Recently, I experienced a phase where everything and nothing looked good enough to watch. Fortunately, I found some options worth spending an evening or two on.
Imagine crossing Jurassic Park with a David Attenborough documentary. Netflix’s Life On Our Planet does that. The eight-part series deploys the technology used to make fictional dinosaurs to explain how plant and animal life on Earth evolved. With narration by Morgan Freeman, the series provides educational moments and wonderful entertainment value. At times, it is what I imagine National Geographic would be like if the dinosaurs had not gone extinct.
Life on Our Planet runs for 8 hour-long episodes on Netflix and is rated TV-PG.
On Amazon Prime, The Burial dramatizes a legal battle between a family-owned funeral home run by Jerry O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) and the giant corporation buying up businesses like his and gouging poor communities in their most vulnerable moments. As lawyers Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx) and Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) fight the case in court, the fight draws out issues around race, family, and predatory capitalism.
The Burial starts at a crawl, laying out the dry details of a deal gone wrong. Once the case hits the courts and the characters’ layers emerge, the acting and the human drama propel the story forward. Jamie Foxx shows his range, as Willie’s swagger contrasts with his humble roots in a sharecropping family. Jurnee Smollet has such poise and eloquence that I loved watching her work in the courtroom. As his character, Hal Dockins, does much of the legwork for Jerry’s lawyers, Mamoudou Athie’s micro expressions beautifully portray how he reads people, trying to prove himself as a young, Black professional. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones offers a steady presence opposite the flashier characters.
The first act of the film could be tighter, pacing the story more steadily, but the performances and the sad details of the narrative are captivating in the second half. Based on a true story, The Burial sensitively deals with racism and issues within the funeral industry. Those curious to know more might enjoy the work of Caitlin Doughty in her books or Ask a Mortician YouTube channel. Amazon also has a new documentary, Silver Dollar Road, which examines the exploitation of Black landowners. For more casual viewers, The Burial both thrills and enlightens.
The Burial was written by Doug Wright, Jonathan Harr, and Maggie Betts, who directed. It runs 126 minutes and is rated R.
If, like me, you are not ready to let autumn go so soon, Hulu has two options. When it was new to theaters, I was sick, so I was delighted to see A Haunting in Venice start streaming on Halloween. In the film, mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) convinces a retired Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) to help her debunk a seance by famed medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) at the palazzo of grieving opera singer, Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). A Halloween murder reveals that there may be more to the story than a mercenary mystic.
Oliver tells Poirot that “Scary stories make life less scary” and much of the film dwells on the emotional aftermath of World War II. Poirot’s skepticism and his reasons for it speak to our time as much as Agatha Christie’s, giving the movie weighty themes beyond the fun of a ghost story. Although the story plods along, the performances and lavish settings kept me engaged. Opposite Kenneth Branaugh, Tina Fey shines. Between her clipped dialogue and the emotional impact of the otherwise silly story, I enjoyed this film.
A Haunting in Venice was written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh. It runs 103 minutes and is rated PG-13.
A scarier choice, The Boogeyman provides plenty of jump scares. Adapted from the Stephen King story, the movie focuses on Will Harper (Chris Messina), a psychologist who works from the home he lives in with his daughters Sadie (Sophie Thatcher) and Sawyer (Vivien Lyra Blair). All of them are grieving the sudden loss of their wife and mother when a distraught, mysterious man comes to visit Will’s practice. When the man…goes…he leaves behind an evil spirit. Sawyer is already terrified of the dark, so a literal Boogeyman lurking in the shadows, hoping to eat her baby teeth is the last thing this family needs.
As far as horror movies go, The Boogeyman uses many familiar tricks. It is hard to fault the production entirely because the story it adapts dates to 1973. Still, aside from a couple of inventive shots involving nightlights, the visuals look as derivative as the story feels. What makes this movie really work, though, are the excellent performances. Chris Messina and Sophie Thatcher are both outstanding actors, and even young Vivien Lyra Blair gives the story a tense, emotional undercurrent. Although it does not have any real surprises, The Boogeyman still entertains.
The Boogeyman was written by Scott Beck, Bryan Woods, and Mark Heyman and directed by Rob Savage. It runs for 98 minutes and is rated PG-13.
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