Based on John Preston’s 2007 novel of the same title, The Dig centers itself as a dramatization of the 1939 excavation of the sixth-century Anglo-Saxon ship, the treasure-filled Sutton Ho, which was one of the biggest archeological finds of the 20th-century. It’s a melancholic event that invites evocative metaphor: As the movie focuses on the passing of time, repressed longing, and the fleeting nature of human existence through the wooden vessel, which was a once-imposing structure that was now compressed into the ground. And with its novelistic scope, The Dig does indeed deliver characters locked within such themes.
With a confident visual style, inertia defines The Dig as it follows Edith (Carey Mulligan), an upper-class English widow and mother in the late 1930s who is fulling a dream too long deferred. The dream is to dig up her backyard. It’s a big one, though, on her estate in Suffolk that features ancient burial mounds. To this end, Edith, whose youthful interest in archeology was suppressed because of her gender, hires Basil Brown, a determined freelance archaeologist played by Ralph Fiennes. And it’s only from there where Brown’s crew increases, with help from Edith’s cousin (Johnny Flynn) and a discontented married couple (Ben Chaplin and Lily James), with the British Museum soon to horn in. As these modest narrative points tick by, director Simon Stone and cinematographer Mike Eley pass the time with elegant compositions and a free-flowing style that both enhances and contrasts with the period setting. The dusty, aged color scheme conveys the look of a faded photograph; while the handheld, wide-angle camerawork brings a visual revisionism à la The Favourite or Jackie. And with doses of the aforementioned themes, The Dig commendably never strikes its notes with a hammer. Trading on the great British art of understatement. The Dig, told with a simple delicacy, admirably finds moments of poetry even if can often stay on the surface.
The Dig is available to stream on Netflix
If there’s anything actually worth missing about the old-age leading man it isn’t actually some masculine ideal. It’s a kind of believability. There was a time when alcoholic, prematurely middle-aged stars could be seen stumbling through the motions of a Hollywood plot. These men were exponentially more magnetic and commanding than the average American but still looked like they might have worked as dockworkers or boxers before they ever stumbled into a theater class. Maybe blame it the obsession with Men’s Health-cover abs, but at this point so much of our male actors all look like they could only be from Hollywood, even phonier than the generation before. Perhaps this is unfair to Justin Timberlake, who has barely been in movies since the early 2010s. But the truth is that there might not be any stars of similar recognition who could credibly play the title character in Palmer: a former small-town football prospect, once addicted to opioids, who has recently been paroled after twelve years in prison. A littler older than the role asks for yet doesn’t bear the visible wear and tear, he inhabits it through the usual means: smiling minimally, playing everything at an emotional chill. For a guy who’s spent a long time behind bars, he doesn’t seem to have any rough edges.
As is so often the case in such feel-good dramas, the job of keeping the audience engaged instead falls on an adorable little boy, Sam (Ryder Allen), whose love of fairy princesses, make-up, and dresses makes him both a target for elementary school bullies and a fountain of precocious wisdom. Sam lives with his mother, Shelly (Juno Temple), in a trailer next door to Palmer’s grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), who is often left watching after the boy. This is presumably meant to represent some kind of American microcosm, as blue-collar settings with grandmas and ugly couches often do. But under the direction of Fisher Stevens, it comes across as one of those bland story beats and subplots, as generic as the acoustic guitar on the soundtrack.
A chain of events, including the disappearance of Temple’s character for drug-related reasons, put Palmer in the position of having to look after Sam. This is what’s known as a redemptive arc. The ex-con, who has landed a job as a janitor at Sam’s school, softens up, bonding with the kid, and eventually romancing Sam’s freshly divorced teacher, Miss Maggie (Alisha Wainwright). We learn that Palmer is a Good Guy; when he throws a punch, it’s for the Right Reasons. As for the third act, it should be familiar to anyone who knows stories like this need unwieldy melodrama. The best thing that can be said about Palmer is that it’s innocuous with a leisurely pace. Anyone who’s spent considerable time around young kids knows that they can be both quirky and mean. The world of recess represents something of the pressures of grown-up society, which tend to be gendered in the worst ways. It’s hard to argue with the film’s thesis: People should be allowed to be whoever they are, and men in general could use a lot more of what is usually been categorized as a maternal instinct. But when characters are split into good and bad, Goofuses and Gentlemen, the plea ends up being addressed at nothing in particular. Nothing much feels authentic, anyway. Truly a déjà vu movie, Palmer has its leisurely pleasures, but they’re ultimately soaked in sentimental tropes.
Palmer is available to stream on Apple TV+
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is a film of a juicy premise: Two decades after moving to America to further her career, fortysomething neurosurgeon Márta (Natasa Stork) returns to her native Budapest — in part, we quickly learn, to start a relationship with the fellow doctor, János (Viktor Bodó), with whom she’s fallen in love. But when he’s a no-show at their predetermined rendezvous point, she finds him at the hospital… only to discover that he appears to have no idea who she is and no memory of the plans they made two days earlier. Did Márta fabricate the connection (and conversations) with this man in her head? Or is János playing some strange game? The intrigue is as palpable as it sounds.
One way to look at Lili Horvát’s challenging feature is a story that unfolds in the dazed aftermath of Márta’s swoon. Plenty of movies get described as “dreamlike,” but Preparations has an uncanny, subconscious logic to it — a menacing sensation that drifts from scene to scene and mystery to mystery. The vagaries of the human brain go literally on display: As we get scenes of Márta at work with exposed craniums. And Márta and János’ connection with the literal brain are juxtaposed against their uncertainty in each others’ presence; a scene in which Márta stalks János down the street before their physical movements inexplicably sync together transfers their disorientation onto the audience. There are movies that are confusing because their makers don’t know what they’re doing, and there are ones that are confusing because they do — Preparations mostly belongs in the second category. Horvát really offers a maddening anti-drama, raising a question and then studiously downplaying its importance to the story or characters. One is left to grasp at possible metaphorical straws and, finally, to admires the almost trollish audacity of its final shot, when Horvát outright winks at how much she’s left so much hanging. Whether or not it all comes together, in some form, I’m still insure (a rewatch does feel needed, for me at least), but Horvát’s gusto is worth praise. Wallowing in its enigmas, Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time acutely renders a teasing disorientation to places worthy of seduction.
Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is available in Virtual Cinemas