The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) ★★★★1/2 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.
In 1992, at age 19, novelist Sandi Tan wrote and starred in Shirkers, a feature-length road movie shot on the streets of Singapore. The title was inspired by Tan’s idea that in life, there were people who were neither movers nor shakers, but shirkers—those who evade responsibility and duty, escaping the confines of society. It starred Tan as S., a murderer and kidnapper on a mysterious mission to save children. One of Tan’s points of inspiration was J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The plot didn’t matter as much as the mood, which Tan cultivated through carefully chosen locations, props, costumes, and music. Tan hired a friend to compose a soundtrack on his electric guitar, and hand-made many of her props, including a colorful board game that S. uses to plot her kidnappings. S.’s costume was a pink sailor shirt and blue knee-length shorts; she carried an old-fashioned camera on a strap, as well as a leather suitcase. “When I was eighteen,” Tan explains, “I thought you found freedom by building worlds inside your head.”
If you’re thinking about moving to the suburbs but would like to be convinced otherwise, I recommend streaming The Land of Steady Habits immediately. With the exception of a divorcee played by Connie Britton, the characters in this movie are all low-key unhappy as they try to make the best of their affluence. Adapted from Ted Thompson’s novel by the same name, it follows the midlife crisis of Anders, a fifty-something guy who is attempting to forge a new life for himself after divorcing his wife and quitting his lucrative job. The film opens with the screenshot above: Anders trying to choose towels for his new single-guy condo. It’s a striking image that shows both the state of Anders emotional life (bewildered, overwhelmed) and the soul-numbing indecision brought on by big box stores. Maybe it also hints at the extraordinary class divide, where a small percentage of Americans have an endless array of meaningless choices while a huge percentage have no choice but to get by. Continue reading “Review: Land of Steady Habits”→
One of the downsides of being an amateur reviewer with small children at home is that I usually see movies after they’ve been released. Though I try to avoid reviews of movies that I know I’m going to see, it was hard to avoid the buzz on Private Life, Tamara Jenkin’s first feature in eleven years about a couple dealing with infertility. It seemed like every podcast I listened to had something positive to say about it, extolling the quality of the writing and the storytelling and the splendid characterization and the wonderful acting. I second all that, but in the end, I had trouble getting into this movie. My attention wandered. A half-hour in, my husband and I both remarked that it seemed like a lot more time had passed, but not because it was slowly paced. Instead we felt like we had already been dragged through so much pain and indecision. The screenplay of Private Life is very carefully constructed, and I wondered if Jenkins was trying to create in the viewer some of the feelings of frustration and detachment that her characters are experiencing. Continue reading “Review: Private Life”→