My Octopus Teacher – 7.5

Stunning photography, both above and underwater, made this a pleasure to watch, and the novelty of an octupus’s life, up-close and personal, made it fascinating. Like almost all nature docs, there was a fair amount of anthropomorphism: I submit that the title character was acting on (animal) instinct, not employing “intelligence” to teach his human visitor. Craig Foster’s disdain for Scuba gear was a bafflement: how could he be so patient in observing an octopus in its den when he must regularly and repeatedly resurface for air? Presumably whoever was filming him–another mystery–had an air tank, making possible the shots of pajama sharks swimming around. The overlay of Foster’s finding himself added little, but the brief lifespan of the octopus was enough.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – 8.5

Pure catnip: an Aaron Sorkin drama with pithy dialogue, clearly drawn characters, a hopefully moral universe and a healthy dose of politics, past and present. Being in my personal revisit-Vietnam moment helped. Having just watched Platoon, the Ken Burns 10-part documentary, Da 5 Bloods and having read Oliver Stone’s and Randy Hobler’s memoirs, this moment of history didn’t seem so distant. The all-star cast was just that: all-star. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong were brilliant, and great fun, as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The one weak link was Eddie Redmayne, an Englishman miscast as Tom Hayden. Conversely, the most brilliant performance was by another Brit: Mark Rylance’s performance as William Kunstler. The echoes with 2020–street protests and a repressive government–made the story all the more compelling.

Time – 6.5

If nothing else, this film immersed me in an unfamiliar world, Black life in Louisiana. Maybe there was nothing else. The story covered 20 years between Sibil and Robert’s failed bank robbery and Robert’s long-awaited release from jail.  Without any other facts, though, no points were made about the justice or incarceration systems. Most remarkable were the outcomes for the couples’s four sons, although again we weren’t shown how that happened. Sibil was an appealing and impressive central character, but all we saw her do was talk. The story line was a bit hard to follow, as it jumped around in time: confusion was a substitute for profundity.

 

 

An Easy Girl – 6.5

It is a pleasure to enter the lush world of the French Riviera, albeit on the small TV screen, and to return to the world of French (Belgian) cinema, where the “action” is a series of conversations, with some (large) bare breasts thrown in. I was somehow reminded of Proust by this story of an innocent 16-year-old, a summer at the beach, observing and learning about sex and society. We get to know four people, and that’s enough.

The Assistant – 6

Imagine the most demeaning job you can think of, despite the status of working as assistant (what used to be called “secretary”) to the ceo of a glamorous entertainment company. Then imagine a movie that consists entirely of living through one day in that job, exclusively from the assistant’s point of view. I kept waiting for something to happen, for the plot to kick in. But no, we just watched Julia Garner, looking drab in a drab outfit, endure one humiliation after another. That was it.

Just Mercy – 8

Wonderful performances by Jamie Foxx, Michael Jordan and Brie Larson make this a pleasure to watch. Even not having read the book, there were no surprises, and if the story were not true you’d criticize the screenwriter for a lack of imagination. But what’s wrong with a happy ending that makes you cry? And events since this movie came out in 2019 have only made the depicted injustices against Black lives more credible and relevant.

Palm Springs – 4.5

A must-see for all Andy Samberg fans, not so much for anyone else.  OK, Cristin Milioti is pretty good, too. But the rest – plot, setting, secondary characters – is pretty puerile, a bad takeoff on Groundhog Day. The movie lurches from gag to gag, with no direction home.

The Painter and the Thief – 3

This documentary is sort of like Normal People, except the people are unattractive, uninteresting, inarticulate and not erotically charged. Barbora is a better painter than interviewer and it’s never clear what she’s looking for or finding in Bertil, who was so drugged he can’t remember why he stole her painting or what he did with it. The only thing more puzzling than why someone made this film is how they did it.

Lost Girls – 8

What a relief, after watching soaps that have no ending (most recently, The Restaurant), to watch a 90-minute movie that has a premise and characters, develops them, builds dramatically and has a resolution – even if, as the opening credit warns us, it’s an “unsolved” mystery. Amy Ryan is sensational as the obsessed, albeit very flawed, mother who launches a crusade after her daughter, a young sex worker,  goes missing. Gabriel Byrne, one of my favorite actors, is the beleaguered police commissioner in charge of the case, and the similarly wonderful Thomasin McKenzie is the remarkably stable sister of the victim. The film, by Serin’s first boss Liz Garbus, has a message, but it never gets in the way of the story. Her directorial flourishes are a bit obtrusive, but they add a big-budget gloss to low-budget sets and settings.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always – 7

Planned Parenthood is the unsung hero of this wrenching story of 17-year-old Autumn Callahan, pregnant in Pennsylvania, who goes to New York City for an abortion. Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn as an awkward, affectless teen whose idea of conversation is “Whatever.” Her cousin who accompanies her has a bit more spirit, but there is a lot of quiet. Writer-director Eliza Hittman paints a picture so real, you feel it must be. Simple but bold, this movie touches a nerve.