Now that all the awards season hoopla is over and we’re in the beginning-of-the-year doldrums (meaning the release of movies that are most likely not award-worthy), I thought I’d review some noteworthy series streaming on TV and a small, independent film now playing in an art house theater or available on direct-to-DVD. The first of these is “The Outsider” on HBO. Based on a novel by Stephen King, a writer we can depend on for shivers and eeriness, it’s really good at making us feel unsettled… and unsafe. A beloved high school baseball coach (a vastly underrated Jason Bateman who breaks your heart in this one) is accused of kidnapping and murdering a young boy. There are eyewitnesses, forensic evidence, fingerprints—the perfect case to take to a judge. He is arrested and held in custody. However, there is also proof that he could not have done this awful thing, as he was at a conference in another city. There is proof of that too—video, witnesses, all of it. Intriguing? You betcha. Get ready to have your world upended by creepy, weird Steven King plot twists. The first two episodes are so tense that I wondered how long they could sustain it. And, indeed, episodes three and four lose some stamina, but we come roaring back in episode five. HBO is releasing one chapter a week, so I look forward to seeing how it all plays out. A stellar cast includes Bateman, Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo and a whole host of others, not to mention fine scripts by the highly gifted Richard Price.
Now in theaters, “Waiting for Anya” is a well-intentioned adaptation of a YA novel by Michael Morpurgo that tells the story of Jo, a shepherd boy in a small town nestled in the Pyrenees during WWII. The war has barely touched him and the other townspeople; he is completely unaware of who Jews are (“Weren’t they in the bible?”) and, as of yet, the Germans have not invaded this part of southern France. The story concerns Jo’s transition from innocence to becoming part of a small group that carries young Jewish children over the mountains into Spain and safety. The film is slow-moving and rarely grips us, which is a shame. The fact that the story was crafted for younger people infuses the entire production with innocence despite the grimness of the times in which it takes place. Two tragic figures stand out: the grown Jew in hiding, Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt in a sensitive performance), and a colonel in the occupying German army, the fine actor Thomas Kretschmann, who has the face and the soul of a poet, a misfit in uniform. The scenery is gorgeous; one would wish the screenplay and its execution measured up to the scenery.
Harlan Coben writes really tense American mysteries; I read every one the moment it’s published. “The Stranger,” on Netflix, is another in a series of British-made adaptations of his books, and the switch of settings from the U.S. to England works quite well. A happily married man is with his son at a sports event when a woman comes up to him and tells him that two years ago, his wife faked a pregnancy and miscarriage. He is shocked, wants to ignore her, but she offers some tantalizing bits of evidence. When he gets home, he investigates and there is enough to the story that he confronts his wife. She hedges her response and then she disappears. This is Coben with his favorite plot device: a middle-class, usually married, man is presented with new information about his life that baffles and angers him, leading him on a path that has more twists and turns than a steep mountain pass. Each new discovery leads to more danger and often life-threatening results. Eight episodes, a binge-worthy weekend. Go for it.