What to stream (and skip) on HBO and Apple TV+ this weekend

April 24, 2020, 3:30 PM UTC
JoJo Whilden—HBO; Courtesy of Apple +; Justin Lubin—SHOWTIME

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, for one last week, to help you navigate the 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.

SEE IT: ‘Bad Education’ (HBO)

Before an embezzlement scandal brought him crashing down, district superintendent Frank Tassone was a hero to students, faculty, and especially parents in the well-to-do New York suburb of Roslyn on Long Island.

Smooth-talking, slickly efficient, and exceedingly thoughtful, he was the model educator; under Tassone’s management, academic test scores shot through the roof, and record numbers of Roslyn students were making their way to Ivy League schools. More than that, Tassone knew the kids by name, remembered what they were interested in—and he was dexterous when it comes to assuaging the concerns of their affluent, overbearing parents. That Tassone was also a crook, lifting millions from the district’s coffers over a span of years, is the lit fuse at the center of this wily dynamite stick of a second feature from writer-director Cory Finley, whose similarly class-obsessed Thoroughbreds was one of the most impressive debuts of 2018.

Played by Hugh Jackman as a sinner clinging to illusions of sainthood, Tassone cuts a striking figure across Bad Education, a dark glimmer in his eye and a certain rigidity to his pressed suits and slicked-back hair. He appears to genuinely care for students at Roslyn; indeed, when aspiring journalist Rachel (Blockers‘ Geraldine Viswanathan) starts digging into the school’s financial records, only to uncover irregularities, Tassone’s the one to encourage her to treat it as more than a puff piece. There’s a sly genius to casting Hugh Jackman in this kind of role; he’s an actor who always carries the promise of a genial grin and a warm handshake, and these traits are gradually weaponized across Bad Education. It gradually becomes clear that Tassone has been living a double life, financing flights to Vegas and carrying on a doomed affair with a former pupil (Blindspotting‘s Rafael Casal), all on the district’s dime. Deplorable though his behavior might be, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for someone this clearly lost beneath the masks he’d come to wear.

Ditto for Allison Janney as Pam Gluckin, Tassone’s second-in-command whose head ends up on the chopping block first when the school catches wind she’s been skimming off the top. There’s a quiet rage and deeper assymetry to Pam, which Janney teases out through a series of thin smiles and withering glares, each somehow more perfectly implemented than the last.

What Bad Education does especially well is chart the moral ambiguities at the center of its story, the moments of doubt and reappraisal so often left out of true-crime tales that declare clear-cut villains. Jackman and Janney make for a devilishly compelling duo, their performances perfectly calibrated to first court our sympathies then alienate them. The plight of educators across the country, underfunded and undervalued (especially in wealthy enclaves like Roslyn), is legitimate, and it’s a tribute to these actors how quickly we can see the gears turning, the rationalizations forming, as they question how to spin their way out of prison. At times, you almost believe them. Neither Tassone nor Gluckin are bad people, or so they’d quickly tell you; the high-wire thrill of their performances is in watching it slowly dawn on these two that they might not be such good ones either.

STREAM IT: Beastie Boys Story (Apple TV+)

An unexpectedly galvanizing time-capsule experience of a film, Beastie Boys Story opens with archival footage of the band’s three members, shockingly young, as they lounge on a couch, cheerily introducing themselves across the first verse of “Paul Revere” (“Now here’s a little story I’ve got to tell / About three bad brothers you know so well”).

But then, with giddy verve, the cresting guitar riffs of “Sabotage” crash in, and this film turns out to be something a little spunkier than your average trip down memory lane. After a dizzying sizzle reel of concert footage, intercut with sound-bites from various fans stressing the vitality of their favorite band, Beastie Boys Story heads to the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, where director Spike Jonze (reuniting with the band after directing a number of their music videos) is preparing to film Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond during a live-theater talk, a memoir of their last 30 years that’s being shaped, revised, and reshaped in real time.

Notably absent is the third Beastie, Adam Yauch, who died from cancer in 2012 and whose memory hangs—sometimes heavy, sometimes warmly hilarious—over the evening. As Horovitz and Diamond pace the stage, occasionally glancing at teleprompters as they power through a free-wheeling yet thoughtfully thorough discussion of their careers, graphics and montages pop on the projector screen behind them. Unlike during the live performance, Jonze has the ability to plunge the documentary fully into those asides, lending it an engrossing multimedia quality.

But Jonze’s approach is more endearingly off-the-wall than all-out revolutionary—and the same was always true of the Beastie Boys, so it fits par excellence. Horovitz and Diamond regale all in attendance with tales reaching from their early years, as rambunctious friends who started out as ’80s punks before stumbling into rap, all the way up through the turn of the century and subsequent loss of Yauch; and it might not work, were the stories not so hilarious, strange, and oddly moving. How three gawky white guys, making it all up as they went, came to open for Madonna and ascend to the upper echelons of the music industry—as you might expect, it’s kind of a long story, and Beastie Boys Story is affectionate enough a document of history to let it play out across almost two hours. But that’s time well spent, especially in moments when Horovitz and Diamond reflect on periods they’re less proud of, such as when they fired the group’s female drummer for (more or less) not jibing with the boy’s-club image they’d wanted to cultivate. The film’s often more solemn and pensive than one might expect from a band as chaotic and charged-up as the Beastie Boys. But it’s touching to watch these guardians of a very certain ’80s inanity reflect at length, on all they’ve learned, what they’ve lost, and how extraordinarily far they’ve really come.

SKIP IT: Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (Showtime)

Fans of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, be advised—this “spiritual descendant” to John Logan’s delectably camp Gothic horror has surprisingly little in common with its gone-too-soon namesake. Though City of Angels carries over the showrunner—as well as actor Rory Kinnear, playing a different character—most everything else in the series is new and unfamiliar, including a seismic shift in setting from 1890s London to 1938 Los Angeles.

Accordingly, City of Angels tells a very different story from its predecessor, trading out Victorian intrigue for something more akin to L.A. noir, even as it maintains supernatural elements and a very Logan-esque, literary flair. Broadly speaking, it’s still operating in the arena of urban fantasy, though City of Angels‘ new backdrop filters that genre through fresh perspectives and scenarios. The original series exalted in using characters from Gothic literature to reflect ideas of monstrosity that existed in Victorian culture, typically related to sexuality. From Kinnear’s theater-freak Caliban, creation of the callow Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), to the sharp-shooting Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), his lycanthropy fiercely repressed, Penny Dreadful‘s cast of characters were all queer outcasts nursing forbidden desires.

In City of Angels, racial tensions are comparatively more centered than sexual politics, with the planned construction of L.A.’s major freeways driving the city’s Chicano population into conflict with elected officials and heavy-handed police officers. For protagonist Santiagio “Tiago” Vega (Daniel Zovatto), the city’s first Chicano detective, the gathering storm feels particularly combustible, and his loyalties are quickly split between his seen-it-all partner on the force (Nathan Lane) and his understandably outraged brothers, Mateo (Johnathan Nieves) and Raul (Adam Rodriguez). Not helping matters, a wealthy Beverly Hills family has been ritualistically murdered across town, stirring suspicions that practitioners of black magic may be planning something nefarious. And what good could possibly come of German doctor Peter Craft (Kinnear) openly espousing Nazism on the steps of City Hall, even as other Nazi agents work more discreetly to access levers of political power inside?

None whatsoever, if Magda has something to say about it. City of Angels is less supernaturally tinged than its predecessor, and its one headlong dive into the Demimonde (at least in the six episodes sent out for review) is the inclusion of this shape-shifting demon, played with a serpentine charm by Natalie Dormer. Out to prove to fellow deity Santa Muerte (Lorenza Izzo) that humanity is inherently evil, Magda doesn’t exactly stay on the sidelines. Bent on chaos, she slips into the roles of women connected to the series’ various plot threads, speaking dark thoughts into men’s ears and inciting them to violence. As the mousy assistant to a blubbering city councilman (Michael Gladis), she calculates how to best ensure plans for the Arroyo-Seco highway will obliterate the Chicano neighborhood of Belvedere Heights; slipping into another skin, there she is as Rio, dancing the night away at the underground Crimson Cat, a coquettish Italian firebrand who commands a Pachuco gang.

It’s interesting that one of the most immediate, nagging issues with City of Angels is Magda herself. As entertaining as it is to see Dormer cycle between accents and wardrobes (leading L.A. on, it must be said, a rather circuitous route to chaos for an entity who’s capable of inducing it with a well-placed whisper), the character feels half-formed and ancillary, an awkward tie to the supernatural within a series that’s otherwise more interested in depicting real-world history. The problems with Magda speak to the larger weaknesses of City of Angels; this is an extraordinarily busy series, with no fewer than six driving plot threads and a dozen characters, and the strain of sustaining them shows almost immediately. More than half a season in, so much time has been afforded to setting up individual chess pieces that the endgame’s already arrived and one’s barely had a chance to glance at the board.

Logan’s never been shy about wearing myriad influences on his sleeves at once, and City of Angels does steal from the best. There’s a doomed, West Side Story-style romance brewing between Tiago and radio evangelist Sister Molly (Kerry Bishé), and a Guys and Dolls flourish to some of the more fantastical dance sequences. L.A. Confidential and Chinatown hang heavy over the series’ nostalgic, jazzy treatment of police work, and Logan’s central idea—that the construction of motorways across L.A. acted, in a multiplicity of ways, like a form of social engineering—feels of a piece with those classic tales of hard-boiled gumshoes grinding against the gears of bureaucratic “progress.” All the ingredients are there in City of Angels, but the series in its current state is too crowded to let you savor any of their flavors.

The best of the rest:

Beanpole, one of the very best films screened at the New York Film Festival last year, is now screening virtually at arthouse cinemas across the country. Directed by the prodigious Russian talent Kantemir Balagov, it looks at the existential toll of war on those left alive in Leningrad by 1945, focusing on the unlikely relationship between traumatized nurse Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), whose child is in Iya’s care. Devastating but deeply human, it’s the rare film about war that looks squarely at the scale of its hopelessness and still comes away glimmering with hope.

One of the few summer blockbusters not delayed by the coronavirus, Netflix’s Extraction reunites Chris Hemsworth with his Avengers stunt coordinator, Sam Hargrave, making his directorial debut on this stock-and-barrel action-thriller. With their credentials, it’s little surprise that the on-screen spectacle is a cut above what we’ve come to expect from Netflix. This story—of a black-market mercenary (Hemsworth) tasked with retrieving a crime lord’s kidnapped son (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) from Bangladesh—accrues dramatic layers as its central mission precipitates a crisis of purpose for its lethal protagonist.

Also on VOD, True History of the Kelly Gang (whose title is meant ironically) paints a fire-and-brimstone portrait of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, using Peter Carey’s hyper-vivid novel as inspiration. In the hands of director Justin Kurzel (Macbeth), the colonial outback has perhaps never felt this alien or remote on screen, all scorched landscapes and dead trees white and brittle as bone. But it’s a fitting backdrop for this story, set at that far-back point in time where history curls into legend, about a Ned Kelly—played, fearsomely, by George MacKay—locked into the larger-than-life figure he’d become by virtue of an upbringing that gave him little choice in the matter.

Finally, Robert the Bruce (on VOD) acts as something of an unofficial Braveheart sequel, with Angus Macfadyen reprising the same role he played there and picking up with the Scottish outlaw several long years into his war against the English and assorted Scottish clans. The same character was played recently by Chris Pine in David Mackenzie’s mud-caked Outlaw King, and Robert the Bruce makes for a curious comparison piece to both that film and Braveheart, giving Macfadyen (who also co-wrote the script) the opportunity to revisit his best-known character and grant him a worthy swan song. While there’s nothing here to visually rival the character’s past cinematic outings, its exploration of the quiet realities lurking beneath outsized myths makes this a more melancholic, surprisingly thoughtful diversion. Watch, also, for Anna Hutchison (of The Cabin in the Woods, and Starz’s third Spartacus series), effective and moving as the impoverished widow who shelters Robert, and a cameo from Jared Harris, one of the best there is at chewing the castle scenery.

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