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?
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.
The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) Written & Directed by Rahda Blank Streaming on Netflix
I finally caught up with Radha Blank’s debut feature after hearing good things about it all year long on Twitter and elsewhere. It premiered at Sundance and the buzz that followed it reminded me of the excitement that accompanied Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird. As with Gerwig’s debut, I was rooting for it, but worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype. But a great movie has a way of making you forget the chatter and even your own expectations. From the first scene of this joyful, layered story of self-creation, I found it hard to believe that it was Blank’s first film. It is so assured, and wears its influences so lightly, that it feels like the work of a much more seasoned filmmaker.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (2019)
Director: Eva Orner
The corrupt guru is a tricky character, because he often imparts knowledge that is good. Bikram Choudhury was your classic bad guru: hypocritical, greedy, domineering, and cruel, but his “hot yoga” routine was so popular that people were willing to overlook his bullying style, which was peppered with racist and sexist taunts. This changed in 2013, when several women filed charges against him for rape, sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. Their accusations, along with allegations of racism and homophobia, threw the Bikram yoga world into turmoil as devoted students and Bikram studio owners rushed to defend him. Others were disgusted and cut ties to him altogether. Bikram, meanwhile, fled the country after being convicted for unlawfully firing his personal lawyer, who tried to address his harassment.
I don’t have to tell you, the news is bad. Public school is crumbing, the polar bears are going extinct, and my brain is melting from the heat and the constant interruptions from my children and WFH husband. Also my computer died. And our car broke down. I got my novel back from my agent and I have a lot of revisions. I knew I would have to revise and under normal circumstances, I’d be rubbing my hands together. But now I’m just like, how? When? In what universe? Is anyone even reading books anyway? (Actually, I am! Shout out to reading! It’s a great escape.)
For all these reasons and many more, I’ve been wanting to watch movies with a little sweetness to them, and preferably a happy ending. So, here are some of my favorites from the past few weeks. I included star ratings to temper expectations: most are in the 2-3 range and it’s possible that I overrated a few of them just because I need something light-hearted. The point is, I’m not making any grand claims for their quality. But they might distract you from the news for 90 minutes, and give you a good night’s sleep without any nightmares.
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020) ★★★1/2
Directed by James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham Streaming on Netflix
Crip Camp is a Netflix film, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, but I had the unusual experience of seeing it on the big screen a few weeks ago for a press screening. I say unusual not only because this is a documentary that most people will watch at home but because I ventured out to see it when people were just starting to feel nervous about Coronavirus. I wasn’t even sure I should go, but at that time, my kids were still in school, my husband was still going into to work and out to evening events and except for everyone washing their hands a lot, things were relatively normal. It’s eerie how quickly things have changed.
Anyway, I went into the screening feeling anxious and scatterbrained but left feeling centered and full of hope. Crip Camp tells the story of the disability rights movement, which was seeded at a teen summer camp called Camp Jened. The camp itself, located in upstate New York near Woodstock, was ordinary and in terms of its offerings. There was a pool, arts and crafts, sports, and music. The usual. What made it extraordinary was that every kid who went was disabled, which meant that a bunch of teenagers who were used to being pushed to the side were suddenly front and center. For the first time in their lives, the kids experienced what it was like to be among people who were not put off or scared by their disabilities, and who saw them in terms of their personalities, interests, and dreams. It was so freeing that for many of the campers, it was a political awakening. As one camper puts it, there was a realization that “the problem with the disabled isn’t with the disabled, it’s with the outside world.”
I’m having a lot of trouble adjusting to this new reality of Coronavirus. It feels both like I just had my first baby and also, like I’m a teenager, stuck in the house and beholden to my parents. Except I have none of the transformative and energy-giving hormones of new motherhood or the teen years. So I’m just like WHAT IS HAPPENING over and over again. My son’s school and extra-curricular clubs keep sending links to “learning platforms,” and every wellness service I have ever subscribed to, whether it’s the Y (which is now closed) or the mushroom coffee I occasionally splurge on, is inviting me to view videos or join informational zoom hang-outs and I’m like, is this for you, or is it for me? Be honest!
To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You (2020)★★
Directed by Michael Fimognari
Written by Sofia Alvarez and J. Mills Goodloe, based on the novel by Jenny Han
It’s not a good sign when, watching a sequel, you begin to wonder what it was you liked about the original material. I went back to my review of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and saw that I compared it to the Great British Baking Show — high praise, indeed! I was new to the world of Lara Jean and thought there was something sweet and unpretentious about her character. I also really liked Lana Condor, the actor who plays Lara Jean. She’s just as delightful in this sequel, but she can’t rescue the material, which gets bogged down in a lot of high school logistics and relationship drama. Also — and it pains me to say this, because he’s like a Mark Ruffalo Jr. — but I think this second installment reveals the limits of Noah Centineo’s acting abilities. He’s perfectly cast as the unattainable love object in the original, but as a real person in a relationship, he comes off as a shallow performer. He just can’t convey the complexity and vulnerability that is needed.
For a few years, my friends teased me because one evening in 2009, after I’d been writing for a few days and hadn’t paid much attention to the news, I asked if anyone could fill me in on whatever it was that had happened between Kanye West and Taylor Swift earlier in the week. Um, yeah. They could fill me in. Pretty much anyone I talked to at the bar could have filled me in at that point. I’d thought I was bringing up a piece of light gossip, but my friends quickly informed me that this was a world historical Internet Event, one so engulfing that even President Obama had weighed in.