Autumn Movie Diary

Watching movies has been a welcome distraction over the past few weeks. I’m breathing a sigh of relief that Biden won but very distressed by the way Covid-19 is spiking all over the country. Looks like we’re all going to be inside for several more months. Here are some new movies to keep you company . . .

On The Rocks (2020) ★★★1/2
Written & Directed by Sofia Coppola
Streaming on Apple+

A friend of mine tells me that Bill Murray’s drink of choice is champagne on ice. I don’t know how true this is but I remembered it while watching On The Rocks, because if Bill Murray’s performance were a drink, it would be champagne on ice: lightly effervescent, mellow, and something you can enjoy without becoming agitated or losing any sleep. Murray anchors this lovingly detailed story about an author, Laura (Rashida Jones), who is feeling a bit lost in her marriage and career, so she turns to her father, Felix (Murray) for help. I fear that many will write this movie off as too slight, and set in too privileged a milieu, but for me it was a recognizable portrait of a certain transitional period of motherhood and marriage when you’re coming out of the baby years and trying to find your place in a new phase of life — while at the same time balancing all the demands of childcare and work. It’s a little bit of a Cat in the Hat story, with Bill Murray playing the not-quite unwelcome guest who makes everything more fun, but also worse. His Felix is wonderfully written by Coppola as a man whose superficiality and retrograde beliefs are almost mitigated by his immense personal charm.

Totally Under Control (2020) ★★★★
Directors: Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger
Streaming on Hulu

Everyone’s been talking lately about how the pandemic has messed with our collective sense of time. It feels like February 2020 — the pre-Covid world — was five years ago. If you want to reorganize your understanding of the last nine months, I highly recommend this documentary about the Trump administration’s botched response to Covid-19. It was pulled together with astonishing speed, and includes interviews with former CDC officials who were fired for speaking the truth about the severity of the virus.

You will be shocked when you learn just how early the government was aware of the dangers of the virus — it was in the early January when they first had an inkling of the potential crisis ahead — and you will wring your hands at all the missed opportunities. I think for me, the most frustrating was hearing from a Trump supporter, a businessman who saw the need for masks and other PPE in February and had a solid plan to manufacture everything immediately. He got in touch with the Trump administration but was ignored by the President, who wasn’t motivated to take practical measures to prevent the transmission of the virus — mainly, it seemed, because he found them boring and unglamorous. Over and over again, you see an administration that has little to no interest in the nuts and bolts of governing. Now, as they block Biden from gaining access to government documents to aid in his transition, the Biden Administration will have to work even harder to get the virus in check.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) ★★★★
Writer & Director: Eliza Hittman
Streaming on HBO

I put off watching this movie about a young woman desperate to obtain an abortion even though it had a lot of good reviews and buzz. It debuted in theaters right as quarantine was shutting down New York City, and I just wasn’t in the mood to watch something depressing. I finally saw it over the weekend and I wish I hadn’t put it off for so long. I had the idea that it would be very slow-paced, but it wasn’t at all; instead, it was very deliberate and economical in its storytelling, focusing on the logistical hoops that Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) must jump through as she navigates a healthcare system that definitely does not have her best interests at heart. It reminded me of one of my favorite movies this year: The Assistant. Like The Assistant, it doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, save for one extended scene that was a formal interview between two people — and in this interview, the heart of the story is revealed.

Over the Moon (2020) ★★1/2
Director: Glen Keane and John Kahrs
Writers: Audrey Wells and Jennifer Lee McDevitt
Streaming on Netflix

This was a sweet movie that my kids really liked and have watched twice already. It’s a musical, and my three-year-old ADORES the soundtrack and asks to listen to it every morning by saying “moooon” and then gesturing in a way that signifies “over.” For me, the movie was tonally uneven, veering between psychological realism and wild fantasy. I think the music was meant to bridge the gap but the songs were too much of a hodge-podge. Still, I would encourage my children to watch the movie for a third time, because the animation is really beautiful and even though the story doesn’t make a ton of sense, it’s full of beautiful imagery and positive characters and role models.

My Octopus Teacher (2020) ★★★
Writer & Director: Pippa Erlich and James Reed
Streaming on Netflix

My husband called this the “Chef’s Table of nature movies” and that’s about right. It’s nature filtered through the POV of one particular guy who forged a close bond with an octopus and, from the octopus, learned how get along better with his son. There’s a lot of voice over and fancy music and nice cinematography. I have to give this documentary credit because it enthralled my 8-year-old, who was skeptical that he would like it. But he’s really into animals and swimming, so I thought he might take vicarious pleasure in seeing this man dive under the ocean every day to meet his octopus friend. Some of the footage is truly spectacular and I enjoyed this as a nature video. It felt short as a story about a man and his demons.

Miss Juneteeth (2020) ★★★1/2
Writer & Director: Channing Godfrey Peoples
VOD on various streaming platforms

Channing Godfrey Peoples was just nominated for Gotham Award’s Breakthrough Director Award for this insightful mother-daughter story set in East Texas. It follows Turquoise Jones (Nicole Beharie), a former Miss Juneteenth pageant winner who pressures her daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) to enter the same pageant so that her daughter can win a college scholarship. Although Turquoise earned a scholarship when she won the contest, she never ended up getting her degree. Instead she had Kai, now a teenager who just isn’t that interested in pageants. In the hands of another director, this might have been a story about a mother living vicariously through her daughter in a really toxic way, but instead Turquoise and Kai have a lot of self-awareness, which they use to navigate their changing relationship. Really, this is a story about growing up as Kai gains independence and Turquoise figures what her life is going to look like when her daughter leaves home. One of this movie’s many charms is its regional specificity and glimpses into small-town life.

Stargirl (2020) ★★
Director: Julia Hart
Writer: Kristin Hahn, Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz
Streaming on Disney+

When I was in my mid-twenties, I wrote an essay in 2005 (that no one would publish because it was too weird) called “Notes on the Precious Aesthetic,” which was a play on Susan Sontag’s essay, “Notes on Camp.” It was pretentious but that was the point: I was trying to write an essay that was an example of the aesthetic I was encountering in a lot of books and movies. The Precious Aesthetic was a nostalgic sensibility, a longing for the simplicity of childhood and certain defunct objects from childhood — things like cassette tape players, tin lunch boxes, and terry cloth wrist bands. It reveled in idiosyncratic details, charming incongruities, and perfectly curated playlists. The Precious Aesthetic was vehemently Not Ironic, but it loved deadpan. In my never-published essay I described it as “a mixture of the bittersweet, the bizarre, and the sentimental.” It was tangentially related to the manic pixie dream girl phenomenon and maybe the whole cupcake thing, too. In retrospect, I think it was a generation of American artists trying not to think about what the U.S. military was doing overseas in the wake of 9/11.

Anyway. This movie is Precious Aesthetic but trickled down for a younger generation.

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