What to stream (and skip) on Netflix and Amazon Prime this weekend
Stay home. As COVID-19 spreads, that’s the advice stressed by epidemiologists racing to combat the virus, who have implored Americans to avoid all nonessential travel and limit all person-to-person interactions. “Social distancing,” it seems, is our new normal—at least for now.
Though it can be challenging to look for silver linings in times as tumultuous as these, those sheltering indoors can at least rest assured that there’s now little reason to put off catching up on Netflix. And particularly with movie theaters shuttering across the country in response to the growing pandemic, Americans are looking to VOD and streaming platforms in search of their next binge-watch.
Fortune’s (still) here to help you navigate the week’s latest offerings, boiling down all the entertainment out there to a few distinct recommendations: Put more simply, should you rent it, stream it, or skip it? Find out below.
RENT IT: ‘Extra Ordinary’ (VOD and virtual cinema screenings)
With its rambunctious improv stylings and a gaggle of inspired sight gags, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s What We Do in the Shadows (and its subsequent FX series adaptation) did more to pump flesh blood through the veins of the supernatural comedy than anything since Ghostbusters. There was an exquisite absurdity to its humor, and concealed beneath it a real appreciation for the hallmarks of this subgenre, from send-ups of vampires’ sleeping habits to a memorable run-in with lethal werewolves.
Extra Ordinary, from Irish filmmakers Enda Loughman and Mike Ahern, shares that same duality, skewering the paranormal with a warm attentiveness that looks a lot like love. It’s provincial in the manner of Edgar Wright’s Three Cornettos trilogy (especially The World’s End), taking place in a quaint Irish town where cheery driving instructor Rose (Maeve Higgins) hides her born ability to commune with the spirits. Years earlier, her ghost-hunter father (Risteárd Cooper) perished in an accident, and Rose still blames herself for what happened. But despite her reluctance to engage with the supernatural, Rose finds herself called to duty when a local man, Martin (Barry Ward), asks for her help in dealing with his dead wife’s peristent, from-beyond-the-grave nagging; to he and daughter Sarah (Emma Coleman), this haunting is not so much sinister as it is headache-inducing. That is, until Martin and Rose discover that Sarah has become possessed, floating above her bed in fine, freaky Exorcist form.
When a washed-up rock star (Will Forte, clearly having a scream of a time) becomes convinced he must sacrifice a young virgin in order to resurrect his music career, Rose, Martin, and Sarah all end up caught in his crosshairs—and en route, after a few other scattered hijinks, to a castle on the other side of town, where a full-on hell pit is fated to open during the conveniently upcoming blood moon.
Extra Ordinary, overrun with such genre-appropriate ingredients as these, doesn’t lead its narrative through them in any orderly fashion as such, instead whirling its central kooks and spooks together in a sticky, ectoplasmic gumbo that only grows stranger and more piquant by the minute. That’s not to say audiences will have trouble engaging with the characters; Higgins and Ward make for an endearing odd couple, and the latter even manages to isolate some moments of grace in his conflicted widower. It all comes together in a goofy, Gothic finale that hits just the right note of chills, thrills, and ramshackle charm.
STREAM: ‘Selah and the Spades’ (Amazon)
Comparisons to Heathers are both inevitable and reductive, so it’s perhaps worth getting them out of the way early. This darkly glimmering debut feature from writer-director Tayarisha Poe is indeed set within a high-school ecosystem where cliques war for dominance while holding down their own respective corners of the school yard. And yes, its teenaged antihero, Selah (Lovie Simone), is cunning and clever beyond her years, certainly enough to run circles around any administrators.
But Selah and the Spades is really, in its lithe and literate way, a stinging rebuke of the subgenre it’s dressed as, employing a provocative unrealism through its stylish filming and heightened performances that ultimately works to skewer fluff like Mean Girls and Pretty in Pink, not honor it. At the Haldwell School, an upscale Pennsylvania boarding school where five student cliques—known, tellingly, as “factions”—pull the strings, Selah fancies herself more mobster don than queen bee. Her faction, the Spades, controls the distribution of illegal substances, from booze to coke, around school. Other factions handle gambling, partying, and ensuring students are supplied with answers to upcoming tests—Haldwell’s student life is predicated upon the coexistence of these quasi-mafioso families. There’s one cardinal rule: no snitching. Goody-two-shoes don’t last long and best watch their back on stairwells.
For Selah, being on top demands perfection. As she rules over the Spades— with an assist from hopelessly loyal bestie Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome)—this 17-year-old senior employs charm, menace, and manipulation like weapons in her arsenal. Whether she’s trying on a Crest Whitestrip smile in the mirror or practicing cheerleading routines as the head of spirit squad, control is the mission. Cleverly, Poe frames her film through Selah’s perspective, which includes a few fourth-wall-breaking asides to the audience (“Boys,” she muses. “They’ll only like you if you look impossible“), and when cracks begin to appear in her carefully manufactured facade, it becomes clear that Selah hasn’t been telling us the whole truth.
But Poe’s film isn’t just a character study, and its early ripples of humor dissipate into something darker and more surreal as Selah begins to groom her maybe-successor, Paloma (Celeste O’Connor), to inherit the Spades. For a first-time filmmaker, Poe displays an impressive talent for lobbing aesthetic curveballs at the audience, visually referencing Bring It On one minute and Blue Velvet the next; red strings dangling across a black backdrop in one scene lend giallo qualities to a particularly charged conversation between Selah and Paloma.
Broadly, Rian Johnson’s Brick comes to mind, both through its transposing of crime noir into high-school hallways and its playfully heightened atmosphere. There’s a little here, too, of Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, that Ukrainian drama’s wildly bleak view of nurtured criminality and the brutal power dynamics that can take hold within a hermetically sealed high school environment. But Selah and the Spades is less formally ambitious and more accessible in its narrative goals, charting this queen bee’s descent into darkness with stylistic verve while never quite pushing her past the point of no return. News that Amazon plans to develop Selah and the Spades into a series is scarcely surprising; Poe’s film feels like an initiation into Haldwell’s elite world more than a full-scale exploration of it, but it casts a hypnotic, tantalizing spell that draws you in all the same.
SKIP IT: ‘Sergio’ (Netflix)
There’s a fascinating real-life figure at the center of Netflix’s Sergio, a well-intentioned but lumpily structured biopic about the influential United Nations diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who was killed by a bomb blast at Baghdad’s U.N. headquarters.
The film’s director, Greg Barker, would surely agree; a documentarian by trade, he made a nonfiction film about Vieria de Mello back in 2009 (which, notably, marked the last-completed work of editor Karen Schmeer). Also named Sergio, that potent doc painted the diplomat as a career idealist and a born negotiator, using the ultimately failed search-and-rescue mission to recover him alive from beneath UN HQ as a framing device through which to explore the rest of his remarkable career. What emerged was a human tragedy and a grim omen, a portrait of a man whose legendary dedication to peacemaking was no match for the growing chaos of a U.S.-occupied Iraq. In at least one interview, Barker has described Vieria de Mello as “a mix between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy,” and his doc was on that front quite convincing.
Adapting that same story into a feature film, with Narcos star Wagner Moura playing Vieria de Mello (referred to as Sérgio throughout), Barker is more or less pursuing the same end-goal of tribute and light hagiography, again using the bombing to anchor his narrative. As we open, Sérgio and refugee expert Gil Loescher (Brían F. O’Byrne) are trapped under the rubble, both seriously injured as two soldiers (Garret Dillahunt and Will Dalton) sift through the wreckage in search of them. And from there, flashbacks pull the audience back across various episodes in Sérgio’s career, especially those related to his key role in averting mass deaths in a conflict in East Timor, between militant groups and the central occupying force of Indonesia.
But Barker’s clear admiration for his subject, the glue that held his documentary together, here tempts him to needlessly twist the truth. Taking some dramatic license is to be expected, but too many of the film’s cornerstone conversations about diplomacy have been noticeably watered down by scribe Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club), denied the nuance and more authentic complexity such boots-on-the-grounds characters would have discussed as pure matter-of-fact. The entire character of Loescher, to that effect, is a composite—albeit one, oddly, bearing the name of a columnist for openDemocracy in Baghdad the day of the bombing to interview Sérgio.
But Sérgio‘s broader problem concerns Barker’s decision to tell this story as a tragic romance, between the titular figure and Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas), who’d later become his fiancée and was formerly a U.N. economics officer in East Timor. Moura and de Armas sizzle in scenes where the pair cautiously then ardently court one another, setting down the armor their profession forces them to wear and breaking in an unfamiliar, almost radical intimacy. But wonderful as both actors are, this marriage of geopolitics and romantic passion feels imbalanced in skewing more toward the latter. Not helping matters is the editing; with so many moments sometimes choppily shifting us back on the day of the bombing, it’s difficult to invest in what came before, particularly conversations between the two lovers about a future Sergio has already told us they’ll never have.
The use of archival footage throughout the film and in its final few minutes, intended to further bring Sergio in line with the real events it depicts, ultimately leaves the fictionalized scenes it’s set against—especially one of de Armas’s Carolina swimming in the ocean—feeling more like Hollywood artifice than the important dramatic beats they’re meant as. Sérgio’s accomplishments in peacemaking deserve to be seen as those of a humanitarian hero, and his relationship with Carolina was surely an important part of his off-duty life. But, speaking broadly, the choice to salute this man as first a lover, then a fighter, unnecessarily softens the real tragedy of his death and melodramatizes the substance of his life.
The best of the rest:
On VOD platforms, The Quarry leads some strong character actors into Texas noir territory for a slow-burning tale of crime and consequences. Michael Shannon’s best of all, bringing a combustible energy to his hard-jawed hawk of a small-town police chief, who becomes suspicious of the new preacher (Shea Whigham) on the block. Tense, sun-scorched, and sinewy, the film—from co-writer/director Scott Teems—takes its sweet time going anywhere, but it’s a sturdy entry in the evermore crowded subgenre of cat-and-mouse games in the new West, between hardened men of higher and lower orders.
Playing in virtual screening rooms nationwide, political thriller Balloon dramatizes the unlikely true story of two families who made a dangerous bid to escape from communist East Germany, circa 1979, using a hot-air balloon they made themselves. Taut and atmospheric, with some welcome flashes of visual wit from director Michael Herbig, this film piles on the twists and turns, finding creative ways to mine suspense from practically every aspect of these characters’ fraught, paranoid existence. And the performances are strong across the board, especially that of Thomas Kretschmann as a devious Stasi lieutenant colonel.
Hulu, meanwhile, has partnered with FX to deliver Mrs. America, a star-studded miniseries about the ’70s movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, as seen through the eyes of its most fierce advocates and detractors. Cate Blanchett has perhaps the most fascinating role as Phyllis Schlafly, a tireless conservative activist who opposed women’s liberation; but the cast is an embarrassment of riches, from Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem to Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedman. Also in the rotation: Sarah Paulson, Elizabeth Banks, Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale, James Marsden, Ari Graynor, John Slattery, Melanie Lynskey, Niecy Nash, and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Three episodes are streaming, with the remaining six to come at a one-a-week pace.
Netflix’s true-crime devotees will want to check out The Innocence Files, a new series from the documentarian dream team of Liz Garbus (Lost Girls), Alex Gibney (Going Clear), and Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated). A journalistic high-water mark in an arena overrun with sensationalized and often misguided projects, this brilliantly conceived and far-reaching work of TV activism uses The Innocence Project, dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions, as a base from which to explore three key areas of the criminal justice process: evidence, witnesses, and prosecution. Three episodes are allocated to each subject, allowing The Innocence Files to essentially weave together three feature-length documentaries into an insightful, enraging, and tremendously emotional indictment of our flawed, sometime brutally unjust system.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—How Mrs. America designers revived a ’70s feminist showdown
—Peacock’s early preview kicks off, with national launch still on track for July
—How movie theaters can make a comeback after the coronavirus pandemic
—After Fleabag, Vicky Jones was ready to Run toward a tricky HBO thriller-comedy
—Tigertail director Alan Yang on making the past not “a memory, but a beautiful dream”
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