“The Dig” (Netflix) Ralph Fiennes has always been a character actor, as opposed to a leading man. Even when he did get cast as the lead—and he had that special “star quality” as well as a face that was heart-stoppingly beautiful—it was as a complex character that his actorly brilliance pulled off with aplomb. In this excellent film, Fiennes’ age has allowed him to once again take on a character and inhabit it as fully as if he were born to play him. Basil Brown is a middle-aged, self-educated archaeologist with a thick Sussex accent and a face that reveals nothing but somehow lets us know exactly how he is feeling inside. The setting is pre-WWII England on a large estate, and the story deals with mysterious ancient mounds that the property’s owner, a widow played beautifully by Carey Mulligan, wants excavated. Brown is self-taught, overlooked and uncredited, but she wants him to do the work, despite pushback from by-the-book museum archaeologists. The film then tells its tale and is by turns fascinating, frustrating and wondrous. Based on a true story and real characters, it will hold your attention and make you care about scientific discovery and ancient history in a way that you most likely never imagined. Director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini are to be congratulated on bringing this to the screen so successfully.
“The Little Things” (HBO Max) With a cast like Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto (all Oscar winners, as the ad campaign is eager to point out), I had high hopes for this film. Alas, it was disappointing in almost every way. Old-timer Joe Deacon (Washington), a former detective, is sent from Kern County to LA for a quick pick-up of evidence, but he stays a lot longer to link up with a hotshot LA detective (Malek) in order to find a vicious serial killer (Leto). Most everything about the production is disappointing because there’s very little tension—although camera angles and creepy music try to convince us there is—and a couple of plot turns that don’t work at all. Washington is fine, as always, but Malek is miscast; he’s simply too much of an oddball to fit the mold of a young, gung-ho, confident, even cocky, detective. While there are a couple of good ideas here, the whole thing just falls flat.
“In and of Itself” (Hulu) Strange. Existential. Magical. Mind-boggling. Contemplative. Disturbing. A bunch of adjectives is the best way I know to describe this TV adaptation of a performance piece that ran to sold-out houses for over a year off Broadway. Its creator and star is an artist named Derek DelGaudio, and I salute him from the bottom of my heart for the creation of something completely different from anything I (or most of us, I venture to say) have ever seen before. His persona is that of a youngish, everyday kind of guy in a suit—pleasant-looking if not actually handsome and given to long, thoughtful silences. Connecting often with audience members, many of whom are captured on camera with faces that are in turn rapt, astonished, sad, uncomfortable. DelGaudio engages in storytelling, card tricks, mind games (“how the hell did he do that?”) and we, watching from the safety of our living rooms, mirror every reaction of the theater audience. The piece envelopes us, mesmerizes us, brings tears to our eyes. Do yourself a favor—see it and believe.
“The Investigation” (HBO) What is it about Northern European mystery series that are so fascinating? Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland—all of them have been represented for the past few years on American streaming channels, and all of them have caught and held my interest. Even though I’ve only seen the first episode of six, I am already hooked on this one. It’s about thorough police investigative work followed by equally thorough prosecutorial excellence in the murder of a female reporter, last seen entering a submarine for a ride/interview with its builder. In this first episode I already admire the taciturn intensity of all involved in bringing justice to the dead. Can’t wait for the next five Monday nights to see it through. Join me?