“The Queen’s Gambit” is all the rage now, and deservedly so. In case you needed to be convinced that being a once-in-a-lifetime chess prodigy/genius is hell, all you need to do is watch the seven intense episodes of this new Netflix drama. “Chess?” you say, “I haven’t played in years!” or, “I never have played and don’t care.” I get it—really, I do. And while true chess aficionados might get more from the series than those of us less enlightened, it simply doesn’t matter. Playing with time and memory, the series charts the journey of orphaned Beth Harmon (brilliantly played by Anya Taylor-Joy), from her dismal childhood, through the near-unanimous scoffing at the thought of a female ever being good enough, to rooting for her through addiction, loneliness, despair and on to triumph. This all takes place in the 1950s and ’60s; we are transported back to that period of tumultuous change in clothing, manners, sexual freedom, shifting relations between men and women, and the beginnings of female empowerment. Kudos go to production designer Uli Hanisch, and writers Scott Frank, Allan Scott and the 1983 novel’s author, Walter Tevis, with Frank as producer/director of all the episodes. I hope I have written just enough to make you change your mind if you had decided against it because of the somewhat arcane subject matter. You won’t regret it.
As a film reviewer for a small, independent newspaper, I am the recipient of invitations from small, independent PR firms to watch the latest equally small, independent films prior to their release. I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that most of them don’t register strongly on my critic’s scale. But here is one of the exceptions: “Dating Amber” is a delightful, insightful, funny film from Ireland. The press release so aptly sums it up, so I will quote it here: “A closeted gay teen and his lesbian counterpart pretend to be a couple to avoid suspicion.” Fun idea, right? Yes, fun—and poignant, too. It’s executed so intimately and so endearingly that you are swept up in the story of constantly bullied Eddie and angry, aloof Amber, both outsiders, both miserable in high school and itching to get out of there. This is small-town Ireland in the 1990s, complete with nuns giving hygiene classes that warn of horrific consequences to sex outside of marriage; a boy trying to appear straight by dating a girl but unable to touch her breast; a son trying to please his sports-playing father. Eddie and Amber are brilliantly played by Fionn O’Shea and Lola Petticrew; we ache and root for them both. Writer/director David Freyne brought the whole thing to life—based on personal experience, he admits—and he gets the biggest applause of all. It is now available on digital and On Demand.
“Indian Matchmaking” (Netflix). I admit I began watching this show as a lark—a friend recommended it as a perfect, much-needed escape from recent reality. But I have stayed around for some pretty profound truths about human nature, changing cultures, female emancipation and Indians in India versus Indian Americans. I have stayed around because the process of finding a spouse by utilizing a matchmaker is utterly fascinating. We are guided in this process by Sima Taparia, matchmaker par excellence, as she travels back and forth between Mumbai and Delhi to Houston and New Jersey and other locales for her clients. The common theme is that each person who utilizes Sima’s services has basically decided that it’s time to find a life partner. Most of their parents’ marriages were arranged by their parents, a custom in India that goes back centuries. But the younger generation has moved away from this tradition, one they scoffed at until time and failed romances took their toll. We follow Sima, a pleasant, patient but often brutally honest middle-aged woman, as she interviews new prospects and sets up connections with other clients. We follow the clients on their first date and we wince. We hear feedback from the clients and Sima afterward. The range of personalities is enormous, from stubborn and egotistical to thorough romantics to a real mama’s boy whose mother has decided he needs to be married by the end of the year because, well, because that’s what she’s decided. I found myself caring deeply about some of the hopefuls and dismissing others, only to have my mind changed when they made real efforts to be more flexible.