Beyond "Hamilton": International Films and Series Showcase Diversity
The premiere last week of "Hamilton" on Disney+ was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon.
It's unusual for a film premiering on the small screen to generate quite so much attention across so many sectors of society. That kind of awareness is typically limited to theatrical releases.
Obviously, the popularity of the original musical fueled the excitement, and the COVID lockdown has led to more home viewing in general. But so many have also found inspiration in the musical's empowering messages for people of color, immigrants and women.
"Hamilton" may have gotten all the recent buzz, but there are plenty of lesser known streaming releases that invite us to consider other cultures, perspectives and ways of living.
Released last week on Netflix, "Homemade" is a series of 17 international short films made during the COVID pandemic, offering a literal window into other lives -- real and imagined.
The short films serve as an introduction to the filmmaking themes and approaches of some of the world's most acclaimed working directors. There's a fascinating range of storytelling styles on display.
Still, you might find yourself picking and choosing. Some directors address the pandemic directly or just point a camera at their own families. Even in quarantine, it's really not that interesting to watch someone else's home movies (the exception is London-based Gurinder Chadha's fast-paced family diary, sweetly narrated by her kids).
More engaging are the shorts that try to capture the emotional effects of this unique global experience, from affection and empathy to nostalgia, boredom, humor and even encroaching insanity.
Italy's Paolo Sorrentino elicits the biggest laughs in his imagining of the Pope and the Queen of England quarantining together, gently ribbing and even flirting with each other.
Chilean Pablo Larrain's simple set-up of an aging gentleman Skyping old lovers, trying to reignite a single flame before his time ends (all with his masked nurse sitting discretely in the background), is funny and poignant at once.
A phone-shot thriller by Antonio Campos is haunting, while Chile's Sebastian Lelio stages a captivating home-set musical. French director Ladj Ly's teenage protagonist broadens his horizons by flying a drone around his multiethnic neighborhood, peering into neighbors' windows.
It's the flight we may all have taken in our imaginations during the long days of lockdown.
Rapturous jazz fills every episode of this Paris-set series from creator Paul Thorne and four international director including Damien Chazelle ("Whiplash," "La La Land").
The series follows ex-pat jazz club owner and renowned musician Elliot Udo (André Holland) as he tries to solve the mystery behind the murder of his friend and business partner Farid (Tahar Rahim).
From Eddy's tortured affair with the band's lead singer (played by "Cold War" star Joanna Kulig) to his complicated relationship with his troubled daughter, on an extended visit from New York, to the other band members' problems with love, addiction, money, loss and more, the characters all seem on the verge of unraveling.
Their lives are messy but genuine – like the Paris they inhabit, where the Eiffel Tower is only suggestively glimpsed from afar.
Their restlessness is underscored by the setting, the music and the handheld camera work, all reminiscent of 60s-era films. Some of the cast are professional musicians, not actors, and some of the music feels improvised, adding realism and artistry to this series.
Another Netflix series follows the parallel stories of two young Swedes recruited as ISIS brides. One is living in Syria and putting her life at risk as an informant to get out. The other is a teenager raised in a progressive Muslim family who is seduced into more radical beliefs.
Nothing here is black and white – the ISIS recruiter is a sadistic charmer, while the lead detective, a Bosnian refugee as a child, keeps dangerously breaking rules to try to thwart an imminent terrorist attack on Swedish soil.
Fast-paced and moody, "Caliphate" explores sides of Sweden you don't usually see on film. It broke records on demand in its home country, and regular cliffhangers will keep you clicking "Next Episode" right through the full first season.
This Spanish film isn't entirely successful in its attempt to weave together three different stories set in Africa, even if all three stories are compelling in their own ways with different takes on themes of immigration, borders and family.
The film's namesake, Adu, is the real star – a 6-year-old boy from Cameroon on the run from poachers and traveling clandestinely and dangerously across several countries in West Africa.
Adu is resilient and adorable, but his story is both tragic and, sadly, probably not so uncommon.
It's rare to see some of these corners of Africa depicted on film. The setting and Adu's tale make this movie a worthwhile watch.
This column originally ran in The Daily Record.