s conjured a collection of likeable ordinary and awkward characters. But when it comes to manipulating his appealing high concept — the wedding is repeated with a different outcome — Craig is no Richard Curtis. Somehow he manages to inject heart into this mirth-making machine in the final moments as characters realised the virtue of simply being themselves. If you don’t demand too much from your rom-coms and enjoy the spectacle of gauche British men trying to win over clearly superior women Loving Wedding Repeat goes down easily.
The Hunt (Google Play, iTunes)
This latest politicised provocation from the Blumhouse horror factory was supposed to be released in September last year but was pulled in the wake of two mass shootings (that I can barely remember those massacres tells us something about the sickening frequency of the crowd killing in the US). The unreleased film also copped flak from Donald Trump for what he perceived as murderous mocking of his base. Universal has now decided to put this violent horror-thriller (about a group of liberal elites who round up a group of “deplorables” – from Hilary Clinton’s infamous term for blue-collar right wingers – as prey in a Hunger Games-style sporting event) out on streaming services instead of waiting for cinemas to re-open. The Hunt turns out to be neither as incendiary as Trump imagined it would be — the satire is spread evenly across both the extreme left and right of American politics — nor is it as interesting as we might of hoped as most of the time is taken up with increasingly ludicrous action-flick carnage and brutality. Indeed, the storytelling is so scattershot that it feels like it has been remade to suit a time when unity and not division, healing not hacking to death is the order of the day.
Empire of the Sun (Foxtel)
Steven Spielberg’s prodigious visual storytelling skills are on lavish display in his breathtaking adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel about an upper-crust English boy (a very young Christian Bale) who becomes separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of China. Amidst the rising chaos the boy, Jamie, latches onto a pair of ex-pat American hustlers (John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano) and winds up with this disreputable duo in a prisoner-of-war camp. Back in the mid-80s, when Empire of the Sun came out, Spielberg was criticised as a schmaltzy populist and not in the same league as his contemporaries such as Coppola and Scorsese. With this epic coming-of-age story Spielberg revealed himself their equal in both his storytelling abilities and his willingness to delve into the heart of darkness as he subjects his child-hero to appalling cruelty and suffering. And in Bale he elicits one of the great kid performances in film history. Whether his character is wracked with fear or scrambling to save his skin, Bale’s is electrifyingly alive. You can’t take your eyes off him. Empire of the Sun doesn’t get talked about much alongside Spielberg’s masterpieces but it is one of his greatest works, an epic in the tradition of his hero, David Lean.
The Accidental Tourist (YouTube, Google Play)
Geena Davis rocked our worlds with Thelma & Louise but a few years before, in 1988, her performance in Lawrence Kasdan’s adaptation of Anne Tyler’s celebrated novel The Accidental Tourist stole the show from bigger name stars William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. Davis’ Muriel Pritchett crashes into the life of Hurt’s Macon Leary when he brings in his dog to be looked after while he is away on a job. On his return Muriel convinces Macon the dog needs extra training and that she is the woman to do it. It is pretty standard romance that pairs an upper-class stiff who has given up on life and love after the death of his son and fearless blue-collar single mother (As Good As It Gets is almost the same story). But Davis and Hurt are magical together — she getting into his face, he backing away at the same time as falling in love. There are lots of warm, funny moments but it is essentially a weighty drama about a man learning to throw away the how-to manual — the guide book he writes for business travellers is a great metaphor for the man’s wizened soul — and embrace the chaos that comes with human relationships.
I was late to this American-German series about a young bride who escapes her ultra-orthodox community in New York to reconnect with her estranged mother in Berlin and begin a new life. But not long into the first of its four hour-long episodes I was hooked and inhaled the series over a couple of evenings. Loosely based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, Unorthodox moves between the life of Esther Shapiro (Israeli actress Shira Haas) in her closed Hassidic sect in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg, where she and other women are cut off from the world and forced into arranged marriages, and her thriller-ish escape to Berlin and into the loving embrace of a multi-racial group of musicians studying at an academy. Astutely, the filmmakers didn’t stick closely to Feldman’s celebrated memoir. Instead, they use it as launchpad for a thematically rich fiction about a Jewish woman whose journey toward freedom takes her to the heart of her people’s trauma. While the storytelling is solid and the ideas stimulating what keeps us glued to Unorthodox is the remarkable central performance from Haas, whose oversized features amplify even the merest flicker of emotion or thought. Haas is tiny – she looks like Judy Garland in her Wizard of Oz era – but dominates the screen with the force of a Huppert or Blanchett. Also on Netflix is an accompanying documentary on the making of the series, covering the lengths to which the producers went to in order to get the world right.
Killing Eve (ABC iView)
A ripple — no, a tsunami — of excitement rolled across the square-eyed world with the announcement of the imminent arrival of the third series of Killing Eve, the savagely funny series about psychotic fashionista assassin named Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and her obsession with the MI5 agent assigned to track her (Sandra Oh). Series 3 begins Villanelle meeting up with the woman who trained her at a wedding, kicking off arguably the most awkward moment in the history of on-screen weddings (see entry above on Love Wedding Repeat). It’s a reminder that Killing Eve, for all its brutality, is a comedy and very funny one at that. Back in the UK Oh’s Eve Polastri has recovered from the injuries suffered at the end of series two and working in a restaurant (having been booted out of MI5). More shock deaths — a major character dies early on, Game of Thrones style — and we are back in the cock-eyed world conjured by Phoebe Waller-Bridge aka Fleabag (she’s moved on since) in which maximum imagination is given to first half of the title. It’s too early to tell if Killing Eve still has its mojo. But the brilliant Comer seems as deliciously unhinged as she was in series 1 and 2, working up the best array of face-pulling action since Isabelle Huppert and Seinfeld’s Elaine. Only deadlier.
My Brilliant Friend Season 2 (Foxtel)
Series 1 of this small-screen version of Elena Ferrante’s beloved quartet (each season will cover one of her four novels) was one of the most brilliant dramas in the era of peak television, a rare literary adaptation that both respects its source material yet takes flight as drama. It also gave us one of the most exhilarating characters in the history of TV, the brilliant friend of the title, a beautiful child who throughout the first series grew into a woman whose intelligence, insight and ferocity routinely sent shockwaves through her impoverished suburb on the outskirts of Naples. When we pick up the story in series 2 Lila (Gaia Girace) is unhappily married to oafish Stefano (Giovanni Amura) while her bookish bestie Lenu (Margherita Mazzucco) is still pining for intellectual pretty boy Nino Sarratore (Francesco Serpico). The complexity and maddening contradictions of Lila are revealed in the stunning third episode when studious Lenu takes her regal friend to a cool bookish party only to have the seemingly formidable Lila reveal her inadequacy in smart company then destroy her supposed best friend in a witheringly sarcastic diatribe. The episode kicked the series into a new level, if that is at all possible. A benchmark-setting literary adaptation.
Pictured top: Christian Bale gives one of the great kid performances in movie history in Empire of the Sun.