What to Watch (and Skip) on Netflix and Amazon Prime This Weekend
Whether you’re standing in the theater lobby or curled up in bed, deciding what to watch next is often the most difficult part of any pop-culture junkie’s day. And with dozens of films in theaters on any given weekend, plus virtually endless layers of streaming purgatory to sort through in search of your next binge-watch, there’s more out there—and tougher decisions to make—than ever.
Fortune‘s here to help you navigate the week’s latest offerings, boiling all the entertainment out there down into distinct recommendations. This week, only one new release is hitting theaters: Nicolas Pesce’s reimagining of The Grudge. While the film did not screen for critics in advance, Fortune spoke to Pesce about the project here.
Instead, this week’s recommendations will highlight two different streaming offerings worth your time, as well as one you needn’t prioritize.
STREAM IT: ‘Messiah’ (Netflix)
It’s difficult to disentangle the Netflix series Messiah, about a mysterious man who attracts a global following after performing apparent miracles in the Middle East, from the knowledge that Mark Burnett, one of its producers, is the man behind The Apprentice, famously hosted by Donald Trump before his climb from reality television into America’s most visible seat of power and privilege.
That the series is arriving on Netflix as tensions soar in the Middle East is perhaps not the poor timing it might first seem. Messiah, across its 10-episode first season, has a lot to say about the dangers and chaos that can stem from placing one’s faith in a false prophet.
Burnett, one of the chief architects of modern reality television, has in more recent years worked with producer Roma Downey to bring faith-based programming back to the major networks, with series like History’s The Bible and NBC’s A.D.: The Bible Continues. Burnett and Downey (who are married), know a thing or two about how belief can be in and of itself a galvanizing force for change, and their backing of this series, created by Michael Petroni (Miracles), adds an intriguing meta-wrinkle to its narrative.
Mehdi Dehbi plays the titular “messiah”—who becomes known worldwide as al-Masih—as an enigma, his handsome features and long locks impassable as he leads a flock of Palestinians to the Israeli border, is swiftly detained by authorities (including one officer, played by Tomer Sisley, about whom al-Masih professes to have a strange amount of information), and vanishes into thin air, only to later reappear at a church in Texas. How or if al-Masih is actually performing his miracles is a question Messiah leaves deliberately ambiguous. (This said, some Muslim and Arabic-speaking viewers of the series are already complaining on social media that his name itself gives up the ghost, likely an unfortunate product of American showrunners pandering to English-speaking audiences and showcasing a lack of knowledge surrounding Islamic theology despite their narrative’s reliance on the same.)
Michelle Monaghan, anyway, plays a CIA agent who becomes obsessed with figuring out al-Masih’s perhaps sinister objectives, even if she battles medical problems of her own stemming from a relationship with her now-deceased husband. The cast, across the board, is quite strong, with supporting characters played by the likes of Emily Kinney, John Ortiz, and Stefania LaVie Owen adding dramatic integrity to Messiah‘s global, intermittently compelling game of religio-political chess.
ALSO STREAM IT: ‘Midsommar’ (Amazon Prime)
Ari Aster’s directorial debut, Hereditary, contains one of the most harrowing depictions of soul-distorting loss ever depicted in mainstream horror. As embodied by Toni Collette, the film’s exploration of how a mother’s grief warps her into something less than human, threatening all around her, is absolutely sadistic and no less masterful for it.
Aster’s follow-up, Midsommar, opens with a scene right out of Hereditary, in which college student Dani (Florence Pugh, giving the first of her two Oscar-worthy performances last year) receives horrifying news about members of her immediate family. Traumatized and heartbroken, she is at first consumed by her anguish, collapsing into the arms of her indolent boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). Dani’s keening wails are the most difficult-to-stomach element of a movie top-heavy with disturbing imagery.
But Aster’s new film, despite its interest in grief and processing, is perhaps most impressive in how it aesthetically departs from his previous work. Whereas Hereditary is bathed malevolent in shadowy corners and negative space, Midsommar draws its horror from the unsettling constancy of daylight in an isolated Swedish commune where the sun only fleetingly sets. Hallucinogenic cinematography makes it appear as if the nature itself breathing, pulsing with the ominous promise of chaos to come. Dani and Christian, along with the latter’s college peers, are sojourning in this strange land, studying the culture of the fictional Hårga people as Christian considers building his anthropology-degree thesis around them. The Swedes, a private and traditional people, aren’t thrilled about this idea.
That something’s amiss in this sun-soaked paradise goes practically without saying. But Midsommar, even as a fairly, brutishly straightforward entry in the annals of pagan horror, triumphs in how it furthers Aster’s bone-deep exploration of trauma and psychological armageddon beneath the mask of genre cinema. If death informed the transformative tragedy of his last film, the psychological terrain here involves gaslighting and emotional abuse, relationships that so lack in reciprocity that they threaten to collapse both parties in on themselves. Midsommar plays, invitingly, more like a Grimm’s fairy tale than Aster’s last film, offering a curious catharsis despite its horrifying conclusion. It’s worth seeing most for how it cements Aster’s promise as a talented visual stylist prone to bouts of exceptional narrative cruelty. In other words, he’s a horror director not afraid to twist the knife—the most exciting kind.
SKIP IT: ‘The Circle’ (Netflix)
Netflix’s new stab at reality TV may well replace Big Brother, but it’s the show’s eerie, techno-nightmare double, and one of the most chilling series of its kind.
In The Circle, eight contestants move into apartments in the same complex, vying to make friends and influence people, with the least popular among them being semi-regularly singled out and voted off. But unlike Big Brother, the contestants almost never meet face-to-face, instead communicating through a voice-activated social media hub that allows each of them to manufacture profiles, create group chats, and slide into each other’s DMs for the kinds of juicily dramatic one-on-one convos that are as much a hallmark of this particular genre as running mascara and barely bleeped-out F-bombs. Characters repeatedly yell “Circle” whenever they voice-activate the show’s internal computer system (which is every minute or so), in a step sure to excessively trigger anyone who’s ever suffered through watching a parent attempt to utilize Siri.
If this all sounds like a Black Mirror episode—yes. In fact, the series becomes much more interesting if interpreted as a thinly veiled piece of horror-tinged social commentary about vacuity and nihilism in the age of social media, fixated upon the processes through which we create online identities that exist apart from our own and must take care to ensure they don’t subsume our senses of self. As one contestant cobbles together a DM, it feels like watching a mad scientist at work, and the different forms of deliberation these contestants engage in to figure out how best to pierce the veil of social media—without being to do so—are grimly intriguing. When the contestants ping one another with countless messages and emojis, forming shaky alliances and from within their solitary spaces ruminating about which of the other players are most genuine, The Circle exerts an unnerving pull.
Intriguingly, two of the contestants choose to catfish the others. A young man named Seaburn poses as his real-life girlfriend, Rebecca, using photos to capitalize upon her sex appeal. In another room, Karyn—a lesbian woman in a happy relationship—plays as the straight Mercedeze, explaining of the photos she uses that “she’s just a random chick I found.” There’s something dismaying—though perhaps insightful on a sociocultural level—about which contestants feel the need to mask their true selves to gain advantage in The Circle.
The problem with the series turns out to be less the brassy, ingratiating exuberance of its players—each of whom have their own catchphrases and sometimes winning personalities—and more the aggressively irritating manner in which the series been put together. Each episode is an hour in length, a miscalculation given how much a show like this cries out for the half-hour format. Especially in the unwatchable first half hour of the pilot, split screens and quadrants zoom out into frames meant to mimic social media feeds, and texts pop up on screen with “bubble” sound effects near-constantly (“People-please, pander, and stroke” flash as a contestant breaks down those three steps a competitor might take to victory). It’s a dizzying blur of over-editing, and even after the series calms down later on, it struggles to create compelling, cohesive television in which every contestant is sequestered in a different spot. Not helping manners is the inclusion of a Love Island-esque host, who sprinkles in snarky remarks like paprika over this strange, overly busy stew of a series.
The problem is, The Circle may be exactly the reality TV series our social media-obsessed culture deserves. That doesn’t make it any less of a watching-through-your-fingers nightmare to watch play out. Luckily, Netflix has only released the first four episodes, with more to follow weekly, leaving viewers with plenty of time to break away before getting sucked into a 10-hour, blackhole-esque binge-watch.
The Best of the Rest
Also on Netflix, Spinning Out (10 episodes, now streaming) is perhaps the streamer’s most successful effort to date in terms of replicating the kind of sudsy teen melodrama most commonly found on The CW and ABC Family.
Slightly grittier than the likes of One Tree Hill and the (at least superficially) comparable Make It or Break It, it focuses a family of three women bound together by professional figure skating. Kat (Kaya Scodelario) is a rising star on the ice, destined for Olympic glory, while her mother, Carol (January Jones), set aside her own skating ambitions to have Kat. The younger sister Serena (Willow Shields) is a mightily capable skater in her own right but has demons of her own raging away on the inside. There’s entirely too much happening, as star-crossed romances collide with diagnoses of mental illness and more histrionic soap tropes, but the cast (at least in the early stretches of its 10-episode first season) carries it gracefully.
On HBO Go, there’s Alex Ross Perry’s rock-and-roll saga Her Smell. Elisabeth Moss doesn’t play the role of Becky Something so much as rip its beating heart out and bite down hard. Moss is a tour de force in the truest sense on screen, communicating the wild-eyed ferocity and tensile strength of her spiraling rock star with a conviction that announces her as one of our great working actresses.
Also streaming: Inception (Netflix), The Kill Team (Amazon Prime), Eyes Wide Shut (Hulu)
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Nicolas Pesce on his R-rated Grudge reboot
—Inside 1917: designing a World War I battlefield
—Little Women director Greta Gerwig and cast reveal how they reinvented a feminist classic
—Aldis Hodge on going to “that dark place” for death row drama Clemency
—Hasbro’s toy box is bigger than ever with $3.8 billion Entertainment One takeover
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.