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Maid hasn’t outstripped Squid Game’s popularity, but Netflix ranks it among the current top three of its most-watched original series. The two shows’ genres — workaday American realism vs. gory Asian future-shock — couldn’t be much less alike. But they share some thematic concerns, particularly on characters who can’t catch an economic break in our financially perilous times.

“Inspired by” Stephanie Land’s memoir about her experience living below the poverty line as a single mom, Maid (10 episodes) stars Margaret Qualley as Alex. She bolts one night with her toddler Maddy from the trailer they share with charming but dangerous-when-drunk boyfriend Sean (Nick Robinson). With no skills but a yen to be a writer, stuck with an absentee father and a flaky, “artistic” mother (Qualley’s real-life mom, Andie MacDowell), Alex lands in a world of underpaid gigs by day, scrubbing houses (and their vile toilets), and by night she crashes with her kid in halfway homes (some nice, some sketchy) for women sheltering from abuse. The show is good at introducing us to the exasperating, often contradictory labyrinths of the legal and social systems Alex has to navigate. And we feel every penny she can’t afford to spend. It’s a decent, earnest show, but I only made it halfway through the series. Qualley’s Alex just feels a little too noble, unblemished, White, boring. The men in the show are all pretty awful. So is MacDowell, never the best actor. Here she relies on the broadest of strokes, playing a gargoyle character that, admittedly, is painted in big, dumb splashes by the script. The series is the product of John Wells Productions. Wells is the estimable name behind brands including ER and The West Wing. Maid suffers from the slightly tinny, artificial tone and dramatic beats familiar from broadcast TV of that prestige kind.

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NETFLIX | The Chestnut Man 

Very much free of that sensation, and a good, gloomy watch to satisfy your cravings for both Halloween-y fare and dank, Eastern European procedural, The Chestnut Man (six episodes) is worth a look. The Danish mystery stars Danica Curcic as inspector Thulin, paired uneasily with newcomer Hess (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard from Netflix’s sci-fi drama The Rain). They’re investigating a series of gruesome murders of women, seemingly punished for being negligent mothers. What does that have to do with the childlike figures, fashioned of chestnut hulls and twigs, found at each crime scene? The investigation (through a lot of rain, fog and shadowy corridors) leads us to an original sin in the past of a politician (Iben Dorner), whose perfect-seeming life the murderer seems to be circling. Chestnut Man is free of many of the clichés we know from standard TV, at least until the last episode, which manages to be both very gory and dramatically conventional. Till then, though, it’s creepy un-fun.

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AMAZON PRIME | Black As Night

So, to varying degrees, are the four films dropped in time for Halloween under the Welcome to the Blumhouse banner. Probably the easiest to enjoy is Black As Night, a sort of throwback to flicks like Fright Night, Blacula and Vampire in Brooklyn. Here the setting is New Orleans, with its rundown, non-French Quarter neighborhoods nicely featured. Teenage Shawna (Asjha Cooper) normally spends her time fretting that her dark skin excludes her from her school’s dance team, which favors lighter Creole girls. Her focus changes, for her and best gay pal Pedro (Gabrizio Guido), when she suspects that marginalized people in her neighborhood, including her estranged, drug-addicted mom, are being drained and turned into vampires. You can predict some of the beats that follow, but Night is fun enough, with good messaging about self-image. (Just try to ignore the script’s notion that New Orleans, largely under sea level, is riddled with subterranean tunnels.)

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AMAZON PRIME | Bingo Hell

Also shot in New Orleans, Bingo Hell stars onetime Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza (Babel) as the busybody of a fading neighborhood who takes umbrage when a creepy, skinny stranger (Richard Brake, overacting as the unimaginatively named Mr. Big)  turns the local bingo hall into a flashy attraction . . . and portal to, yes, Hell. The movie wastes Barraza and fellow strong actor L. Scott Caldwell with a very thin script and Gigi Saul Guerrero’s broad, clumsy direction.

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AMAZON PRIME | The Manor

In The Manor, Barbara Hershey — playing a more grounded blend of Qualley’s noble innocent and MacDowell’s free spirit — grounds the tale of a senior who misses a few steps and willingly checks herself into a lux assisted living facility. Then can’t get out. The home’s genteel, embroidered details barely disguise some supernatural goings on that result in suspicious early deaths of some of Hershey’s new housemates. Her main relationship is with her grandson Josh (Nicholas Alexander), whose devotion to her is meant to be endearing but winds up feeling a little creepy; you want to tell the kid to find friends his own age. Still, Manor provides some OK fun, and an enjoyable, morally ambivalent ending.

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AMAZON PRIME | Madres

Finally, there’s Madres, which pretends to be supernatural but isn’t. Ariana Guerra plays Mexican-American Diana, who moves in the 1970s with husband Beto (Tenoch Huerta) to a rural area where Beto has a job managing a farm at which pesticides are sprayed lavishly . . . and where local women seem to be having a hard time bearing children. A sort of throwback Erin Brockovich, Madres tosses in superstition and shock scares, but the story is fact- based and more informative than spooky.

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NETFLIX | Fever Dream

The same subject matter, artfully veiled, gets a fantastic but challenging treatment in Chilean director Claudia Llosa’s film Fever Dream, which can trigger in viewers the sensation of its title. Right away, we’re pitched deep into delirium as a young woman, Amanda (María Valverde) appears to be dragged across a forest floor by a boy named David, who keeps whispering in her ear/her brain to stay awake and focus on the details. The following narrative, in its clearest form, steps back to Amanda’s arrival at a country vacation home with her young daughter Nina. While they wait for Amanda’s husband to join them (and wait), Amanda strikes up a friendship with local Carola (Dolores Fonzi), mother of David, who’s a problem kid . . . but the question is, what exactly is his problem? Tripping among time frames, memories, and whispered monologues, Fever Dream juggles such disparate issues as chemical pollution and soul transference with an eerie grace. It’s a mystery and an immersion. After the first few minutes, you’ll either be riveted, or looking for something else to watch. If you get on its wavelength, though, it might be the most haunting thing you’ve seen lately.

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NETFLIX | House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths 

“Haunting” also applies to the tragic, true-life documentary series House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths (three episodes). In 2018, 11 family members were found hanged to death from a ceiling grid, their necks attached to colorful scarves. What seemed to be a shocking case of mass murder in this Delhi neighborhood slowly revealed very different details about the clan, who ranged in age from teens to 80. The facts of the story — including a domineering alpha male, rigidly kept diaries/workbooks whose rules were followed by all family members, and a shared delusion that the deceased patriarch was speaking through one of his sons — are too crazy not to be true. One issue the series focuses on is the media onslaught that followed in the wake of the bodies’ discovery – and just as cruelly, the sudden cessation of interest when the story proved to be more sad than it was sensational. There is no easy takeaway at the end of House. If every person is ultimately unknowable, other families are unknowable on a multiplied level.

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APPLE TV+ | The Velvet Underground

In its own way, the 1960s band put together by John Cale and Lou Reed might be seen as another sort of unknowable family — unknowable, even if its emergence, ubiquity in Andy Warhol’s pop-art orbit, and its acrimonious ending have been pretty thoroughly documented over six decades. But the new documentary The Velvet Underground by protean filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, I’m Not There) gives us, if not a comprehensive look at the group, a distinctly immersive approach to it. Due to circumstances beyond the director’s control, though, it’s lopsided. That’s because Reed died in 2013, and he can’t defend himself against the impression from his colleagues (Cale and drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker, a Georgian, are still alive and among the film’s talking heads) that the musician, at least his angel-faced punk, gay-clubbing self, was a nightmare.

Director Haynes has dealt fictionally with this rock ‘n’ roll era in two of his films. I’m Not There deconstructed Bob Dylan through actors (including Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger) playing aspects of his persona. And in Velvet Goldmine, Haynes explored the myth of David Bowie and glam rock, inserting a Lou Reed stand-in in the omnisexual rocker played by Ewan McGregor. Reed claimed his own parents sent him to ECT sessions to “shock the gayness out of him,” according to one of the rocker’s friends. Haynes breaks the screen almost constantly into split quadrants, filling it with black-and-white and grainy color footage from the times. It’s artistic, accomplished, but your response to it might depend upon your age and where you were in those years. All the references to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Ginsberg and Bukowski can feel both very old hat and still too-cool-for-school.

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HBO MAX | Dune

Since Warner Bros. has officially committed to a sequel, scheduled to hit the big screen (and only the big screen) two years from now, you may want to check out the incomplete Dune, which announces itself in the opening credits as Part One. Timothee Chalamet plays Paul. He’s scion of the noble intergalactic Atreides clan, led by his father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). His mother is the concubine Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), trained in the witchy ways of the nun-like order of the Bene Gesserit. One of their reverend mothers (Charlotte Rampling in chilling top form) gives Paul an early, dangerous test.

The Atreides are sent to rule the desert planet Arrakis, aka Dune, home of the galaxy’s most valuable resource and also monstrous giant sandworms. The planet is no present from the unseen Emperor, but a battlefield where bloody politics will imperil the Atreides and send Paul and Jessica in search of haven with the mysterious indigenous people, the Fremen. (Zendaya is one of them, though she has less than 10 minutes of screen time.)

It’s all a lot of hooey, but synthesized shrewdly by novelist Frank Herbert from many of our own world’s religious and cultural traditions and primordial storytelling arcs.  Lavish and almost monochromatic, Denis Villeneuve’s film’s biggest triumphs are its massive look, its production design, and Hans Zimmer’s inventive, intentionally alien-sounding score. (It reminded me of Peter Gabriel’s innovative, Middle Eastern-inspired work on Martin Scorsese’s long-ago Last Temptation of Christ.) All the actors are committed, but Jason Momoa is the film’s VIP as the Duke’s most loyal fighter; he seems to be having a movie-length giggle at the silliness of his character’s name, Duncan Idaho.

Honestly, if you don’t know the basic storyline, you’re likely to get lost. Or bored. The movie is awfully long to end, basically, with To Be Continued . . . (I say that as a fan of the novel and its large- and small-screen adaptations, including a TV miniseries in the 2000s). David Lynch’s 1984 version was, yes, a mess. But that film’s welter of voiceovers and inner monologues at least helped you understand what was happening from one scene to the next. The new Dune might make you feel like you’ve been dropped in the desert without any sort of map.

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NETFLIX | Diana: The Musical

A much too familiar map, after a year or so of high-profile media depictions of the princess (The Crown on Netflix, and the coming film Spencer), Diana: The Musical ranks as the lamest of them all. A better title might be Diana for Dummies. Originally scheduled to open in New York in March 2020, delayed by Covid, the show was filmed for Netflix and is to start a belated Broadway run next month. Good luck with that. Jeanna de Waal in the title role does a sturdy job with a barely-there script and lyrics that could make a dog wince. At the advanced age of her unmarried son Charles, Queen Elizabeth fret/sings, “But by God, you’re 32!/What’s a monarch to do?” And in a scene that turns the Royal Albert Hall into a disco, as impetus to get the arrhythmic crown prince to boogie, the song informs us, “Feel the groove!/Even royals need to move.” The Princess of Wales has become so familiar to us, in all media, in the 24 years since her death, there’s no reason for a musical unless it has a fresh angle, interesting psychology, details we don’t know — or at the very least, music and lyrics that rise above the singsong substandard of David Bryan and Joe DiPietro’s work. You’ll agree with the show’s chorus that this is “a fairy tale born in hell.”

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HBO MAX | Succession

If nothing else, Diana might remind you that a really interesting, awful family, even worse than the Windsors, is back. The Roys return for the third season of Succession, continuing the tale of its savage, ruthless and often very funny clan through December. (Like Dune, it has been renewed for at least one more season after this.) Happy, nasty viewing.

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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.

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