Stay home. As COVID-19 spreads, that’s the sentiment stressed by epidemiologists racing to combat the virus, who have implored Americans to avoid all nonessential travel and limit all person-to-person interactions. “Social distancing,” it seems, is our new normal—at least for now.
Though it can be challenging to look for silver linings in times as tumultuous as this, those sheltering indoors can at least rest assured that there’s now little reason to put off catching up on Netflix. And particularly with movie theaters shuttering across the country in response to the growing pandemic, Americans are looking to VOD and streaming platforms in search of their next binge-watch.
Fortune’s (still) here to help you navigate the week’s latest offerings, boiling down all the entertainment out there to a few distinct recommendations: Put more simply, should you rent it, stream it, or skip it? Find out below.
RENT: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ (VOD)
This soft-spoken, hard-hitting film, the latest from Beach Rats director Eliza Hittman—a word-of-mouth sensation after its Sundance Film Festival premiere earlier this year—saw its theatrical run curtailed by the closure of movie theaters nationwide in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Moving quickly, Focus Features is making it available on VOD platforms today, a relief to those worried the film—one of 2020’s strongest so far—would fall too soon from audience radars. That would have been a crying shame, given the all-important specificity and compassion with which Never Rarely Sometimes Always approaches its seldom-discussed subject.
Those who heard the film discussed ahead of its original theatrical bow will know it as an “abortion drama,” and that’s entirely accurate, though its framing of the odyssey one Pennsylvania teenager, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), undertakes to terminate her unwanted pregnancy is quietly radical all the same. Compared with past films on the subject, which often emanate a raised-fist fury toward patriarchal systems that work to deny women agency over their own bodies, Never Rarely Sometimes Always stands out most through its naturalism.
Through Hittman’s precise script and graceful direction, there’s little accommodation for moral hand-wringing, and in that restraint exists a striking aversion to big-picture lensing, something that allows Never Rarely to maintain unblinking, gradually mesmeric focus on its young protagonist. Hittman, an established force in the independent film world, is exceptional at spotting young talent, and that’s entirely true of Never Rarely. Flanigan, her performance carried by quick-flickering expressions and an air of worn resignation, is a remarkable find. Excellent, too, is Talia Ryder as Autumn’s devoted cousin, who accompanies her through the hellish bowels of New York City as they seek her treatment at a clinic there.
As the pair navigate the big city, low on funds and ground down by a world in which men loom as obstacles at every turn (from the sneering grocery store manager who’s unsympathetic to Autumn’s morning sickness, to a subway pervert whose entitlement is just as upsetting), Hittman pulls no punches. The misogynistic nightmare that is modern America comes, gradually, brutally, into focus. But Never Rarely doesn’t need melodrama to drive its points home, and it’s more of a character study than an issue picture. That cinema-verité approach matters, putting the raw humanity of its young characters on full display; if there was ever a film that could change hearts and minds about abortion, this is it.
STREAM: ‘Tales From the Loop’ (Amazon)
There’s never been a sci-fi series quite like Amazon’s Tales From the Loop, a mournful and invitingly mysterious new anthology adapted not from books or pre-existing films but the viral, prescient-meets-pastoral paintings of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag.
The creative appeal of Stålenhag’s paintings (many of which are viewable on his website) is manifest; they often blend together mundane countryside vistas with science-fiction elements that loom over their surroundings or fit so naturally into the backdrop one begins to question whether they’ve always been there, new gods asserting their place amid the old ones. Conceptually as well as visually, they wrestle with questions as much philosophical as they are logistical, provoking lengthy thought-trains about how the future of civilization will alter even its most rural reaches.
In translating that tone to the screen, showrunner Nathaniel Halpern has made a number of smart choices—at least within the hypnotic, gently moving first three episodes, out of a total eight, sent to critics ahead of the series’ premiere. Set in the quiet hamlet of Mercer, which rests atop a sprawling underground particle accelerator known as the Loop, the series broadly concerns itself with the emotional and existential connections among townsfolk, none of whom are really main characters. Instead, in a way most reminiscent of Amazon’s little-known Philip K. Dick miniseries Electric Dreams from two years back, the residents of Mercer drift in and out of loosely connected but mostly stand-alone stories, all of them governed by the surreal and sometimes wondrous energies the Loop harnesses.
Halpern has brought in a remarkably capable crew of collaborators to realize the chilly and beautiful world of this series, with director Mark Romanek setting the tone through a particularly somber, enigmatic tale of Loretta (Abby Ryder Fortson), a little girl lost, abandoned after her mother (Elektra Kilbey) steals a mysterious crystal from a subterranean lab. In a haunting, unexplained image, Loretta sees her house floating upward in fragments, as if gravity has reversed course to pull it into the heavens. In searching for her parent, Loretta is aided by Cole (Duncan Joiner) and his enigmatic mother (Rebecca Hall). In another episode, helmed with a more wistful sense of rusted nostalgia by Wall-E director Andrew Stanton, Cole moves to center stage, struggling in his own arc with death, aging, and life’s transience; playing his grandfather, Jonathan Pryce delivers some of his best work in years.
There is a subdued narrative arc to the series, and more is eventually discovered about the Loop and those who work to untangle its myriad questions. Those looking for easy answers and story lines tied up in a neat bow might be advised to look elsewhere. Most of all, Tales From the Loop succeeds in letting the mystery be.
The score, from Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan, is of particular importance. Laden with heaving, jagged arpeggios and solemn piano keys, it’s often so stirring as to overpower the emotion of the actors on-screen, heightening Tales From the Loop into something that feels thoroughly dreamlike in its chasms of grief and yearning—for forgotten pasts, nebulous futures, and the experience of living while suspended between the two.
SKIP: ‘Coffee & Kareem’ (Netflix)
It’s never a good sign when a film’s best joke is its title, especially when that title is a play on words as minor-key and ultimately trivial as Coffee & Kareem. But, then again, humor is so damnably absent from this witless, noxious sludge of a comedy, now streaming on Netflix, that one suspects those involved may have worn out their rotator cuffs high-fiving over such an innocuous, caffeine-related pun.
Ed Helms (who also produced) stars as James Coffee, a Detroit police officer whose consummate ineffectuality is a running joke around his department. Fellow cops, especially one played at a permanent sneer by Betty Gilpin, pepper him with crude jokes about his inability to measure up, as both a cop and a lover. (The mustache doesn’t help, making Coffee look uncannily like Doofy, the Scary Movie franchise’s send-up of David Arquette’s deputy sheriff Dewey, from Scream.) Outside of work, Coffee’s navigating a new romance with Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson), whose foulmouthed 12-year-old son, Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh), hates the idea of his mom dating anyone new—let alone a white guy and a cop.
Kareem is fast-talking and exceptionally spiteful toward Coffee, and—through the remarkably sloppy work of first-time feature scribe Shane Mack—is soon asking a local drug dealer (RonReaco Lee) to put a hit out on him. But when Kareem sees the dealer’s associates kill a corrupt cop, he and Coffee are forced to go on the run. Racist overtones aside, that setup jerkily moves Coffee & Kareem onto a buddy-cop track, the pair trading all manner of lazily homophobic barbs as they flee through a series of increasingly improbable action set pieces. Kareem frequently threatens in graphic detail to frame Coffee as a child rapist, Coffee must prove he’s man enough to date Vanessa, and the banter largely flows from there, with some particularly cringe-inducing cracks about the racial dynamics between Coffee and Kareem, and those between him and Vanessa. That said, just as many jokes aim at I-don’t-see-color territory, as where Coffee mocks Kareem for not being fast enough to run from bullets and later on says he expects the kid to end up in jail. After a decade in which police brutality and institutionalized racism have moved to the forefront of national discourse, it’s somewhat enraging that a comedy as lazily exploitative as Coffee & Kareem can still get made, and wholly unsurprising how few of its jokes land.
As in Stuber, director Michael Dowse’s last big-screen effort, moments of brutal violence are memorably callous and tossed off as if already forgotten. One moment in which a supporting character explodes into bloody chunks is almost reptilian in its excessive force and futility. That the character in question is black, a low-level enforcer in the employ of the bigger-deal baddie, and that his cause of death is one of two grenades lobbed by the crusading white hero-cop (part of a puerile, repeated gag explicitly tied to the size of his gonads), gives you a sense of the lamebrained, tone-deaf material in play. Not since Get Hard have performers this generally funny (Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart there, Helms and Henson here) lowered themselves to material so ugly and outdated. Both films also share a certain obliviousness when it comes to their narrative’s racial politics, either in the prison system or the institution of policing, skirting any real satirical skewering of them by instead doubling down on every homophobic and scatological punch line in sight. It’s an idiot’s provocation, empty and inadmissible, from some last vestige of the old Netflix crank factory that brought you The Ridiculous 6 and is curiously eager not to let you forget it.
The best of the rest
Now on Netflix, all six seasons of Community are available for streaming. The perpetually underrated sitcom, from creator Dan Harmon (who’d then go on to be properly rewarded for his pop-culturally savvy blend of snark and surrealism by creating Rick and Morty with Justin Roiland), follows a group of students at fictional Greendale Community College, who convene to form a study group. But that was just a jumping-off point for what would become one of the smartest, boldest, funniest TV series of the ’10s. As the actors (especially Danny Pudi, as the meta-aware Abed, and then-unknown Donald Glover, as his endearingly goofy partner-in-crime, Troy) grew more comfortable in their characters, Harmon scaled up Community’s storytelling ambitions, delivering theme episodes (paintball! musicals! Claymation!) that set the standard for all sitcoms that have followed since.
Another Sundance darling, the achingly beautiful Georgian drama And Then We Danced, is getting a specialty art-house rollout. Set in modern-day Tbilisi, where conservative traditions still loom large, it follows a competitive dancer (Levan Gelbakhiani) whose pursuit of his training at the National Georgian Ensemble is imperiled by romantic sparks between him and a rival (Bachi Valishvili). In blurring the physical and emotional into a uniquely sensory experience, one in which the head and heart are thrown hopelessly out of alignment, the film is the best of its kind since Call Me By Your Name.
Also on VOD, urgent doc Slay the Dragon looks at the political hot-button issue of gerrymandering, arguing (convincingly) that the United States is in the midst of an extreme legislative crisis through which elected officials have carved up voting districts in such a way as to help their political parties stay in power. Not simply an exposé, the documentary (directed by Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance) implores its viewers to take action, shining a light on various grass-roots movements that have sprouted up in opposition to gerrymandering and the political hostage-taking that has resulted from it.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Hulu could be an essential streaming service—if Disney figures out what to do with it
—Hollywood showrunners assist the assistants amid coronavirus pandemic
—The coronavirus pandemic is changing broadcast and streaming TV as we know it
—As the coronavirus forces people home, interest in streaming services is surging; so is piracy
—What to watch on Amazon Prime while social distancing
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