Online streaming is bigger than ever, and with so many streaming services adding new shows and movies every week, it can be nearly impossible to sort through the good and the bad. If you need something to watch and don’t want to wade through the digital muck that washes up on the internet’s shores, follow our picks below for the best new shows and movies worth a watch.
This week: historical dramas, an alternate history adventure, and a Barack Obama biopic.
Versailles season 1
It seems that when it comes to writing a compelling historical drama, there are three key ingredients: sex, violence, and intrigue. Few men in history engaged in all three to the degree that Louis XIV did. Dubbed the Sun King, Louis, over the course of a 72-year reign, won wars, centralized the French government, and offered patronage to some of France’s greatest artists. Versailles focuses on an earlier period in Louis’ reign: After a time of civil war where the nobility tried to wrest back its feudal powers, Louis (George Blagden) makes a bold play, moving the court from Paris to his family’s hunting lodge, Versailles, where he can keep all potential rebels under watch.
Versailles lavishly explores the decadence of Louis’ court. Adultery and assassination are commonplace, so viewers looking for thrills will find them in abundance. Versailles is often trashy, but it does have some interesting characters, thanks to the historical events that inspired it. For viewers who enjoy the moral ambiguities of shows like Game of Thrones, Louis XIV should be a fascinating figure — deeply religious, yet a constant adulterer; a patron of the arts, but also a ravenous conqueror. Though it may not be high art, Versailles is a lush tour through French history.
Alas, John Adams! Despite his contributions to the birth of the United States, the second President is perhaps one of the most overlooked Founding Fathers. Washington and Jefferson get their faces on Mt. Rushmore, Hamilton gets a popular musical, even John’s cousin Samuel has a recognizable legacy in a popular beer. John Adams did at least get an HBO miniseries about his life, and a fairly good one at that. It’s a well-made, engaging chronicle of a complicated man who lived in chaotic times. The series follows Adams (Paul Giamatti) from his time as a defense attorney for British soldiers up through the American Revolution, his term as President, and his eventual decline and death.
Giamatti does a fine job in the role, playing Adams as a scholar — dutiful and reserved, yet firm in his convictions. He makes far less of an impression than men like the smugly suave Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) or steely Alexander Hamilton (Rufus Sewell), but that is part of what makes him so interesting as a protagonist. Here is a man who, though never the most magnetic personality in the room, navigated his way to the most powerful role in the young nation. Special mention should go to Laura Linney, who plays John’s wife, Abigail. Their marriage, one of love and intellect, is the emotional rope that holds the series together. Although it lacks style, John Adams has plenty of gravitas.
The Man in the High Castle season 2
Based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle is a science-fiction series examining what life in the United States might look like if the Allies had lost World War II. In this world, the Nazis control everything east of the Rockies, the Japanese Empire everything west. The plot follows characters in both of these occupied territories, whose paths are drawn together by a mysterious film reel that shows another world, one where the Allies prevailed.
The serpentine plot regarding the film and the titular Man in the High Castle is typical alternate-reality fare, with rebels trying to overthrow an oppressive government and change reality. Where the show gets really interesting is its rendering of the occupied United States. The writers take great care in exploring how the conquering forces impose their ideologies while also adapting them to suit American society — students pledging their allegiance to the state feels more sinister when Hitler’s picture is hanging on the wall. The Man in the High Castle is exciting speculative fiction, and its impressively detailed world consistently invites the viewer to learn more about it.
A series of murders shocks Japan. Though the murder weapons differ, every victim is found with an “X” carved into their neck. For detective Kenichi Takabe (Koji Yakusho), the most challenging aspect of the case is that he does not lack suspects. Each murder is committed by a different person, all of whom confess, though none of them can explain their motives. Although it may start like a detective story, Cure is more a horror film, less concerned with the solving of a crime than with atmosphere, as Takabe slowly wades into a murky nightmare.
While many horror directors like to shock the viewer, Kiyoshi Kurosawa employs a slower, more sadistic approach. Rather than relying on jump scares, Kurosawa keeps the camera at a distance, calmly filming his subjects. He does not draw attention to horror; it often blends into the background, or else lurks in the corners of shots. Cure slowly worms its way into the viewer’s mind, a crawling terror that leaves no room for comfort in the end.
President Barack Obama may not have left the White House just yet, but he already has his own biopic (two, actually, including Richard Tanne’s Southside with You). Barry, from director Vikram Gandhi, is not really about Obama as President, but Obama as a person, examining his college years, where his complicated background both drives him and throws obstacles in his way. Barry (Devon Terrell), as he elects to call himself throughout the film, is first seen here as a freshmen at Columbia University, where he struggles to fit in with his predominantly white classmates. The New York City of the film is a patchwork metropolis, with sharp divides between classes, races, and educational backgrounds, a city that finds its reflection in young Barry. With his cosmopolitan background and white girlfriend, he finds himself an outsider among black New Yorkers as well.
Barry’s girlfriend, Charlotte (Anya Taylor-Joy), is a well-developed character in her own right, and their relationship is a large part of the film. For the most part, Barry is a traditional coming-of-age story with some unique nuances due to the protagonist’s biracial background. Gandhi brings skillful direction that gives the film a sense of prestige. The writing, however, cannot resist the urge to engage in some mythmaking — for instance, a conversation that heavily foreshadows candidate Obama’s campaign slogan “Change you can believe in.” Those moments aside, Barry is a distinctly personal film, a portrait of a young biracial man and his struggle to belong in America.
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