Based on the best-selling 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, HBO Max’s Station Eleven (10 episodes, through January 13) begins with an episode that’s like a trigger warning in action. Onstage at a Chicago theater in 2020, an actor named Arthur (Gael García Bernal) collapses to the floor and swiftly dies. In the aftermath, a young man named Jeevan (Himesh Patel) stumbles through the snowy city, trying to deliver Arthur’s 8-year-old costar, Kirsten (Matilda Lawler, in a solemn, impressive performance), to her parents’ home. It quickly becomes clear that Chicago — and the world — are besieged by a fatal pandemic.
No, it’s not Covid-19, but a superflu that wipes out much of humanity and tech as we know it. In the second hour we encounter the adult Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), a member of a music-theater troupe called The Traveling Symphony, circling the countryside in horse-drawn, formerly combustible-engine vehicles, and settling down at encampments to perform Shakespeare to the locals.
Be patient with this episode. At first, these flower-childish performers make you think you’ve landed in the worst theater camp ever. The screws begin to tighten, though, with the appearance of a man calling himself David (Daniel Zovatto), a toxic Peter Pan leading a quiet terrorist war between those born after the pandemic, and those before.
Co-created by Patrick Somerville of The Leftovers, Station Eleven has some of the mournful, big-canvas flavor of that earlier HBO show. It’s a puzzle-box of a series, with the narrative elegantly switching timelines between the start of the flu in 2020, and the decimated results 20 years later. Some flashbacks further in the past fill in some characters’ backstories. One of the more memorable of these is Arthur’s former wife, Miranda. The writer-illustrator of the graphic novel that gives the series its name, she’s played in an intense performance by Atlantan Danielle Deadwyler. In the wake of an extremely different performance in Netflix’s The Harder They Fall, she’s showing amazing range.
NETFLIX | Don’t Look Up
Also focusing on a world-threatening event, with wobblier results, the all-star Don’t Look Up is Adam McKay’s (The Big Short, Vice) latest attempt to fuse the snarky with the serious. Jennifer Lawrence (funny) and Leonardo DiCaprio (not) play astronomers who discover a comet hurtling directly at earth, destined to cause an extinction-level impact in six months. Plenty of time to divert/destroy the big rock, right? Not when the U.S. president is an idiot, media outlets dismiss the news in preference to feel-good stories, and an Elon Musk-y/Jeff Bezos-ish tech billionaire wants to mine the comet for valuable minerals rather than destroy it.
Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett slum their way through the film, with sparkling comic timing, playing a shallow, Palin-like POTUS and a deeply insincere chat show host. (Tyler Perry plays her similarly waste-of-food co-anchor.) And Mark Rylance is uncomfortably creepy as the tech billionaire.
Expensive and way overlong, the film hits the same joke again and again, well past the point has been made. The film’s analogy between end-of-world and pandemic/vaccine denial is all too plausible. At the end of Up, though, the joke is on the viewer, as well as on the filmmakers who thought they were delivering something smarter than they did.
NETFLIX | The Power of the Dog
It’s been around for more than a month, so it may be hard to do this. But it’s best to watch The Power of the Dog knowing as little about it as possible. Jane Campion’s (The Piano) first feature in 12 years, based on a 1967 Thomas Savage novel, it’s the 1925 story of two Montana brothers and a marriage that changes everything. Benedict Cumberbatch, in chaps and a layer of grime, plays Phil Burbank, a stinky, macho, homophobic cowboy who runs the family’s large ranch with his timid, suit-wearing brother George (Jesse Plemons).
Local widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst, Plemons’s wife offscreen) changes the brothers’ disturbingly close but hostile relationship by catching George’s eye. Their marriage brings with it her effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who becomes the target of Phil’s ridicule. Filmed with stunning scenery (Campion’s native New Zealand plays Montana), Dog can subvert your early opinions about who is “good” and “evil” in the drama, and make you reconsider your sympathies by the end. The movie is quietly, sneakily stunning.
NETFLIX | The Lost Daughter
Like Power of the Dog, The Lost Daughter landed on many Top 10 year-end film lists and marks an impressive feature directing and scriptwriting debut by Maggie Gyllenhaal. The same-named novel by pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante is the starting point for this moody drama. (Ferrante is best known for her Neapolitan quartet of novels starting with My Brilliant Friend, which is being serialized by HBO.) The Lost Daughter focuses on a literature professor, Leda (Olivia Colman), lugging a load of books to a Greek island for a working vacation. And getting herself into trouble.
There’s something insular and evasive about Leda. She really just wants to be left alone to read on the beach. That becomes clear when she warily fends off the friendly attention of the old salt (Ed Harris) who caretakes her rented villa. And when a raucous, loud American family from Queens invades the sand and asks her to switch to another chaise lounge to give them space, she refuses. This sets off a not-so-cold war with the clan, whom a young Irish student (Paul Mescal from Normal People) warns her are “bad people.”
Still, Leda grows fascinated with a young, slightly overwhelmed mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson, very good). When Nina’s daughter goes missing one afternoon, Leda pitches in to find her. By now we know she herself was the mother of young girls. Jessie Buckley, in flashbacks, plays the younger Leda, and we see, in unsentimental terms, how crushingly demanding motherhood can be. Especially when you’re trying to build an academic career.
These flashbacks fill us in on both the woman Leda was, and why she’s become the aloof, possibly damaged woman she is now. The older Leda plays a risky game by snatching and keeping the missing doll of Nina’s daughter. Her actions seem simultaneously dangerous, perverse and mordantly funny. Throughout the film, there’s a sense of foreboding. (The opening image of Colman lets you know things aren’t going to end exactly happily.) As usual, the actress is stunning in the translucence of her emotions. Colman is one of the very best actors now working. By the end, she makes you understand this complicated character.
HBO MAX | Landscapers
Speaking of Colman, she costars with David Thewlis in the four-part series Landscapers, based on a true-life crime case and written by Colman’s real-life husband Ed Sinclair. She’s Susan Edwards to Thewlis’ Christopher Edwards, a married British couple who, in the late 1990s, buried the gunshot bodies of her parents, the Wycherleys, in the parents’ back yard. They then pretended ma and pa were alive, just traveling. Meanwhile, Susan and Edward drained the older couple’s bank account, spending most of it on . . . useless movie memorabilia. Honestly, this is a true story.
After 15 years away in Paris, now broke, the spouses return to England and face the inquiries of two inspectors (played by a prickly Kate O’Flynn and a laid-back Samuel Anderson). When the Wycherleys’ bodies are unearthed, the authorities jail and interrogate Susan and David, seeking to determine which one — or did they both? — pulled the trigger, and why. For the record, that mystery is never solved, either in fact or in the miniseries.
Instead of a whodunnit, Landscapers instead is a pleasurable exercise in style. During a traditional dramatic scene, we’re abruptly shown the film sets on which they’re being shot. In other scenes the characters become the actors who play them, commenting on their roles. It’s all very meta, very theatrical, and it’s fun to have the fourth wall broken like this. When the style mirrors the obsession with film that marked Susan and Edward’s lives (especially ones starring Gary Cooper and Gerard Depardieu), it makes sense. Sometimes, though, the choices can just feel arbitrarily quirky. Still, Colman and Thewlis keep you riveted.
HBO MAX | The Matrix Resurrections
The big pop-culture arrival of the holiday season was supposed to be the reboot of a once-favorite sci-fi saga. The good news is, The Matrix Resurrectionsis better than the last film of the original trilogy, which ended with a loud whimper in 2003. That’s about the extent of the good news. Written and directed by Lana Wachowski, who co-wrote and co-directed the first three flicks with her sister Lilly, Resurrections piles on metafictional elements that seem like the type that would have made a teen geek go “Whoah” . . . back in 1999, anyway.
Here’s computer programmer Thomas Anderson again (still played by Keanu Reeves, but with long hair and dead eyes). It’s been a rough 20 years since he, uh, well died. Only he obviously didn’t. He’s chained to a desk job, as before. Only now, he’s the rich creator of a video game called, um, “The Matrix,” and the footage and plot of the original Matrix film are contained in the game. Of course, it’s not that simple, and there’s a reason Thomas identifies deeply with the game’s hero, Neo. He’s even suffered a few breakdowns, unable to tell “reality” from reality. That’s why he has to go to therapy with a shrink (Neil Patrick Harris) who’s clearly not who or what he seems to be, any more than Thomas’ glib boss (Jonathan Groff) is simply an arrogant tech bro.
Cut to one of the many chases. Thomas/Neo’s body and brain are trapped once more in a pod, delivering bioelectric juice to the AI overlords. Luckily, a new, younger crew of rebels release him from bondage to give him a second chance at being The One. Fights ensue, as does a lot of babble and virtual retreads (and replays) of scenes from the original Matrix. The new film’s main plotline is to find the also non-dead Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), now a mother called Tiffany, and get her to open her eyes to their robot-enslavement reality and resume ass-kicking with Neo.
Twenty-two years and many knockoff movies later, the novelty of the first film’s gravity-defying fights is long gone. The over-the-top firepower, with endless bullet casings spilling in slo-mo to the floor, now seems more irresponsible than cool. What is cool is seeing Reeves and Moss reunite, but the movie doesn’t ultimately serve them, or us, especially well. After Reloaded, Revolutions and now Resurrections, it’s time for Matrix R.I.P.
APPLE TV+ | Swan Song
Another futuristic sci-fi flick, without all the weaponry and kung fu, Swan Song is a well-meaning drama starring Mahershala Ali as Cameron, a husband and father facing a difficult decision. He’s dying. And since his wife (Naomie Harris, always terrific, but given too little to work with here) and kid don’t know it, a future-shock doctor played by Glenn Close gives him an existential option. She can clone his body in her remote and glacially gorgeous scientific compound, download Cameron’s complete memories into the new organism temporarily called Jack, and substitute healthy Jack/Cameron into the household with no one the wiser. Is it better to lie to give a beloved wife and son a longer life with a man they will never know is not the “original?” Or is it more honest to tell the truth and let them suffer through Cameron’s terminal illness?
Well-acted, the movie would be more interesting (to me, anyway), if it weren’t so overly art directed and slick. Swan Song is meant to be a celebration of life, but writer-director Benjamin Cleary’s chilly, chic approach means the film itself never comes alive.
HBO MAX | And Just Like That . . .
Meanwhile, the girls — three of them, anyway — are back with the Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That . . . (10 episodes, through February 3). Carrie’s (Sarah Jessica Parker) husband dies at the end of the first episode, and that’s the best thing that could happen to the show. When Big (Chris Noth) became Carrie’s smug and loathsome Park Avenue Prince Charming, the fairy tale trope damaged the series’ ostensible goal of examining the lives of Carrie and her friends Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall, not a part of the new version) as they navigated relationships and careers. Of course, the longer Sex continued, the shallower it became, culminating in two horrible films.
The new iteration attempts to bring literal color to the big white canvas that the original series was. It introduces new female characters (Sara Ramirez, Nicole Ari Parker, Sarita Choudhury), but they might as well be wearing T-shirts with “Token” stamped on them. Still, it’s an attempt. And Just Like That . . . touches on nonbinary issues (one of Charlotte’s kids says she doesn’t feel like a girl) and gay relationships (one for Miranda, not simply gay relationships as represented by the white BFFs played by Mario Cantone and the late Willie Garson). But the show feels like it’s trying to reverse-engineer itself through a lot of virtue signaling. Like Matrix Resurrections, this might be a sequel we didn’t need.
Steve Murray is an award-winning journalist and playwright who has covered the arts as a reporter and critic for many years. Catch up to last month’s Streaming column by Steve here.