It’s a good problem to have, but sometimes it seems all but impossible to keep up with the flood of smart, fascinating new movies and series streaming our way on countless digital platforms. So this month, I’ll focus on a handful of new, newish and not-new-at-all titles. Full disclosure: I am not being paid by Netflix — it just happens that that’s where you can see most of the stuff I’m writing about this time. So here goes:
Mudbound (Netflix). Sometimes more worthy than watchable, this ambitious period drama takes on a topic that has only grown more important since the movie’s Sundance debut last January: racism, and the black-white divide that some of us hoped was getting better over the last few years. Set in Mississippi during the World War II years, Dee Rees’ drama is a sort of dual portrait of two families, one white, one black, farming the same muddy patch of land. A central focus is the friendship between Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), two soldiers — one white, one black — who return from service to two very different welcomes. When Ronsel realizes he’s still regarded as a third-class citizen rather than a hero, the movie can feel a little familiar, without minimizing its power. More telling is the way the patriarch of the white family (Jason Clarke) practices noblesse oblige on the black family (headed by Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), demanding their help (with farming or with child-rearing) whenever it suits him. In its split focus, the movie sometimes feels uncertain whose story it’s telling. But the acting is strong (while the accents can be broad), with a cast that includes Carey Mulligan as Clarke’s put-upon wife.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (Netflix). Speaking of dual portraits, this one’s a mind blower. Built largely on behind-the-scenes footage shot during the making of Man on the Moon but unseen for almost 20 years, it documents the insane extremes Jim Carrey went to, staying in character throughout the film’s shoot to channel the spirit of Andy Kaufman. Carrey, anchoring the movie with recent interviews, and coming across as a mix of mad prophet and Zen master, claims he never made that movie. Kaufman took over, so what happened was never in the actor’s control. We watch Man director Milos Forman and actors Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch having to deal with a star who insists he is their dead Taxi castmate. And the set is repeatedly assaulted by Carrey’s version of Kaufman’s obnoxious alter ego, Tony Clifton. It’s all very meta and assaultive. And engrossing. Carrey apparently wanted this documentary footage to be released in 1999 at the same time as Man on the Moon. But, according to the actor, Universal decided, “‘We don’t want people to think Jim’s an asshole.’” He sometimes comes off as just that in the film, but a really talented, scary, fascinating asshole.
Mindhunter (Netflix). By now, a lot of people have binged on this creepily engrossing, 10-episode series. Produced by David Fincher and based on the work of John E. Douglas, it stars Jonathan Groff as an FBI special agent named Holden, who basically begins the now familiar field we know as forensic psychology, or profiling. Yep, there would be no fictional dance between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter without the work Douglas started back in the 1970s. A polite, squeaky fellow at first, Holden is paired with the veteran agent Tench (Holt McCallany) as they roam the country, interviewing (and dangerously trying to get into the heads of) serial killers like Edmund Kemper and Richard Speck. They’re eventually joined by academic Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who tries to bring reliable methodology to the work, countering Holden’s gut instincts. What makes Mindhunter so gripping is the way it takes its time getting under your skin. Many scenes are just a lot of talk. But boy, it can get to you.
Alias Grace (Netflix). Anything by brilliant feminist novelist Margaret Atwood is welcome these days. But in some ways, Alias Grace has to compete with the seismic effect Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has already achieved. In this six-episode miniseries, loosely based on a real case, Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks, an Irish-Canadian prisoner convicted of murdering her employer (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper-slash-bedmate (Anna Paquin). Earnest Dr. Jordan (Edward Holcroft) arrives to interview Grace and determine, after 15 years of imprisonment, if the young woman is in fact innocent and worthy of pardon. The main interest in watching is to register Gadon’s subtle performance as she changes her attitude and delivery to give the physician what she believes he wants. In extensive flashbacks, we see the mistreatment, mostly at men’s hands, that have created the shrewd and guarded Grace she later becomes. If Gadon is terrific, the production itself is a little drab, like a TV movie from earlier decades — surprising, since it was directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho). It’s good, and worth watching; it just doesn’t feel as essential as Handmaid’s does.
The Returned (Netflix). A long way from new, this French drama’s first season aired in 2012, followed by a second three years later. It derived from a standalone 2004 film, and even got an American television remake in 2015 that was canceled after one season. So I’m a latecomer. But I’ve been totally absorbed by it. A zombie show without zombies, it’s set in a small town in the French Alps, where, with no fanfare or seeming order, townsfolk who have died four, 10 or even 35 years ago return. They’re breathing, they have pulses, and they’re not brain-hungry. They don’t know where they’ve been, don’t remember dying, and they upend the lives of family members and former lovers who don’t know what to do about these new arrivals. Give it a shot if you’re in the mood for something surprising, ominous and original.
The British mystery Broadchurch is back for a third and final season, starring David Tennant and Olivia Colman. I’m praying it’s better than the lamentable second season. I’d also like to recommend Netflix’s series Godless, starring Michelle Dockery (a.k.a. Downtown Abbey’s Lady Mary) as a frontierwoman in a town populated entirely by lady cowboys, and Spike Lee’s series adaptation of the movie that launched his career, She’s Gotta Have It. I haven’t had a chance to see either one, but I’ve heard great things.
Likewise about Amazon Prime’s first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, about a standup comic in 1960s New York, from the creator of Gilmore Girls. And if you want 30 minutes of bizarre comedy, check out Amazon’s Sea Oak. Glenn Close stars as a middle-aged woman who lives with her dysfunctional nephew and nieces. Her life has been a series of disappointments, so it almost seems a good thing when she unexpectedly dies. What happens after that is the WTF twist that makes you hope Amazon takes this pilot to series. It’s the first attempt to adapt a story by the brilliant George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo). While it’s hard for me to imagine any streaming series managing to replicate his mix of the surreal, the sci-fi and the mundane everyday drudge of life, I’d love to see somebody give it a try.