It looks like Hulu has finally found its signature original series.
The new original series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood and starring Elisabeth Moss as an enslaved women struggling to retain her identity in an oppressive dystopian dictatorship, is smart, compelling, and unnerving. The book was made into a well-meaning but disappointing 1990 film by Volker Schlondorff. The new series, developed by Bruce Miller with Atwood serving as a consulting producer, delves deeper into the experience as seen through the eyes of Offred (Moss), the name given to the wife and mother forced into sexual servitude to a leader (Joseph Fiennes) of the new patriarchal order. Alexis Bledel, Yvonne Strahovski, and Max Minghella co-star.
It’s science fiction by way of a 15th century culture of theocratic law and hypocritical leaders. In a near future where most women have been rendered infertile, the few fertile women are breading stock, treated as property at best, as if their ability to bear children is an affront to the ruling elite dress up their oppressive control in the guise of an unforgiving reworking of Old Testament judgment.
The series doesn’t make a show of connecting its portrait to the modern world, it lets those reflections arise naturally. And it is remarkably effective as the flashbacks show our characters living ordinary lives in our own reality, in which the citizens allow the slow slide toward authoritarianism until it’s too late. Based on the three episodes now available, it is one of the best new shows of the year. New episodes arrive every Wednesday. More reviews here.
Dear White People: Season 1 – Justin Simien spins acclaimed satirical college comedy into a Netflix original series that explores race, sex, class, and identity at an Ivy League school with humor and irony.
“In its first season, Justin Simien’s college drama Dear White People, about black students enrolled at a mostly white college, pulls off a feat that eludes a lot of bigger, showier programs: It creates a self-contained, detailed, faintly dreamlike world that partly mirrors our own, then lets us wander around in it,” praises Matt Zoller Seitz for Vulture. “It doesn’t just have a setting and a story, it has a philosophy and a vision of life. This is so rare in any art form that the show’s less-than-subtle aspects (and there are many) feel like features rather than bugs.”
10 half-hour episodes.
Pay-Per-View / Video-On-Demand
Hollywood loves movies that celebrate show business and La La Land does just that, both in its story of aspiring artists in love and in its embrace of the old-fashioned musical form with modern indie movie spirit. It won six Academy Awards, including Best Actress (Emma Stone) and Best Director (Damien Chazelle), and seven Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy, as well as awards across the craft guilds and critics groups. But it was also a popular hit; audiences across the country and across the world embraced it. It’s nice to know that the musical still has life outside of animated movies. PG-13. Reviewed on Stream On Demand here.
Kate Beckinsale in back in black for Underworld: Blood Wars, the fifth film in the vampires-versus-werewolves series, this time with “Divergent” hunk Theo James as co-star (R). Also on Blu-ray and DVD and at Redbox.
Available same day as select theaters nationwide is Steven Shainberg’s sci-fi/horror hybrid Rupture with Noomi Rapace and Peter Stormare (not rated) and thriller Voice from the Stone with Emilia Clarke and Marton Csokas (R).
Queen of Katwe (2016) dramatizes the true story of an unschooled girl (Madina Nalwanga) from an impoverished village in Uganda who nurtures a talent for chess to become a world class chess champion. David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o star in the uplifting and colorful Disney drama (PG). Reviewed on Stream On Demand here.
The animated family comedy The Secret Life of Pets (2016) reveals what your pets are actually up to when you leave the house (PG).
- the twisty pulp fiction thriller Small Crimes come direct from SXSW (not rated)
- Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show Rodney King, directed by Spike Lee (not rated)
- Cold War submarine thriller Phantom (2013) with David Duchovny and Ed Harris (R)
- drama Trust (2010) with Clive Owen and Catherine Keener as parents of a teenage daughter targeted by a sexual predator RR).
- Natalie Portman’s Hebrew-language A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015), based on the memoir by Amos Oz, is set at the birth of Israel (PG-13, with subtitles)
- Swedish comedy The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out on the Bill and Disappeared continues the adventures of the wily senior citizen (2016, not rated, with subtitles)
- Spanish series Cable Girls: Season 1 is a romantic melodrama about telephone operators in 1920s Madrid (with subtitles)
- Casting JonBenet explores the issues surrounding the unsolved murder case through a series of auditions recreating real-life scenes (not rated).
- Mifune: The Last Samurai (2016), about the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune (not rated)
- A Murder in the Park (2014), which profiles a rare failure in the “Innocence Project” (not rated).
- More streaming TV: The Great British Baking Show: Masterclass: Seasons 1-3 for foodies and the Disney Channel comedy Liv and Maddie: Season 4 for teens and tweens.
Stand-up: Vir Das: Abroad Understanding
The sprawling American Honey (2016), an American indie drama from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, stars newcomer Sasha Lane as a restless teenager hitting the road with a gypsy sales crew (R). Reviewed on Stream On Demand here.
Streaming TV: The third season of Amazon’s British-American sitcom Catastrophe, about a mismatched couple brought together by pregnancy, debuts with six new episodes.
Cult: Trilogy of Terror (1975), Dan Curtis’ horror triptych, remains a minor but memorable piece of TV horror legendary among folks of a certain age for the infamous Zuni fetish doll sequence, an absurd looking creature with a relentless psychopathic drive chasing Karen Black around her apartment (not rated).
More streaming TV
- the dynastic family drama Queen Sugar: Season 1, created by Ava DuVernay for OWN
- Fox thriller Wayward Pines: Season 2, produced by M. Night Shyamalan
- Jane Campion’s 2013 mini-series Top of the Lake with Elisabeth Moss and Holly Hunter (reviewed on Stream On Demand here)
Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne star in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2017), an original HBO movie based on the non-fiction book by Rebecca Skloot (not rated).
Arriving Saturday night is Victor Frankenstein (2015) with Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy (PG-13).
FilmStruck / Criterion Channel
Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Italy, 1978), an epic about families battling dire poverty in 19th century Italy, won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. The Criterion Channel presents the new restoration along with all the supplements featured on its recent special edition DVD and Blu-ray release.
The award-winning Irish drama Dominion Creek: Series 2, about three Irish emigrants in the American Gold Rush, debuts stateside on Acorn TV.
Also new this week: all five seasons and forty episodes of the lighthearted British mystery series Pie in the Sky with Richard Griffiths solving crimes between baking dishes for his restaurant.