NETFLIX | Everything Will Be Fine
Among the limited Netflix series I’ve watched lately, Everything Will Be Fine has the least bloodshed, the fewest plot twists, the lowest hip factor. It’s that increasingly rare thing in streaming: a long-form story (eight episodes) about adults and their realistic (if bohemian) problems.
Creator Diego Luna’s Spanish-language, Mexican drama owes a lot of its emotional and physical geography to the filmmaker who gave him his first break as a barely-adult actor in 2001. In Y Tu Mamá También, Alfonso Cuarón cast Luna and Gael García Bernal as two best friends tight-roping over lines of social class on a road trip with a seductive older woman. Some of the sexual fluidity of that film finds echoes in Everything. Even more than that, Cuarón’s Oscar-winning family epic Roma (also on Netflix) feels like a spiritual cousin to Luna’s series, if only because Mexico City plays a major role in each.
Radio personality Ruy (Flavio Medina) and artist wife Julia (Lucía Uribe) lead a seemingly charmed, progressive life. Their home is chicly shabby/genteel, shared with daughter Andrea and live-in housekeeper Idalia (Mercedes Hernández), native of a village on the metro’s outskirts. What we don’t know at first, and Andrea for even longer, is that Ruy and Julia have called it quits. He sleeps on a mattress on the bedroom floor, but the parents are keeping their separation quiet for the sake of their daughter’s emotional well-being. That’s not the only secret: Julia is sleeping with her daughter’s dentist, Fausto (Pierre Louis), a development that complicates Ruy’s already emotionally messy topography.
For much of Everything, we watch Ruy initiate a series of personal unforced errors as he drinks too much at parties, hits on younger female staff, and plunges down a path toward downfall/comeuppance. He’s a case of semi-toxic masculinity compounded with Latinx machismo, crash landing in the #metoo era. Still, actor Medina makes us tolerate and even like him – though we may side with Julia, when she’s in a jail cell (long story) and scrawls on the wall, The real prison is marriage, this is nothing.
In no way the most exciting, binge-mandatory show on Netflix, Everything Will Be Fine is well worth a watch — even when the dramedy, in its darker moments, makes you think its title has got to be ironic.
NETFLIX | Clickbait
You’ve already watched it, so should I even bother to talk about Clickbait (eight episodes), one of Netflix’s buzziest shows in a while? Entourage flotsam Adrian Grenier plays family man Nick Brewer, father of two boys, husband of loving wife Sophie (Betty Gabriel), and brother of serial mess Pia (Zoe Kazan). The day after a disastrous family dinner, with Nick throwing a too-tipsy Pia out of his house, he shows up in a hostage video online holding up signs accusing him of being a woman abuser and murderer. Whoever posted the clip promises that Nick will be killed as soon as five million viewers click on the site.
Is Nick an abuser? Or a killer, even? It seems unlikely, but as Pia and Sophie investigate, with the help of the kind of improbably hunky cop you always find on streaming (Phoenix Raei), they discover a very different portrait of Nick. Digitally, at least; he’s left an online trail painting him as a hound dog with girlfriends in multiple cities. Of course, one person’s social-media profile is another person’s giant catfish. Though Clickbait (as its title suggests) is mainly about entertaining you to the point that one episode simply isn’t enough, the show inadvertently raises chilling questions about our current susceptibility to the “truth” we find online.
The cast is good, though Kazan — the heart and soul of HBO’s The Plot Against America — can’t entirely sell us on the irresponsible, platinum-dyed Pia; it’s more a problem with the character than the actor. Clickbait is chock-full of improbabilities and reversals that smell more of a late-night writers’ room than anything that could shake out in real life. But dang, it’s fun to watch.
NETFLIX | Squid Game
Less “fun” but also a compulsive watch (though, like all of these limited series, an hour or two longer than it needs to be), the South Korean thriller Squid Game (nine episodes) is the bloodiest of the Netflix shows. It ends with a human body count of 455-plus and gallons of screen blood.
Greg Chun plays Gi-Hun, a lovable but feckless guy who lives with his mom, waist-deep in debt from compulsive gambling. That’s what drives him to accept the overture of a dapper, sadistic young man he meets at the train station. Picked up in a van and gassed asleep, Gi-Hun wakes up in an enormous barracks full of 455 other debtors, all strangers except for Sang-Woo (Stephen Fu), who may not be the old childhood pal he pretends to be. They’re informed by a disembodied voice that they’ll be playing six childhood games, with the final winner earning more than $30 million. However, the voice fails to mention that everyone but that winner must die first. (There’s a big debt here to the bloody 2000 Japanese classic Battle Royale.)
Trapped inside this play-and/or-die scenario, Gi-Hun forms a team and surrogate family: Hoyeon Jung, a heartbreaker as a street thief trying to reunite with her North Korean family; Anupam Tripathi as Ali, an out-of-his-depth Pakistani immigrant who joins Gi-Hun’s little crew; and Yeong-su Oh, a frail old man Gi-Hun tries to protect. Squid Game culminates emotionally in episode six, centered on a childlike game of marbles that’s paced with excruciating slowness as the main characters have to make, literally, life or death decisions with one another. After that, the mood is spoiled by the arrival of “the VIPs,” a cartoonish band of male one-percenters wearing gold masks, betting on the contestants’ winning odds, and speaking in intentionally grating American accents. It’s a bad misstep to an otherwise shrewd show.
NETFLIX | Nightbooks
In time for Halloween, and basically family friendly (with a few scares that might be too much for really young kids), the film Nightbooks, based on a book by J.A. White, is a reworking of “Hansel and Gretel.” When he runs away from home, young Alex (Winslow Fegley) finds himself in a massive, no-exit apartment with rooms that only lead to other rooms, a library the size of the Duomo in Florence, and a witch-in-residence (Krysten Ritter), whose MO is to abduct kids and eat their fear … unless they are useful to her.
Already imprisoned is Yasmin (the enjoyably brusque Lidya Jewett), who works nonstop as the witch’s servant. Alex’s best chance at surviving? He has to tell one new, scary story to the witch every night, or die. If this part of the story steals from the legend of Scheherazade, it also owes a debt to A Monster Calls, in that the climax of that novel-turned-film requires the young hero to confess a painful emotional truth. The real pleasures of Nightbooks come mainly from the imaginative, acid-dream Victorian set design.
NETFLIX | Final Account
From kid-lit horrors to the real thing, the documentary film Final Account, shot in 2016, offers interviews with a lot of regular German and Polish people who lived through the atrocities of World War II, sometimes on the edges of concentration camps, sometimes closer than the edges. As they reminisce, most of these old folks claim they had no idea bad things were happening to Jews, LGBTQ people, the Roma or people with disabilities, who were carried to their doom in cattle cars. It’s fascinating, almost blackly humorous, to notice how strategically fuzzy the subjects’ memories grow the closer they come to the facts of the mass extinction at the heart of the Nazi machine.
A couple of people in the film remain unshaken in the beliefs they once held. One old, resolute Nazi says no, he didn’t believe the Jews should have been killed, just chased into other countries. But would he speak, even now, against Hitler? No. He’s one of the last people interviewed in Account, and his words leave a chill.
PBS Passport | Muhammad Ali
The Civil War? Sure. Prohibition and baseball? Fine. But for his latest, Ken Burns tackles a really interesting subject in Muhammad Ali. For anyone who only remembers Ali only as that frail, heroic figure lighting the 1996 Olympic cauldron in Atlanta, this long-form documentary restores the man, fighter and icon in his cantankerous glory.
Born Cassius Clay, but taking his new name after his involvement with the Nation of Islam and his friendship with Malcolm X, Ali was a galvanic, polarizing figure never before seen in pre-Civil Rights America. Rightly preening (the old footage reminds us how beautiful the young boxer was), Ali delivered self-glorifying boasts as potent as his moves in the ring. While young Black fans thrilled to his fearlessness, the older guard thought he was pushing his luck. Old, white sportswriters called him “Mighty Mouth,” “Cassius the Gaseous” and “The Louisville Lip.”
At eight hours, Muhammad Ali is a commitment; I haven’t quite gotten to the end myself. But more than any of the eight- or nine-episode shows on other streaming platforms, the story of Clay/Ali has all the drama and all the highs and lows of much of the 20th American century.
Amazon Prime | Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
As LGBTQ Pride month begins in Atlanta, you couldn’t watch a better, giddier thing than Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Based on a 2011 British documentary about a Yorkshire boy who wanted to be a drag queen, the tale was turned into a West End musical, and now a lovingly made film starring newcomer Max Harwood in the title role.
The film is filled with a great supporting cast who are decent singers and better actors. Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley) plays Jamie’s unconditionally loving mum, who gives him a pair of ruby red stiletto heels for his birthday, and whose only fault is misleading him into thinking her ex-husband has accepted Jamie’s gayness. Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) plays a chilly but well-meaning teacher, who lectures her students to be practical in their career goals (an idea lost on starry-eyed Jamie). Richard Grant (Oscar nominee for Can You Ever Forgive Me?) has the clichéd but meaty role of Jamie’s drag mentor. His character-defining solo song about his early years as a fierce drag queen is also an emotional stealth bomb, summoning up the mix of terror and courage that attended the AIDS crisis.
The movie’s secret weapon is come-from-nowhere Harwood as Jamie, in literally his first screen role. A little of him (and this super-positive, sunny movie, to be honest) can go a long way. The musical requires his character to be fabulous one second, and a selfish jerk the next. But Harwood is a star. Whether his range extends beyond this very specific sort of role, time will tell.
Also on Amazon, there’s a new version of Cinderella, starring Camila Cabello and Billy Porter. I only lasted a few minutes, worn down by its repurposed pop tunes, dated, You-Go-Girl messaging, and Porter as a literal Magical Negro (he plays Cindy’s Fabulous Godmother, FYI — sigh). Viewer mileage may vary.
NETFLIX | Midnight Mass
I’ve only seen a few of the seven episodes of Midnight Mass. It’s from writer-director Mike Flanagan, who wrought sometimes shrewd, sometimes clumsy updates on The Haunting of Hill House, and did the same, less successfully, with his take on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, 2020’s The Haunting of Bly Manor. Before that, he was best known for smart stand-alone horror films such as Oculus and the Netflix version of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game. Mass isn’t based on a preexisting text. It’s a Flanagan original. The first couple of eps mainly feature talky scenes and monologues from characters defined by single character traits (bad boy DUI, pregnant single mom, religious shrew) that come off as subpar King figures. There wasn’t a scare to be found. Flanagan seems to have made a spiritual, contemplative turn in his life and writing. Good for him; not so good for those who liked his earliest stuff. I’m taking a pass on Mass.
Steve Murray is an award-winning journalist and playwright who has covered the arts as a reporter and critic for many years.