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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘The Promised Land,’ ‘Biosphere’ and more streaming gems



Mads Mikkelsen, home from war, seeks to make his fortune by developing a wild heath in “The Promised Land.”(Henrik Ohsten/Magnolia Pictures)

By Jason Bailey


Speculative science fiction, period drama and sly thrillers are among this month’s off-the-beaten-path recommendations from your subscription streamers.



‘The Promised Land’ (2023)

Stream it on Hulu.


Mads Mikkelsen stars in this epic period drama as Capt. Ludvig Kahlen, described as “a presumptuous soldier in a flea-ridden uniform” — and that’s what they say to his face. The sneers and humiliation he is subjected to by the ruling class of mid-18th-century Denmark give the picture its juice; the potent narrative is as much a pointed class commentary as a historical drama, as the poor but dedicated Kahlen tries to build a workable manor out of a barren slab of heath, and discovers that his idealistic notions of honor and hard work won’t get him much of anywhere with these aristocrats. Chief among them is Simon Bennebjerg’s De Schinkel, the most loathsome movie villain in many a moon. And director Nikolaj Arcel builds up a furious head of steam on the way to an utterly satisfying conclusion.



‘A Simple Favor’ (2018)

Stream it on Netflix.


Paul Feig made his name directing such movies as “Bridesmaids” and “Spy,” uproarious comic gems that provided career-best showcases for their female stars. He shines a similarly flattering spotlight on Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively here, though with a surprising genre shift, eschewing the broad comedy of his earlier work for this stylish, semi-Sapphic neo-noir thriller. Kendrick is a typical suburban mom who finds herself dazzled by (and quietly attracted to) Lively’s sophisticated outlier; their children are schoolmates, but they may as well be from different planets. The twists and turns of Jessica Sharzer’s screenplay (from the Darcey Bell novel) are compelling, but Kendrick and Lively’s swoony relationship, and its spiky playfulness, are what make “A Simple Favor” sing.



‘Dean’ (2017)

Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.


Absurdist stand-up comedian Demetri Martin tried his hand at feature filmmaking (and went all-in, writing, directing and starring) with this modest but amusing tale of grief, family and arrested development. As an actor, Martin is occasionally hampered by his deadpan delivery (one of his greatest weapons onstage); luckily, Martin the director is wise enough to fill out the cast with such heavy-hitters as Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen and Gillian Jacobs. Kline provides the best material in the picture as Martin’s father, a recent widower whose attempt at new beginnings cause his son to reevaluate his own life.



‘Austenland’ (2013)

Stream it on Max.


Jerusha Hess, who wrote the hits “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre” with her husband, Jared, made her directing debut with this charmingly eccentric adaptation of the novel by Shannon Hale. The always charismatic Keri Russell is delightful as a Jane Austen obsessive who heads to an Austen-themed English resort hotel, hoping to find a “Pride and Prejudice”-style romance, only to bump up against the limits of romantic fantasy. Bret McKenzie, Jane Seymour and an exuberantly unhinged Jennifer Coolidge are among the supporting cast.



‘The Duke of Burgundy’ (2015)

Stream it on Mubi.


Writer and director Peter Strickland constructs lavish, peculiar pictures that seem set less in our own world than that of 1960s and ’70s exploitation movies. This tartly kinky effort is firmly in the subset of Eurosex cinema, a period in which foreign sensibilities allowed far greater liberties than the puritanical Hollywood of the day. In exploring the complex dynamics of a female BDSM dynamic, Strickland seeks out universal truths of need, envy and power — while still reveling in the eroticism and intensity of the relationship.



‘Biosphere’ (2023)

Stream it on Hulu.


Mark Duplass and Sterling K. Brown star as the last two people on Earth, the former president and his scientist pal, weighing the particulars and logistics of sustaining the human race in this delicately crafted comedy-drama (with the barest necessary scaffolding of science fiction) from director Mel Eslyn. The screenplay, which Eslyn wrote with Duplass, finds them living in the titular structure, and after the expected (and amusing) comic explorations of their shared space, the real subject of the picture comes into play. It’s a beautifully unspooled surprise, which will remain so here; suffice it to say it’s a film with much to say about boundaries, tolerance and masculinity, and it does so with wit and grace.



‘For Love & Life: No Ordinary Campaign’ (2024)

Stream it on Amazon Prime Video.


Brian Wallach and Sandra Abrevaya are political organizers who met on the 2008 Obama campaign, fell in love, got married and started a family. Their storybook romance hit a speed bump in 2017, when Brian — all of 36 years old — was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease), a terminal neurodegenerative disorder. Unwilling to accept his near certain death sentence, Wallach and Abrevaya started a nonprofit advocacy organization, I Am ALS, using their experience in political advocacy to raise awareness and funds. It’s an inspiring, heartbreaking and occasionally infuriating story, brought to vivid and moving life by director Christopher Burke, who uses his extensive access to the couple to paint a portrait of uncommon dedication with real intimacy.



‘All That Breathes’ (2022)

Stream it on Max.


Brothers Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud have dedicated their lives to caring for the wounded black kite birds of New Delhi, a species regarded with such sneering dislike by the citizens of their city that it would be something like taking up the cause of pigeon care in New York City. But Shaunak Sen’s quietly moving documentary (an Academy Award nominee in the documentary category) honors the nobility of that work — all animals are living creatures, deserving of respect and health — and prevents it from becoming too niche by highlighting the universal aspect of the brothers’ lives. They work too much, at the expense of time spent with friends and family, and while work/life balance is far too bland a subject for such an expressive film, it conveys the surprising relatability of these men and their mission.

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