The Human Drama is Front and Center in Current Streaming Picks, Plus Choice Coronavirus Films You Need To Watch
The shows and movies we’re currently into, from ‘Away’ to ‘The King of Staten Island’
Four quality streaming choices to pick from; one interstellar family saga, a period supernatural thriller about racism, a romcom that packs a generous amount of drama, and an earnest musical urban saga. Plus, we talk about three choice films you need to watch—American Pickle, Boys State, and The King of Staten Island—true blue quality releases that we get to enjoy despite the great global lockdown from Covid-19.
This 10-ep limited series drops on Netflix on September 4th; but I was given the opportunity to watch a preview and it’s a series that’s very worth anticipating. The premise has to do with interplanetary travel, a space mission that heads to a Moonbase, before launching to Mars. There’s diversity in the space crew; an American, a Chinese, a Russian, a British botanist, and an Indian. This makes for a compelling clash of cultures and ambition, and we’re kept hanging as to whether this multi-racial team can keep it together—led by the American astronaut Emma, played by Hilary Swank, even if the Russian cosmonaut has the most space hours under his belt.
It’s a 3-year mission, and in the first two episodes, much is made of the people left behind on Earth. Swank portrays a committed, driven woman who has a husband and a teenage daughter. That the human drama, dilemmas and stark choices, are put in the forefront of the action works well in the favor of the series. It forces us to invest in her character; and as the backstories of the other members of the team develops, it adds to the overall human drama, elevating the series to be more than a science geek fest or a series centered on technology. After I Am Mother of 2019 (also on Netflix), it looks like Hilary Swank has made space her new acting environment.
Lovecraft Country (HBO Max)
Here’s another 10-episode series, but this one has a wilder premise. Based on the outrageous novel of one of my favorite young authors, Matt Ruff, and brought to us by Misha Green, Jordan Peele, and JJ Abrams; Lovecraft Country is set in 1950’s America and can best be described as a mishmash of racism, crime fiction, and supernatural horror. The salute to the works of HP Lovecraft is a given; a celebrated writer of the early 20th century, known for his weird, eerie fiction and racist beliefs. The references to his works come fast and furious, metaphorically and literally; but it’s in how this is all blended with Ruff’s social commentary that defies any kind of expectation, and turns the first two episodes into a wild and wooly ride that entertains, and had me on the edge of my seat.
To be fair, having read the novel when it first came out in 2016, I am concerned about whether this adaptation can sustain its wild beginning, or get too wrapped up in the intricate plotting that worked so well as something to be read. It starts off innocently enough with Atticus, an African-American Army veteran, setting off to look for his missing father along with childhood friend Letitia, and his uncle, who creates a book very similar to the Negro Motorist Green Book. Tic loves wild sci-fi, and that’s foreshadowing of a different order, as by the end of the very first episode, we’re thrust into a Jim Crow America where the supernatural also thrives. One to be savored if you love the decidedly offbeat and strange.
Palm Springs (Hulu)
A casualty of the pandemic, this film missed its chance for a wide theatrical release after scoring good reviews during the Sundance Festival early in the year. It’s technically a Romantic Comedy that stars Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, but the winning aspect of the film is how it takes a tired and often used Groundhog Day concept (where time is a loop), but transforming it into something fresh, hilarious and unexpected. To explain how this is achieved would be a spoiler, so you really have to stream this to see how this is done. Enough to say that Andy plays this character who accompanies his ‘girlfriend’ to a wedding in the desert, and Milioti portrays the sister of the bride.
JK Simmons has a really crazy role in the film, and he’s the scene stealer here, if there is one. Milioti is a wonderful surprise, playing comedienne to the hilt, and she isn’t out to play straight man or second fiddle to Samberg. Samberg’s character is one he plays with perfection, lovable and irritating in equal measure; and the romcom element really works as we’re rooting for the two to finally get together, and find a way to find happiness within the existential loop they’re stuck in. This is the kind of film you don’t want to write about too much, as it would only take away from the delight you’ll experience watching it. Personally, I found it does over reach in the last twenty minutes or so, but I couldn’t deny how the ride to get to that point was so enjoyable.
Little Voice (Apple TV+)
This is a classic pre-pandemic New York story of the struggling singer-songwriter, who insists she only writes her wonderful music for herself. Brittany O’Grady plays Bess, with the gorgeous musical score courtesy of Sara Bareilles. The series consists of half hour episodes, so the sentimentality and earnestness of the series don’t overstay their welcome. There is something definitely ‘old school’ about the enterprise, but thanks again to the relatively short running time of the episodes, it manages to avoid being grating or too syrupy.
As with series of this nature and type of narrative, much is made of backstories and subplots. The various men in Bess’ life play major roles here. So beyond the struggling career, the taking on of low-paying jobs, the busking, and family issues; we’re also treated to a game of ‘will she or won’t she?’ with the men who ‘court’ her. From the Broadway hit Waitress, and now to this TV series, Bareilles and Jessie Nelson have been stretching to find new ways to bring us their music and storytelling. That this is set in a New York we can view with nostalgia just adds to the overall feel.
Though it’s been a month of relatively lean pickings for streaming options, we’ve got a few choice coronavirus films to enjoy. Thanks to the pandemic, it was only Sundance and Berlin that pushed through in early 2020; all the other major film festivals had to take a hiatus, or hope for the best, as Venice and Toronto are still optimistic about their September dates. We can be grateful that thanks to the streaming services and in-demand, several 2020 quality releases have found a lease on life and can be enjoyed by those ready to seek them out. (For HBO Max, for now, you’ll need a VPN until it’s officially available in the region.)
American Pickle (HBO Max)
This is the first film release specially made for HBO Max, and it’s a Seth Rogen comedy vehicle that sees him playing dual lead roles. The premise comes out of nowhere, as Rogen plays Herschel Greenbaum, an East European immigrant who marries and comes to New York in 1920. An accident in a factory means he’s pickled and preserved, awakening a century later. A living relative is found and it’s his great grandson—also played by Seth Rogen. From this crazy concept comes a comedy of manners that touches on family, on heritage, on discovering what’s important in life—especially when it’s standing right in front of you but you don’t see it.
The first half of the film is a real charmer, with the Herschel character one of Rogen’s more memorable film portrayals. Apparently, he grew a full ‘old school’ beard to play all these parts, before shaving it off to play the sequences of the great grandson. There’s a little bit of Being There, of Coming to America, and Trading Places, all put into a Back to the Future blender, but with Rogen playing the two major roles. If there is a drawback to the film and the screenplay of Simon Rich, it’s how the film seems to be unsure of the tonality it’s aiming for. While the half with the fish out of water concept is played as a broad comedy, it suddenly switches gears and tries to be a life-affirming, heart-warming parable. This shift doesn’t quite pan out; so while still enjoyable as a whole, it stretches in a manner that doesn’t feel that committed.
Boys State (Apple TV+)
This documentary won the Sundance Grand Jury award for Best Documentary earlier this year, and seeing as how it’s an election year in the USA, it’s easy to see why this hit such a nerve and regaled audiences who screened the film. It follows how the American Legion chapter in Texas sends a whole bunch of 16 and 17-year old boys to the Boys State debate event in the state capital. There they learn about government, and practice politics, staging mock elections for State Governor after being split up into Nationalists and Federalists and taking sides on topical issues and causes. If you watched The Politician on Netflix, think of this as the real life version of the examination of young individuals ready to see politics as their future.
We follow the ‘careers’ of boys who run for party chairman and as governors. Beyond the calculation and in-fighting, the documentary becomes an incisive study of how principles and belief in the issues soon take a back seat to personality, popularity, and winning. The idealism that accompanies so many of them as they embark on this weekend in the state capital quickly becomes exercises in cynicism and hard-boiled self-preservation. In many ways, this becomes an eye-opener to the kind of person who enters politics, and succeeds. In a telling manner, the documentary’s closing credits even follow our boys to what they were up to a year later. These are the young Republicans in the flesh, and it’s a bullseye warning to how these future politicians are created.
The King of Staten Island (On-Demand services)
Directed by Judd Apatow; with a script that SNL regular Pete Davidson based on his real-life experiences; the premise of this shaggy dog, offbeat comedy could very well be answering the question of what would Davidson, who stars, be doing if he hadn’t stumbled into comedy. At one point, it’s a love poem for Staten Island, the New York borough that everyone forgets even exists—unlike Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. While Staten Island has often been used in films but acting as a substitute for another place; as the film points out hilariously, it was last used as Staten Island in The First Purge. As Scott, Davidson uses the fact that his father was a fireman who tragically died during 9/11, and that he genuinely still lives on Staten with his mother; as points of reference for this emotionally crippled character, who’s our fractured protagonist.
Beyond Davidson as Scott, the film shines because Apatow has smartly surrounded Scott with interesting characters and a genuinely sympathetic cast. Marisa Tomei plays the widowed mother, and Maude Apatow (Judd’s daughter) is Scott’s sister, Claire. Ray (Bill Burr) is the fireman who starts dating Scott’s Mom after the crazy situation of confronting the mother after Scott tried practicing his tattooing skills on Ray’s 9-year old son. Bel Powley as Kelsey, Scott’s sometime girlfriend, is terrific, and you’ll love it when she says Scott looks like an anorexic panda—in a loving way. Some may find it goes on for too long; but there’s a very genuine feel to the film that rewards the patient viewer.