8 minute read

Two weeks ago, first-run movies started practicing social distancing. The Disney/Pixar film Onward, a film that would be printing money under normal conditions, raked in $39 million in its first weekend. Then the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and Onward did not go forward with its winning streak, stalling out at $61 million. It became the first Pixar movie to make less than $100 million at the theaters.

But like many films released at the beginning of March, including highly acclaimed releases like Emma. and The Invisible Man, Onward moved to on-demand video within days of its theatrical release, renting for $19.99 on iTunes.

cinema film
George Lange is the film critic for Free Press (Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press)

In the early 2010s, there was heated debate between production companies and theater owners over whether to release first-run theatrical films directly to video for much higher prices. A few years later, COVID-19 made the decision for them. If people were stuck in their homes, then the movies had to come to those homes.

For now, this is the new normal. The rise of streaming services in the 2010s was a prelude to 2020 when most people are voluntarily quarantining themselves in hopes of “flattening the curve” in the spread of COVID-19. But according to a recent story in Forbes, the curve in online usage is only growing.

Since early March, usage across the board is up 50 to 70 percent, and since Netflix already consumed the lion’s share of online traffic, it stands to reason that streaming is only growing more popular for a shut-in world.

For the next several weeks, or at least until our social distancing becomes relaxed, cinema coverage at Free Press will focus on streaming services, offering suggestions for people who need a respite from stir-craziness.

Netflix

Oklahomans who were trapped under something heavy for the past two weeks must-watch Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, a seven-part documentary on Joseph Maldonado-Passage, the former owner of Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park and former Libertarian gubernatorial hopeful best known as Joe Exotic.

It is required viewing for anyone who is fascinated by private wild animal farms, mullets, missing teeth, revenge killing, polygamy, expired Walmart meat and methamphetamines.

Of course, Exotic’s highly reported plan to have Florida animal rights advocate Carole Baskin killed and the sketchy reputation of GW Exotic Animal Park are well known to most residents, but Exotic’s mania and narcissism is just the bait.

Once into Tiger King, viewers will be fascinated by the yokel rogues’ gallery on display and dispirited by the poor treatment hundreds of animals received in Exotic’s “care.” Novelist Carl Hiassen probably watched Tiger King’s melange of swamp rats and con artists and threw up his hands, never to write again.

Further viewing: After attempting to count John Finlay’s teeth over the course of seven episodes of Tiger King, viewers might want to move over to the inarguably more somber The Confession Killer.

The series focuses on the late Henry Lee Lucas, the Texas serial killer who confessed to over 100 murders, and Lucas is another vivid study of insanity, murder and the failures of self-care.

Hulu

Director Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Teen) covers virtually every angle in the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, secretary of state and U.S. senator who is simultaneously one of the most revered and reviled women in America.

The four-part documentary Hillary pivots between time periods, bringing Clinton’s teenage activism, Watergate prosecution work, life as Arkansas’ first lady, health care reform attempts and the various scandals and teapot tempests that made her life exhaustingly eventful.

Further viewing: Hulu recently debuted Little Fires Everywhere, a limited series based on the best-selling 2017 novel by Celeste Ng. The series stars Reece Witherspoon and Kerry Washington and is constructed from a tight web of romance, scandal and arson in the famous Cleveland, Ohio, a suburb of Shaker Heights.

Apple TV+

Apple’s still-young streaming service continues to slowly roll out new series, but one of the first is still the best.

The Morning Show is a barely disguised retelling of the fall of former Today show host Matt Lauer and the events that followed.

Starring Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Steve Carell, the series plunges into a #MeToo scenario in which a victim of the Carell character’s abuse of power and unwanted advances comes forward, exiling the unrepentant Mitch Kessler and opening a seat at the desk for West Virginia reporter Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon).

The series features one of Aniston’s best roles in years as Alex Levy, the longtime host who must defend her position against ageism, sexist power struggles, and an ongoing family crisis.

Great supporting performances by Billy Crudup, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mark Duplass keep this Aaron Sorkinesque series moving briskly. The Morning Show is confirmed for a second season, but how they do it will be worth the wait based on the immolation that takes place in the final season one episode.

Further viewing: M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant is an utterly bonkers psychological thriller from the back-from-ignominy creator of The Sixth Sense and Glass.

Starring Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) and Toby Kebbell (Black Mirror’s “The Entire History of You”) as young urbanites facing a tragic loss of life and some unexpected aftereffects. Often inscrutable and maddening in the Shyamalan tradition, Servant also features Rupert Grint in the extremely un-Weasley role of Ambrose’s brother and Nell Tiger Free (Game of Thrones) as Leanne, the mysterious nanny who brings added madness to the household.

Amazon Prime

Al Pacino leads the cast of Hunters as Holocaust survivor Meyer Offerman, who learns of plans to start a Fourth Reich in the U.S. and recruits a team of young Nazi hunters to flush them out.

Like The Americans, Hunters revels in its time period (the late-1970s) and can occasionally suffer from tone problems, but it is briskly paced and strongly acted, with supporting performances by Logan Lerman, Lena Olin, Carol Kane, Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) and Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey).

Further viewing: A recently completed four-season series based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle is one of the rare cases in which an adaptation works better than the source material.

Set mostly during an alternative history in which the Axis Powers won World War II and took over the U.S., producer Frank Spotnitz (The X Files) takes Dick’s original story, beautifully fleshes out both characters and plot and incorporates a twist that takes the story from speculative fiction to science fiction.

HBO Now

Of all the Nazi-related series listed here, The Plot Against America is the best.

Two episodes in, David Simon and Ed Burns’ adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel faithfully adapts the story of aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh’s rise to become President of the United States in 1940, and how that affects a Jewish family living in New Jersey.

The cast is uniformly excellent, featuring John Turturro, Winona Ryder, Zoe Kazan and Azhy Richardson as the young central character, Philip Levin (a stand-in for the author). It is hard to watch The Plot Against America without comparing the series of events to our current malaise, and the incorporation of historic facts maintains the story’s plausibility.

Further viewing: HBO Now contains a large share of its parent channel’s content throughout the years, so there’s no limit to the kind of bingeing that could be done here.

As for recent fare, Richard Price’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider offers an unusual take on King’s genre: treating a supernatural event like a police investigation.

Price, the crime novelist who wrote both the outstanding novel and Spike Lee joint Clockers as well as HBO’s The Night Of, The Deuce and several episodes of The Wire, lends a True Detective vibe to the proceedings, and the performances by Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo and Jason Bateman provide the emotional pull.

CBS All Access

The first network to lock down most of its own content in a streaming service, CBS offers a lot for fans of the network’s procedural dramas like NCIS and long-running reality shows like Survivor, The Amazing Race and Big Brother.

But the real pull comes from original programming such as Star Trek: Picard, a surprisingly nuanced series that explores Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) in his later years when he is pulled back to Starfleet to investigate a seemingly familiar work of artificial intelligence. Stewart is, of course, magnetic in this role, and some familiar faces turn up quickly.

Further viewing: With Get Out director Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone, the producer and narrator takes over series creator Rod Serling’s role and succeeds in making this anthology relevant, mysterious and occasionally horrifying. The best so far? “The Wunderkind,” in which a manipulative child rises to the presidency thanks to a desperate campaign consultant (John Cho).

Disney+

The riches contained in Disney+ would take pages and pages to fully review, but the presence of nearly every Disney animated film, Pixar project, Marvel Comics Universe film, National Geographic series and everything Star Wars is worth the download and monthly subscription.

First and foremost, viewers should go directly to Star Wars: The Mandalorian. Pedro Pascal stars as the central character, a skilled fighter who finds himself protecting a familiar-looking green, pointy-eared infant on a journey. Jon Favreau runs the show and brings along some impressive talent behind the cameras, including Oscar-winner Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit, What We Do in the Shadows).

Further viewing: Beyond the marquee titles, take a trip back to childhood and check out the collection of live-action films from the 60s and 70s like Escape to Witch Mountain, That Darn Cat, The Absent-Minded Professor, Flight of the Navigator and the original Herbie movies.


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