Here’s the second half of my mini reviews for movies released on streaming services in January! “The Dig,” “Outside the Wire,” and “Finding ‘Ohana” can all be found on Netflix, while “The Little Things” is currently playing in theaters and can be found on HBO Max until the end of February.
“THE DIG” (Netflix)
English period dramas are a go-to comfort genre for me, and on that front, the drama “The Dig,” based on the real-life 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, delivers. Directed by Simon Stone and based on a novel by John Preston, the film opens with Suffolk landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hiring archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate some burial mounds on her property. Not taken seriously by many of his peers due to his lack of proper schooling, Brown remains on the job even when his former employers try to get him to work on another project they believe will be of much more importance. But one day, Brown makes an astonishing discovery, when his dig reveals the framework of a massive ship—and that’s only the beginning of the treasures to be found. But the dig primarily serves as an event for the characters to rally around as the story explores all their personal drama. Mulligan and Fiennes especially elevate the material with their fine performances. Pretty, a widow with a young son, is ill, suffering from heart issues partly due to stress. Brown, meanwhile, suffers from his own personal and professional troubles, and he and Pretty form a comfortable companionship over the course of their time together. The first half of the film, which focuses mainly on them, is the strongest. The second half brings in a whole new slew of characters, after the dig is deemed too important and is taken over by archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott). Among those he brings on his team are Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his young wife Peggy (Lily James), who fights to get the men on the team to take her seriously. Feeling neglected by her husband, she strikes up a romance with Edith’s cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), a photographer who is documenting the excavation. These characters feel less developed, partly because they show up so late in the film, and it’s harder to become invested in their stories, especially when Peggy is given such a conventional arc. This is one instance where hewing closer to the truth could have made the film a bit more interesting; in reality, Peggy was already an established and respected archaeologist by this point in time, and the excavation site was primarily documented by two female photographers, who are not present in the film. It would have been really great to see that career represented by women in this film as well. “The Dig” occasionally drags but its engaging characters, tense moments brought on by the action occurring on the precipice of World War II, and the thrill of discovery make it a worthwhile watch—not to mention Brown, who for years was not credited for the Sutton Hoo find (which was donated by Pretty to the British Museum before her death and is still exhibited there), finally gets his due. Runtime: 112 minutes. Rated PG-13.
“THE LITTLE THINGS” (HBO Max/In Theaters)
You know you’re in for it when Denzel Washington’s sheriff Deacon looks Rami Malek’s detective Baxter in the eyes and says to him, “It’s the little things that are important, Jimmy.” Writer and director John Lee Hancock first wrote his movie “The Little Things” in the early 1990s, with the intention to make it in the early 1990s—and boy, does it show in this film, which finally got made and released almost 30 years later. Throwbacks are great when they are well-crafted, but “The Little Things” feels dated in a bad way, and like a cheap knockoff of greater neo-noirs that have come along in the last couple decades. Set in 1990, the story follows Joe Deacon (Washington), a sheriff in Bakersfield who is sent to his old precinct in LA to collect evidence from a recent murder. While accompanying new lead detective Jimmy Baxter (Malek) to a crime scene, Deacon notices similarities with this murder to the murders related to an old serial murder case he was never able to solve. The obsession from that case drove him to heart trouble and led to his divorce, but the prospect of righting past wrongs leads him to helping Baxter find the murderer. Their prime suspect: Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a repairman with an obsession with crime. Washington brings a lot of gravitas to the film, but even having him lead an all-star cast isn’t enough to elevate the material. Malek is annoying as Baxter in a relatively bland performance, while Leto plays the kind of deranged individual he always receives praise for from people who believe that the most acting is the best acting. There are a couple of tense and atmospheric scenes here and there, but “The Little Things” mostly lacks thrills or suspense, and its final act feels so much like a knockoff of David Fincher’s 1995 classic “Se7en” that its twists aren’t very revelatory. Films which find detectives confronted with personal demons and issues of morality as a result of the case they are investigating have been done millions of times before, and thousands of times better than this. Runtime: 127 minutes. Rated R.
“FINDING ‘OHANA” (Netflix)
It would be easy to write “Finding ‘Ohana” off as a contemporary version of the 80s classic “The Goonies.” To be fair, that is the first film that comes to mind, as “Finding ‘Ohana” follows a pair of siblings and their friends as they search for treasure on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. But there’s a bit more at play that makes director Jude Wang’s film more than just another fun family adventure. The film follows Pili and Ioane (Kea Peahu and Alex Aiono), siblings who are dragged from Brooklyn to their grandfather’s (Branscombe Richmond) home in Hawaii by their mother Leilani (Kelly Hu) after he suffers a heart attack. Pili and Ioane, whose mother moved them from Hawaii to Brooklyn after their father passed away over a decade earlier, miss their friends and activities back home, and are disdainful of their Hawaiian heritage. But when Pili, who has an affinity for treasure-hunting, finds a journal in her grandfather’s home that tells the story of an ancient hidden treasure, she sneaks out to hunt for it with her new friend Casper (Owen Vaccaro), with Ioane and his love interest Hana (Lindsay Watson) in pursuit. The treasure hunt aspect of “Finding ‘Ohana” contains a lot of familiar elements, from secret caves to puzzles to solve, but there’s something very nostalgic and charming about the sets and props and the nature of the hunt. Flashbacks starring Chris Parnell, Marc Evan Jackson, and Ricky Garcia as the individuals who originally hid the treasure creatively illustrate how the characters interpret the events they read about in the journal. The kids and teenagers all have their own personality quirks and work together nicely. But the lore behind the treasure is steeped in Hawaiian culture and myth; actual legends like the night watchers are used perfectly here as part of the plot. The kids initially want the treasure so they can save their grandpa’s home without having to sell their apartment in New York, but throughout their journey they come to appreciate and become more comfortable with their heritage—Ioane, for instance, always went by a shortened nickname back home because he didn’t want people making fun of his name. A lot of time is also spent with Leilani, who feels some measure of guilt for leaving her family behind because the pain of her grief was so great. “Finding ‘Ohana,” as the title implies, is less about finding material wealth and more about finding family and a sense of belonging, and it melds these themes with the thrill of adventure to create a charming movie that authentically celebrates Hawaiian culture and is fun for all ages. Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated PG.
“OUTSIDE THE WIRE” (Netflix)
“Outside the Wire” is such an unmemorable action movie that I know that I watched it, but I really didn’t even comprehend its themes or its characters enough to explain it in depth. Directed by Mikael Håfström, the story is set in the near future and follows Lieutenant Thomas Harp (Damson Idris), a drone pilot in the U.S. Marines who is part of a peacekeeping force in Ukraine deploying after civil war broke out between Russian insurgents and resistance groups. After disobeying an order, Harp is transferred and assigned to Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie), an officer who is actually an android super-soldier. The pair set out on a mission to prevent a terrorist from gaining control of a nuclear missile silo. “Outside the Wire” has many of the elements to make for an at least passable action movie, like robot soldiers and big action set pieces, but this visually dark and ugly movie is frequently too plodding to be wholly entertaining. The mixed messaging, especially in the final act when a series of twists take place, is also rather confusing. Idris and Mackie come off as a little bland, but despite that, it’s easy to see how they could both handle leading action hero roles if given better material to work with. It’s also great to see a mainstream action movie led by two Black actors—but that’s about the most memorable part of the film there is. Runtime: 114 minutes. Rated R.