WATCH CLOSELY: Lions and Lambs

By Peg Aloi

Here are some recommendations of old and new streaming picks: some are leaving very soon, some should be around for a while.

They say that the month of March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. I don’t know about you, but the first half of the month here in upstate New York saw extremely mild and warm weather, and three days ago we had a doozy of a winter storm with ice coating trees and heavy wet snow breaking limbs and cutting off electrical power 2000s. So, in like a lamb, out like a lion. Climate crisis? Or just shitty weather? Either way the weather gives us something immediate to focus given all the other aspects of life generating worry and angst just now, whether in the realms of politics, media, or public health.

So, if you’re like me, perhaps you find yourself in unsettling times doing a little bit of binge watching on TV, either as a distraction or a comforting diversion. I got you, kindred spirits. Here are some recommendations of old and new streaming picks: some are leaving very soon, some should be around for a while. There’s roaring, there’s gamboling, teeth and fluff, lions and lambs.

Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave sharing an intimate moment in Ken Russell’s The Devils.

Run Don’t Walk: Legendary English director Ken Russell’s The Devils is an iconic film with elements of horror and social satire. The movie was extremely controversial when it was released in 1971 — it is one of a very tiny number of art house English films to receive an X rating in some markets. Various edited cuts reportedly exist; the most recent version is now showing on the Criterion Channel until the end of the month. Hurry up and watch it! The leonine Oliver Reed is brilliant as Father Urbain Grandier, a medieval priest who was executed as a heretic. The film was adapted from the 1952 historical novel by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun, which was based on actual events. The film also stars Vanessa Redgrave as a bitter, manipulative nun who runs a convent in a French village on the cusp of revolutionary social upheaval. This religious horror classic is also recommended viewing for cinematic and historical context before seeing the new nun horror film, Immaculate. Russell’s provocative, brilliantly-rendered narrative bears watching more than once. Watch closely, friends, and take in its layers of meaning, biting social commentary, and clever anachronism. And enjoy the outstanding performances of the entire cast. And there’s more: watch for impressive scenic design by a very young Derek Jarman. Other rarely-seen Russell films are screening on the Criterion Channel now, so do check out Mahler (about the esteemed composer, Gustav Mahler) and Savage Messiah, about an iconoclastic young French sculptor and his much older female muse.

Rose Byrne and Glenn Close in a scene from Damages.

Redux: I’ve been re-watching Damages, an FX series that jumped to DIRECTV before its third season was released. That made it difficult for people to continue watching (yeah, streaming sucks but remember broadcast TV? Wait, don’t answer that). I thought Damages ended with a fourth season, but I’m currently watching the fifth and final season on Hulu. I love this show because of its artful use of flashbacks and flash forwards to tell a complicated story of a cutthroat lawyer (an incendiary performance by Glenn Close) and her new young protege (the excellent Rose Byrne). The back and forth between these characters is compelling to watch: they take turns being predator and prey, both with each other and with their high-powered, corrupt clients and criminals. The writing and directing is first rate, though the fifth season was slightly more uneven — somewhat expository and clumsy at times — compared to the excellence of the first four seasons. Still, by season four the narrative was so well established and, frankly, addictive, that this is a minor complaint. The marvelous cast gives top notch performances, the standouts including Ted Danson, Marcia Gay Harden, Campbell Scott, Martin Short, Janet McTeer, and Tate Donovan.

This is the same creative and production team (Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman) that was responsible for the Netflix series Bloodline (2015-2017), another tightly executed show with a dream set of performers. Set in the Florida Keys, the storyline focused on the secrets and crimes of a wealthy, troubled family: it stars the late great Sam Shepard, as well as Sissy Spacek, Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini, Ben Mendelsohn, and Chloe Sevigny.

Celeste Barber in Wellmania

Gone Too Soon: Sometimes a new series shows plenty of promise, ends with a cliffhanger, and then it is canceled. I really liked the Australian comedy series Wellmania, about an ambitious young woman whose chaotic, decadent life comes to a halt when she has an unexpected cardiac event. Celeste Barber plays Liv, a food writer who visits her family in Australia for a few days, then collapses in the airport on her way home to New York for a career-changing meeting. Forced to remain in Australia while she recovers, she commits to a radical healthy lifestyle. Yet she continually reverts to her late night partying habits, much to the dismay of her family and friends. As Liv struggles to regain her health, she begins to understand that her healing has to take place on deeper level than she may be ready for.

Despite the premise, this was a very funny series, with vivid characters, snappy dialogue, and plenty of emotional and dramatic suspense. What’s more, Wellmania’s thoroughly contemporary story, set in a world obsessed with social media status and shallow engagement, had the virtue of exploring the many ways people create obstacles to their own well being. I was sorry to see this Netflix series isn’t being renewed, despite plenty of critical praise. It’s worth a watch all the same.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She has written on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Dread Central, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Refinery29, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts