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Two of the year’s best movies are now on Netflix

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Definitive proof that we’re not living in the absolute darkest timeline: Two of the best movies I’ve seen all year are newly streaming on Netflix.

Dick Johnson Is Dead and The Forty-Year-Old Version, both of which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival way back in January, share a few things in common. They’re both directed by women. They’re both visually striking. And though one is technically a documentary and one is technically fiction, they’re both so personal to their directors’ lives — yet so imaginative in how they tell their stories — that you could be forgiven for mixing up which is which.

Both movies also got lucky in being picked up for distribution by Netflix. In a year when traditional movie studios — the kind that prioritize theatrical release — are flailing wildly, Netflix is poised for a takeover. This is the streaming service’s moment to shine. It’s been training for this moment its whole life. And the movies Netflix had already planned to release this fall, before anyone even thought to utter the miserable diminutive “quar,” will benefit from a wholly unconventional autumn at the movies, with blockbusters postponed and many theaters still closed.

Netflix started its fall season a few weeks ago with Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things — stellar, but not exactly rousing — and the Southern gothic drama The Devil All the Time, which was kind of a dud. Yet its upcoming slate is promising, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends 2020 having released a number of movies that make waves at the Oscars.

I don’t know whether Oscar glory is in the cards for Dick Johnson Is Dead and The Forty-Year-Old Version; neither is conventional awards fare. But both will end up on my best-of-2020 lists, and in my mind, that’s the true reward.

Watch The Forty-Year-Old Version if you want to laugh, but with an edge

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Radha Blank knows what she’s talking about. The playwright’s intimate knowledge of the elite theater world — very white, very male, very, uh, clueless — comes naturally. She’s talked freely of the trials that come with being a Black playwright, whose work doesn’t fit producers’ preferred mold and who doesn’t want to write about slavery or make “poverty porn.”

She funneled her frustrations (and a huge amount of humor and heart) into The Forty-Year-Old Version, which several times made me laugh harder than I have during a movie in a long while. (My favorite joke comes early on, when two older white women earnestly enthuse about investing in a “multiethnic revival of Fences.”)

Blank wrote and directed the film, in which she also stars as a frustrated playwright and Harlem high-school teacher named Radha, who’s rounding the corner on 40. She was the toast of the theater town for a while, earning a spot on a “30 under 30” list, but that was a minute ago, and now she feels stuck. She likes the play she’s written about a couple living in Harlem, but to get it produced she’ll have to change it to align with a prominent white producer’s ideas about what a play should be — and her exasperations drive her to a (hilarious) breaking point that seems to scuttle her future chances of ever getting a play on stage again. Bereft, but exhilarated, she has an epiphany: She’s going to try becoming a hip-hop performer instead.

Blank shot The Forty-Year-Old Version in black and white, which calls to mind classic films about New York from directors like Spike Lee (and, of course, Woody Allen). But she also uses a few techniques — like inserting small scenes with man-on-the-street-style interviews with her character’s neighbors into the main flow of the story — that seem drawn from other pioneering filmmakers, such as Cheryl Dunye. (In Dunye’s 1996 indie The Watermelon Woman, Dunye herself plays the protagonist, a young Philadelphia filmmaker named Cheryl who’s struggling to make work and understand her future; the parallels are certainly there.)

In any case, Blank killed it. The Forty-Year-Old Version is pointed, satirical, and sharp as a rapier, and it hits every beat perfectly. No wonder Blank took home the directing award at Sundance; this film is a stunner of a debut. I loved it, and I can’t wait to see what Blank does next.

How to watch it: The Forty-Year-Old Version opened in select theaters on October 2 and is now streaming on Netflix.

Watch Dick Johnson Is Dead if you want to cry, but in a good way

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I first rhapsodized about Dick Johnson Is Dead in January, when contemplations of mortality weren’t quite as much of an everyday occurrence. Times have changed a little, but it’s a credit to Kirsten Johnson’s unconventional documentary (if I must categorize it) that it feels even more poignant now than it did then.

Johnson, who blew apart the nonfiction film world in 2016 with her stunning film Cameraperson, started filming with her father — the Dick Johnson of the title — after his dementia diagnosis. Having already lost her mother to the same disease, she was now facing watching her father live through the same thing, and the only way she could imagine making it bearable would be to collaborate with him in imagining what his death and afterlife would be like. They decided to “reenact” the different ways he could die, and in the midst of it, they contemplate the meaning of life.

Johnson’s father is religious and she is not, which could have make their considerations of death and the afterlife especially fraught. But in Dick Johnson Is Dead, conflict isn’t a central issue. Instead, the film is strangely joyful; at times it plays like a comedy. Their deep connection and abiding love are evident in every frame, and imagining the possibilities together gives them a way to picture the unspeakable, live through the inevitable, and tentatively step into the future without surrendering to it quite yet.

It’s been hard for me to think about this film without both choking up and smiling in the past year, and its debut is an event worth celebrating, at least in my world. Americans are really bad at dealing with mortality and death. If you’ve ever questioned that fact, the year 2020 — in which we often have, as a country, refused to process death or do what’s needed to avoid it — has left no room for doubt.

But Dick Johnson Is Dead is an act of grace. It’s a model for facing the inevitable head-on and maybe, just maybe, finding a way to smile and cry and get a grip on what we truly are: tied to our bodies and minds, which eventually fall apart, but also tied to one another.

How to watch it: Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.

If you’re looking for something else …

Netflix has you covered, both now and in the weeks to come.

  • The Boys in the Band — Joe Mantello’s film adaptation of the revolutionary Broadway show, produced by Ryan Murphy — hit Netflix on September 30; my colleague Alex Abad-Santos recommends it but writes, “The flourishes that made the original work so risky and raw feel more like polished, glimmering performance in the adaptation.”
  • Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is currently playing in a few theaters ahead of its October 16 debut on Netflix; stay tuned for more on that soon.
  • An adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel Rebecca (October 21), Sundance thriller His House (October 30), and plenty more are all en route from the streaming giant, which is doing its darndest to make its mark in these strange, strange days.

Help keep Vox free for all

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A New Yorker’s guide to dining out safely during the pandemic

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New York (CNN) — With restaurants reopening, you might think that it’s safe again to dine out. Not really.

But there are ways to make it safer.

New Yorkers like me have been grabbing quick bites across the city for months, and have even recently started dining indoors again.

If you’re going to do it, take a New Yorker’s advice. Here are nine tips to help keep you safe:

1. Ask yourself whether dining out is necessary

After months of lockdown, you might want to go out and grab a bite with friends.

I totally get it. New York’s stay-at-home order lasted 78 days — the longest in the country. When it lifted, city residents flocked to parks and other public spaces.

But dining out is risky, especially now that we’re in the midst of a fall surge in cases. And it can be particularly dangerous for anyone who is immunocompromised or lives with people who are.

“The bottom line is there is always a risk eating at a restaurant right now,” Dr. Stephen Berger, an infectious disease expert and co-founder of the Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Network, told CNN.

“Eating means having to take off your mask, and that’s the golden rule of avoiding coronavirus.”

He suggests that you “think twice about going to a restaurant.” And if you live in a big city, make it “three times.”

If you still want to go, take every possible step to protect your health and safety.

2. Call in advance to avoid large crowds

If you do decide to dine out, call ahead to make sure there isn’t a large crowd and that the restaurant follows proper social distancing guidelines.

I’ve learned to avoid peak days and times, such as Friday dinner and Sunday brunch. When possible, I also make reservations to prevent unnecessary exposure while waiting for an available table.

People dine outdoors at Tony's Di Napoli in Times Square on Friday as part of the annual Taste of Times Square.

People dine outdoors at Tony’s Di Napoli in Times Square on Friday as part of the annual Taste of Times Square.

Noam Galai/Getty Images

Many local governments have set occupancy limits on indoor dining. In New York, it’s 25%.

Still, not all restaurants follow the rules. If you find yourself at one that feels too crowded, just pay your bill and leave.

“I think it’s up to the people going out to eat to be mindful of the places they’re visiting, and if the tables are only two inches apart and you don’t see things being cleaned as they should, don’t sit down,” said Demetria Lewis, a bartender at Interboro Spirits & Ales in Brooklyn, which is taking safety measures such as enforcing social distancing, cleaning between each customer and limiting group sizes.

3. Ask about their safety protocols

While you have the restaurant host on the phone, ask about their safety measures.

The really careful ones will administer temperature checks, regularly disinfect tables and door handles, enforce face masks and even keep customer records for contact tracing.
A waiter wears a face mask and rubber gloves outside Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn.

A waiter wears a face mask and rubber gloves outside Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn.

Noam Galai/Getty Images

“A big tip is just ask the restaurant you’re visiting what they’re doing,” said Kirsten Kilburn, a bartender and server at The Smith in Manhattan, which has installed washing stations at the entrance and plexiglass between indoor diners, among other measures. “Call them up and ask what they’ve implemented for safety since reopening and what’s their protocol. Not knowing is the worst thing, so having a little more understanding can be comforting.”

As a general rule, I avoid establishments that can’t answer basic questions about what they’re doing to keep diners safe and healthy.

4. Choose outdoor seating when possible

Many restaurants offer indoor and outdoor seating. When presented with the option, I choose to sit outside.

Health experts say it’s better to be outdoors, where the virus can dissipate into the air.

Of course, with winter approaching that might not be comfortable — especially in New York, where the temperature often dips below freezing.

A customer pays for a to-go order at Cipriani restaurant on May 22, 2020, in New York's Soho neighborhood.

A customer pays for a to-go order at Cipriani restaurant on May 22, 2020, in New York’s Soho neighborhood.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

To make outdoor dining more pleasant, The Smith plans to install heaters and even offer customers blankets, Kilburn said.

Many New York bistros and cafés are even installing giant bubble tents, though it’s not clear how effective they’ll be. Some people think it’s a good option for outdoor dining, while others say it’s no different than eating indoors.

“If the bubbles are closed, which they’d need to be if it’s cold, I really don’t know how this could be considered a safe option. How many people are going to sit in a bubble where another group just sat? This could be even worse than indoor dining,” Berger said.

5. Bring your own hand sanitizer and wipes

Lots of restaurants have installed hand sanitizing stations. But you can’t always count on them being full.

A hand sanitizer dispenser is stationed in the outside dining area of Crown Shy restaurant in New York.

A hand sanitizer dispenser is stationed in the outside dining area of Crown Shy restaurant in New York.

David ‘Dee’ Delgado/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I suggest bringing your own hand sanitizer and wipes, and using them to clean your table, chairs and even cutlery.

It’s also a good idea to wipe your hands after touching the menu or returning from the bathroom.

While many restaurants are being vigilant about disinfecting, it never hurts to be extra careful.

6. Wear your face mask

It’s important to wear a face mask whenever you’re at a restaurant and not eating or drinking.

I keep mine hanging right below my chin, so I can quickly put it on and take it off whenever a server or another diner approaches my table. In some New York restaurants, it’s required.

“A lot of our guests appreciate that we ask people to wear their masks whenever our team members are there,” Kilburn said. “I know it’s new for all of us, I know it’s not the easiest habit to remember, but we’re responsible for protecting each other.”

It’s also a good idea to minimize contact with servers — for your safety and theirs.

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of how people can help the people serving them minimize the table touches,” Lewis said.

“Dining is less personable than it was before and that sucks, but ordering together instead of one at a time, being mindful of someone carrying things like dirty dishes from another table and waiting until they’ve gotten to clean their hands of that interaction before ordering your next drink is important.”

A worker takes the temperature of customers arriving to eat indoors at the Crown Shy restaurant in New York.

A worker takes the temperature of customers arriving to eat indoors at the Crown Shy restaurant in New York.

Mark Abramson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

7. Avoid the bathroom

If you can hold it, do it.

In New York, clean public bathrooms are hard to come by. During a pandemic, even the cleanest bathrooms won’t be clean enough.

Small, enclosed spaces such as bathrooms pose a significant risk of transmission, Berger said.

Still, if you have to go, wear your mask and bring along disinfectant wipes. You’re definitely going to need them.

8. Don’t linger

Long gone are the days when you could stay out all night splitting a bottle of wine with friends.

Today, the goal of dining out should be to eat and leave as quickly and safely as possible.

To ensure that happens, I make arrangements ahead of time. For example, I make reservations to ensure I’m not waiting around for the next available table. I also read the menu online and so I know exactly what I want to order before I sit down.

“We hope guests are aware that in order to keep our business going during the pandemic, especially when we can’t use all our tables, we have to turn tables,” said Gabby Ayoub, general manager at Oxomoco in Brooklyn.

“We don’t want to rush anyone, but some people are just unaware, seeing people waiting on people and they’re just lingering after they paid the check. We want everyone to feel welcome, but it’s important we meet a certain number.”

9. Leave a generous tip

There’s never been a more important time to tip.

A restaurant server at Nobu wears a mask during the fourth phase of the coronavirus pandemic reopening on September 11 in New York.

A restaurant server at Nobu wears a mask during the fourth phase of the coronavirus pandemic reopening on September 11 in New York.

Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Restaurant workers are notoriously underpaid, and few receive health insurance or paid sick leave. While some cities such as New York may soon allow restaurants to tack on a coronavirus surcharge to bills, it won’t include gratuity for waitstaff.

For this reason, I suggest leaving a generous tip — 20% or more, if you can afford it.

“Most of my pet peeves come from people being inconsiderate of the risks we as service individuals take to do our job,” Lewis said. “We are treated poorly or even ripped off when it comes time to pay the bill. Tips are our livelihood, now more than ever.”

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Azerbaijan, Armenia agree on fresh humanitarian truce: US

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The latest truce will take effect on Monday morning, according to a joint statement by the US, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have again agreed to respect a “humanitarian ceasefire” in the conflict over the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, according to a joint statement from the US State Department and the two governments.

The truce will take effect at 8am local time (04:00 GMT) on Monday, the statement said on Sunday, adding that US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun met the foreign ministers of the two countries on Saturday.

In a separate statement, the OSCE Minsk Group, formed to mediate the conflict and led by France, Russia and the United States, said its co-chairs and foreign ministers would meet again on October 29 to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

“During their intensive discussions, the co-chairs and foreign ministers discussed implementing an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, possible parameters for monitoring the ceasefire, and initiating discussion of core substantive elements of a comprehensive solution,” a statement from the Minsk Group said.

An earlier truce brought a brief lull on Saturday before each side accused the other of violating it.

Armenia on Sunday accused Azeri forces of shelling civilian settlements.

Baku denied killing civilians and said it was ready to implement a ceasefire, provided Armenian forces withdrew from the battlefield.

Earlier truce efforts

The collapse of two Russia-brokered truces had already dimmed the prospect of a quick end to fighting that broke out on September 27 over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said Azerbaijani forces fired artillery on settlements in Askeran and Martuni in the night, while Azerbaijan said its positions had been attacked with small arms, mortars, tanks, and howitzers.

On Sunday, the defence ministry of the Nagorno-Karabakh region said it had recorded another 11 casualties among its forces, pushing the military death toll to 974 since fighting with Azeri forces erupted.

Azerbaijan said 65 Azerbaijani civilians have been killed and 298 wounded but has not disclosed its military casualties.

About 30,000 people were killed in a 1991-1994 war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenians regard the enclave as part of their historic homeland. Azeris consider it illegally occupied land that must be returned to their control.

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Trump’s closing message is lying about the coronavirus at rallies that spread infection

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With the pandemic getting worse, not better, President Donald Trump tried to turn reality on its head during a series of rallies on Saturday in North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

“We’re rounding the turn. Our numbers are incredible,” Trump claimed in Lumberton, North Carolina, before blasting the media for its alleged fear-mongering.

But the US is not rounding a turn for the better. Friday and Saturday saw new daily coronavirus infections in the US surge past 80,000 for the first time ever. And it’s not just cases — hospitalizations are up more than 33 percent over the last month, and the seven-day average of deaths is now back above 800.

“That’s all I hear about now. Turn on television, ‘Covid, Covid, Covid Covid Covid.’ A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don’t talk about it. ‘Covid Covid Covid Covid.’ By the way, on November 4, you won’t hear about it anymore,” Trump said. (In case it’s not clear, the plane crash he referred to was made up.)

Trump invoked a nearly identical talking point a couple hours later in Circleville, Ohio, saying, “You know what? On November 4, you’re not gonna hear— the news, CNN, all they talk about, ‘Covid Covid Covid.’ If a plane goes down with 500 people, they don’t talk about … they’re trying to scare everybody.”

Then, on Saturday night in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Trump argued, falsely, that the main reason cases in the US are going up is because the US does so much testing — “if we did half the testing, we’d have half the cases,” he said, as if testing causes cases — and insisted the coronavirus is “going away.” (In recent weeks, new cases have actually grown at a much faster rate than testing has expanded.)

Trump echoed the same theme during his first rally of the day on Sunday in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

Not only is Trump’s rhetoric irresponsible, but the fact is, he’s holding rallies that make a mockery of social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines recommended by his own government. And these rallies appear to be actively making the pandemic worse by spreading the virus.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of this came on Friday, when Erin Mansfield, Josh Salman, and Dinah Voyles Pulver authored a piece for USA Today that examined how coronavirus cases surged in a number of places where Trump recently held rallies.

From the article:

The president has participated in nearly three dozen rallies since mid-August, all but two at airport hangars. A USA TODAY analysis shows COVID-19 cases grew at a faster rate than before after at least five of those rallies in the following counties: Blue Earth, Minnesota; Lackawanna, Pennsylvania; Marathon, Wisconsin; Dauphin, Pennsylvania; and Beltrami, Minnesota.

Together, those counties saw 1,500 more new cases in the two weeks following Trump’s rallies than the two weeks before – 9,647 cases, up from 8,069.

But to the extent that Trump actually engages with this reality, his message is that people have to learn to live with it.

“You have to lead your life, and you have to get out,” he advised his fans on Saturday in Ohio.

The White House has no plan — and they aren’t even trying to hide it

Beyond the mounting human toll — more than 220,000 Americans have now died from the coronavirus — the latest spike in cases comes at a politically inopportune time for the White House, with Election Day now just nine days away.

But at this point, the Trump administration isn’t even pretending to have a plan to slow the spread of the virus. Instead, during a CNN interview on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said, revealingly, that “we’re not going to control the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, the White House is dealing with yet another cluster of cases — five people close to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive for the virus in recent days. Pence, the chair of the White House coronavirus task force, was exposed. But instead of following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which calls for exposed people to self-quarantine for 14 days, he plans to travel to pandemic rallies on Sunday and Monday.

So not only has the White House given up on protecting the American public, but Trump administration officials have failed to protect themselves. And Trump and Pence are actively making things worse by lying to the American public about the state of the pandemic at rallies that fuel further spread.


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