The Dig (2021) Director: Simon Stone Writer: Moira Buffini, based on a novel by John Preston
With its dramatic cinematography, starry cast, and subtle art direction, The Dig is so smooth and elegant that it sometimes feels lightweight, despite its heavy themes. Set in 1939 in the English countryside, it tells the story of a remarkable archeological discovery on private land. It’s also a portrait of a grieving widow and a country on the verge of war. While this isn’t the most suspenseful movie you’ll ever see, its themes deepen as the story unfolds. In the final act, there was some Malick-like camerawork that had me thinking about the sweep of time and the desperate sadness of war, but in general, I was reminded of high-production television shows like The Crown. The truth is, I watched this over two nights, stopping it halfway through, as if it were a television show, and while I try to avoid doing that, I thought that viewing method suited this movie just fine, and maybe even enhanced it.
While Hollywood fights the streaming wars, almost everyone I know is completely and utterly confused about what is available to watch online and where to find it. Even I have trouble finding things, and while I would never argue that I’m particularly in-the-know, I do follow industry news, and I’m in touch with a variety of publicists about new releases. I also keep a running list of upcoming movies directed by women, which requires some research and digging. And yet, it took me ten minutes to figure out where I can watch Julie Delpy’s new movie, My Zoe, which releases in theaters February 26. I’m still confused about whether or not I can see it at home. It doesn’t look like it’s playing in virtual cinemas, and there’s no information about when and where it might be available for rental or streaming. I’m interested in reviewing this movie, but I’m not sure what the point is, if no one will be able to watch it. It would make more sense to wait until the movie has a streaming date, but what is the streaming date? Why doesn’t it say on the movie’s website? Is it that they don’t yet have a streaming date and/or platform? Or are they holding back the information because they feel it would be inhibiting to someone who is considering seeing it in theaters?
I’ve yet to see Vanessa Kirby on a big screen, but I know she’s a movie star. Over the past year of pandemic home viewing, she is the actor who has jumped off my living room TV. Whether she’s playing a young Princess Margaret (The Crown), a grieving American woman in contemporary Boston (Pieces of a Woman), or a foreign correspondent in 1930s Moscow (Mr. Jones), she is the actor who captivates you most with her resonant voice and direct gaze. She has done it again in The World to Come, bringing a much-needed liveliness to a film that sometimes felt claustrophobic and glum.
John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020) Director: Dawn Porter
My third-grader is writing a report on John Lewis for Black History Month, so Dawn Porter’s Good Trouble was an obvious choice for family movie night. This documentary came out over the summer, just a few weeks before Lewis passed away. Lewis served as a representative for Georgia’s fifth district from 1987-2020, and it was interesting to review his career in this political moment, after Georgia has elected two Democratic senators for the first time in decades. For much of the country, Georgia turning blue felt like a huge surprise, but for Lewis and his supporters, it was the obvious — if not quite inevitable — result of years of grass roots organization to grow the Democratic party and increase access to the polls. Although Lewis is probably best known for his extraordinary example of nonviolent resistance during the marches in Selma, when he and other activists were brutally attacked by state troopers, Porter’s documentary shows how much of his legacy comes from the work he did in the decades that followed the Civil Rights Era, both as a legislator and as a mentor to budding activists and Democratic leaders.
I’m calling it: Herself is the first movie of the Biden Era. It’s empathetic, kind, and emotionally direct. It’s the kind of movie where characters say things like, “you impress me so much.” It would not have been out of place for anyone to remark, “Here’s the thing about life: there are some days when we need a hand and there are other days when we’re called upon to lend one.” Set in Ireland, Herself centers on a single mother, Sandra, who needs help starting over after leaving an abusive marriage. Her employer, friends, and acquaintances quickly come to her aid, volunteering to help her build a house for her and her two young children. It sounds corny, but isn’t in the least, because director Phyllida Lloyd makes room for the complexity of abusive relationships, as well as the lingering psychological and physical trauma. This isn’t a story where everything is okay in the end, but it is one where people are decent and kind to one another, and do their best to fix what is broken and heal one another.
Identifying Features (2020) Director: Fernanda Valadez Writers: Astrid Roundero & Fernanda Valdez
When two boys head out alone into the world, leaving their mothers behind, you know you’re in the realm of fairy tales. What makes Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez’s new drama so powerful is that she marries the stark emotions and visual imagery of myth with the harsh reality of illegal border crossings between Mexico and the United States. The story centers on Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), who searches for her teenage son, Jesús, who has gone missing after leaving his rural Mexican hometown with a friend to find work in the U.S. Within the film’s first five minutes, we learn a crucial piece of information that sets Magdalena on her journey. Normally I would feel fine about spoiling that plot development, but the opening scenes of Identifying Features were so immediately compelling that I don’t want to dilute their power.
Now that Biden is in office and there is an actual plan in place to tackle the pandemic, it feels like we can finally look forward to things again. I’m hoping we’ll be back in the theaters by this fall, and maybe we can see some of these upcoming movies on the big screen. But in the meantime there are plenty of small-screen debuts to enjoy . . .
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar– Available for rental at a premium price Feb 12 Director: Josh Greenbaum Writers: Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig
Kristin Wiig is one of those people who can make me laugh with just a facial expression, so I’m in for this no matter what. As a bonus, it’s written by Wiig and her co-star, Annie Mumolo, who play middle-aged besties, Barb & Star. The two gals decide to leave their Midwest town for the first time to take a vacation in Florida. Hilarity ensues and there’s also an evil villain somehow? Whatever! It looks fun.
Pieces of a Woman (2020) Director: Kornél Mundruczó Writer: Kata Wéber
For the first half-hour of Netflix’s “Pieces of a Woman,” my husband and I were nervous wrecks, sitting on the sofa in our living room. It was the opposite of “Netflix and chill,” more like “Netflix and re-live traumatic experiences.” During the movie’s extended prologue, Vanessa Kirby and Shia LeBeouf play Martha and Sean, a young couple in the midst of a home birth, with Kirby convincingly going through labor, not just the terrified/ecstatic screams we’re used to seeing dramatized on screen, but the uncertain and confusing middle stages of labor, when unexpected physical sensations and emotions begin to arise. The entire birth sequence is shot in one unbroken take, which heightens the feeling of intimacy and vulnerability, especially as things begin to go wrong.
This is just a short post to say that I’m getting rid of star ratings on my reviews. I tried them for a year, and I don’t like them. They annoy me and give me stress and end up feeling kind of meaningless because so many movies end up with 3 or 3.5 stars. And then there’s the problem of the five-star rating. I can’t decide what it means to me–masterwork? One of the best movies of a particular year? A personal favorite? Clearly I overthink the stars. I use them on letterboxd and they can be useful when sorting through a big group of movies. If you really want to know my star rating, you can check it there.
I’m starting a monthly newsletter. Every month you’ll get 4-5 short and sweet film recommendations sent to your inbox. My goal is to pick movies for a variety of moods, whether you need a low-stakes weeknight watch, an escape to a beautiful landscape, or if you’re ready to dig into a complex historical issue. Movies will be a mix of new and old, with an emphasis on female creators. The idea is to help you sort through the endless streaming content to find the movies that you might not have noticed.
Please give it a try, and let me know what you think. This first newsletter will be sent this week. You can sign up by following the link below: