‘Passing’ Patiently Presents a Black-and-White-and-Shades-of-Grey Portrait of Getting By

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Passing (CREDIT: Netflix)

Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, André Holland, Bill Camp, Alexander Skarsgård

Director: Rebecca Hall

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 mainly for The Utterance of a Few Racial Slurs

Release Date: October 27, 2021 (Theaters)/November 10, 2021 (Netflix)

So much of Passing consists of just conversations. Anything more would be too dangerous. Actually the conversations are already plenty dangerous.

Based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same, it all begins with a slightly surreal encounter. Surreal in the sense that when dreaming, we randomly encounter people from our pasts that we haven’t seen for a while and yet it makes perfect sense. And so it goes when Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) bumps into her old friend Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga) and discovers that she’s been utilizing her light skin tone to pass herself off as a white woman. This includes being married to a proudly racist man (Alexander Skarsgård) and privately hoping that her children don’t arrive any darker than her. She’s living on the razor’s edge, but she’s so matter of fact about it all, as if to say (without actually coming out and saying it) that what she’s doing is perfectly logical.

Writer/director Rebecca Hall (in her directorial debut) takes an understandably patient approach to the material in which not much happens, because everyone is holding themselves back from what they can’t allow to happen. This results in Passing feeling significantly longer than it actually is, which is an observation that is usually meant as a criticism, but in this case I mean it as neutrally as possible. Perhaps the explanation for this temporal confusion is that Clare has the ability to warp the perception of reality within the people in her orbit. She’s the one who’s primarily doing the title action, but it’s Reenie and her husband Brian (André Holland) who get most of the film’s attention, as their relatively comfortable Harlem existence is threatened by just the slightest hint of chaos. There are some lighter moments (particularly any scene with Bill Camp as Reenie and Brian’s regular jazz club companion), but otherwise you can practically see the seams of existence being torn asunder.

It all leads up to a violent climax that might have you grateful that something is finally happening to move the plot forward, although that gratefulness will probably fade in the face of the tragedy. Perhaps you will adjust your gratefulness to think that at least this sort of thing is unlikely to happen again a century later. But while passing between different racial settings might not look exactly the same as it did in previous eras, everyday deceit and the rationalization of such deceit still exists. This is a slow-burning disaster movie; if you ever find yourself in a similar situation and you don’t want the ending to be the same as Clare’s, then you might just want to do more than talk.

Passing is Recommended If You Like: The Harlem Renaissance, Smoke-filled jazz rooms, Tragedy predetermined by the whims of fate

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Deceptions

I Think ‘Dune’ Gave Me a Message From the Deep

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Dune (CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/Screenshot)

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Babs Olusanmokun, Benjamin Clementine

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Running Time: 156 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: October 22, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)

I was fully asleep for about the last third of Dune. I thought I was just nodding off, but next thing I know, Timothée Chalamet was heading off into the desert with Zendaya and Rebecca Ferguson as the credits started to roll, and it sure didn’t feel like two and a half hours had passed.

If this sort of thing happened back when I used to work at a movie theater, I would just peek in the next day while working to catch what I missed. Luckily, HBO Max can now serve that purpose for WB flicks, so that’s what I did in this case. Also of note in terms of what happened the day after: I attended an event at my church during which a priest talked about how he’s fine with people nodding off during mass because that means they’re just quietly meditating. Ergo, I was just quietly meditating during the journey on Arrakis.

I don’t think Dune put me to sleep because it was boring. It wasn’t. Rather, it was just so dark and overwhelming. Those spaceships were HUGE! That all contrasts heavily with the protagonist, who’s awfully skinny and named simply Paul. I have an uncle named Paul, and he’s not traversing planets in a quest for the most valuable item in the universe. This is all to say, what we have here is a mix of accessible and gigantic.

Grade: Sure, I’ll Take Another Go-Round in the Desert

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 10/22/21

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Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Dune (Theaters and HBO Max)
The French Dispatch (Theaters)
Ron’s Gone Wrong (Theaters) – Starring Zach Galifianakis as Ron.

TV
Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 11 Premiere (October 24 on HBO)
The Last O.G. Season 4 Premiere (October 26 on TBS)

Music
-Duran Duran, Future Past
-Elton John, The Lockdown Sessions
-Lana Del Rey, Blue Banisters
-My Morning Jacket, My Morning Jacket

Sports
-World Series (Begins October 26 on FOX)

I Liked It When ‘The Last Duel’ Ended (That’s a Compliment)

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The Last Duel (CREDIT: 20th Century Studios/Screenshot)

Starring: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Harriet Walter, Nathaniel Parker, Alex Lawther

Director: Ridley Scott

Running Time: 153 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: October 15, 2021 (Theaters)

My favorite part of the The Last Duel is The Last Part – tres appropriate! Actually, I liked two last parts, as it were. The film is split into thirds: first we get the perspective of Sir Jean de Carrouges (as played by Mr. Matt Damon), then the perspective of Jacques Le Gris (as played by Mr. Adam Driver), and finally the perspective of Sir Jean’s wife Marguerite (as played by Ms. Jodie Comer). So when I say I liked two last parts, I mean that I liked Marguerite’s section the best of the three, AND I liked the very last scene more than any other scene, as we finally got to see the titular duel between Sir Jean and Jacques and the emotional stakes were abundantly clear. The men’s sections were occasionally a bit of a chore to get through, but they provided essential context to make the resolutions work as satisfactorily as they did (h/t to NPR’s Linda Holmes for priming me towards this reaction with her discussion on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast). I hope everyone reading likes the end of this review just as much.

Grade: The End Was Good!

‘The French Dispatch’ Presents a Journalistic Panorama

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The French Dispatch (CREDIT: Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)

Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman, Fisher Stevens, Griffin Dunne, Wally Wolodarsky, Anjelica Bette Fellini, Anjelica Huston, Jarvis Cocker, Tilda Swinton, Benicio del Toro, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux, Lois Smith, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Denis Menochet, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Alex Lawther, Mohamed Belhadjine, Nicolas Avinée, Lily Taleb, Toheeb Jimoh, Rupert Friend, Cécile de France, Guillaume Gallienne, Christoph Waltz, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Winston Ait Hellal, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Hippolyte Girardot

Director: Wes Anderson

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for Art Model Nudity, Surprising Sexual Partners, and Some Language Here and There

Release Date: October 22, 2021 (Theaters)

The French Dispatch is about the staff and subjects of an American magazine that covers a small but colorful fictional French town. It’s published as an insert in the Liberty, Kansas Evening Star newspaper, so it’s basically like a midwestern Parade, but with the vibe of The New Yorker. Which all begs the question: who is the intended audience of The French Dispatch*? (*The fictional newspaper, that is, not the movie of the same name. [Although by extension, you could ask the same thing about the movie, though that conversation would be a little different.]) It feels like somebody dared Wes Anderson to create an anthology film of the most esoteric stories ever and he then declared, “Challenge accepted.” As I watched I wondered what made these stories worth telling, and I believe that the answer is: they’re worth telling because they’re worth telling. So in that way, The French Dispatch is very much like Little Women.

The fictional French town in this movie is called Ennui-sur-Blasé, which literally translates as “Boredom-on-Blasé,” but there’s no way you’ll be bored while watching a film that’s as overstuffed as this one. Overwhelmed, perhaps, but not bored. (But if somehow you are bored, please let me know about your experience. It’s interesting when someone’s reaction is so different than mine!) The anthology structure is composed into five sections, two to set the context and three to dive deep. First up is an introduction of the staff, particularly editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), a my-way-or-the-highway type, except when he readily makes concessions to his writers’ peculiarities. Then travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) takes us on a bicycle tour to provide color for the town. The fleshed-out stories include the journalist-subject pairings of Tilda Swinton covering incarcerated artist Benicio Del Toro; Frances McDormand covering student revolutionaries led by Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri; and Jeffrey Wright as a food journalist covering the story of a police officer’s kidnapped son that also features a very talented chef.

The French Dispatch is a love letter to a time and a place when you could throw whatever budget you felt like at whatever story you felt like covering. Based on the accounts of people who were involved in that era, that characterization actually isn’t that far off from how 20th century American journalism really was run. But it’s so different from journalism’s current state of affairs that it might as well be from another universe. Appropriately enough then, The French Dispatch felt to me like it was beaming in from an alternate dimension. I don’t know how these stories could have ever possibly been conceived, but I’m glad that I’ve now experienced them.

The French Dispatch is Recommended If You Like: The New Yorker, Symmetrical geometric arrangements, French pop music, Skinny mustaches

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Bylines

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 10/15/21

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Good Timing with Jo Firestone (CREDIT: Peacock/Screenshot)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Halloween Kills (Theaters and Peacock) – I also plan on watching every other Halloween movie in the near future.
The Last Duel (Theaters) – Matt Damon and Ben Affleck finally wrote another screenplay (along with Nicole Holofcener this time).

TV
Succession Season 3 Premiere (October 17 on HBO)

Music
-Finneas, Optimist
-Santana, Blessings and Miracles

Comedy
Good Timing with Jo Firestone (October 15 on Peacock) – Jo Firestone teaches senior citizens stand-up comedy.

‘Halloween Kills,’ and That Makes for a Bloody Mess

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Halloween Kills (CREDIT: Ryan Green/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Anthony Michael Hall, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Will Patton, Thomas Mann, Kyle Richards, Nancy Stephens, Robert Longstreet, Charles Cyphers, Dylan Arnold, Scott MacArthur, Michael McDonald

Director: David Gordon Green

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Blood, Guts, Viscera, Screaming

Release Date: October 15, 2021 (Theaters and Streaming on Peacock)

According to Halloween Kills, there are two main reasons why you should avoid mob justice:

1. You might go after the wrong person and end up killing an innocent man.
2. The guy you’re targeting seemingly can’t be killed.

That second lesson applies specifically to the Halloween film franchise (although it can certainly be extended to other horror classics). These seem like pretty obvious lessons, but I guess I should cut the characters in this film some slack, considering that they don’t have the same context that we viewers do. In case you need a refresher: the David Gordon Green-directed Halloween Kills is a direct sequel to the 2018 Halloween (also directed by Green), which was itself a direct sequel to the original 1978 Halloween that ignored all the other sequels. So while in the current continuity it might be a slight surprise to the residents of Haddonfield that Michael Myers is indestructible, it’s not at all surprising to the audience.

As the Halloween franchise is 43 years old and a dozen films deep, it’s forgivable if it doesn’t pull off too many genuine shocks anymore, so long as it has something to say. And Halloween Kills certainly wants to have something to say vis-a-vis that mob justice angle. But it seems to me like the townspeople seeking justice are actually fairly effective. Sure, the misidentification is pretty bad, but they eventually do manage to corner Michael. Their plan would have worked against someone a little more mortal!

But of course, the dictates of pre-planned sequel-dom make it clear that an ultimate victory is fully out of reach. A third entry directed by Green, entitled Halloween Ends, is already on the schedule for next October. So right now, we can feel pretty confident that Michael will return and that Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode will as well. Everyone else, even some returning favorites (including child star-turned-Beverly Hills housewife Kyle Richards herself), are a little more vulnerable.

So then, we’re left to hope that the set pieces are at least effective. Pretty much all of them are throwbacks to the style of the original. Some are pretty funny, others are melodramatic, all of them end in relentless violence. Probably the most amusing is the series of scenes with Michael McDonald (the steamroller-crushed security guard from Austin Powers) and Scott MacArthur (best-known for the short-lived Fox sitcom gem The Mick) as a couple just trying to have a relaxing Halloween night in. Unfortunately, they decided to live in Michael Myers’ former home, and that just doesn’t bode well for their future together. If Halloween decides to go in a sillier and campier direction, they’ve got the blueprint right here.

Halloween Kills is Recommended If You Like: Saw-style gore, Inevitable death, Anthony Michael Hall springing into action

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Masks

Todd Haynes Heads Down to ‘The Velvet Underground’

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The Velvet Underground (CREDIT: Apple TV+)

Starring: The Velvet Underground, Nico, and Friends

Director: Todd Haynes

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for Rock ‘n’ Roll Language, Sex, and Drugs

Release Date: October 13, 2021 (New York)/October 15, 2021 (Apple TV+)

What would you hope to get from a Velvet Underground documentary directed by Todd Haynes? I imagine that’s what potential viewers of the documentary appropriately entitled The Velvet Underground are asking themselves. It’s certainly a question I asked myself before watching. After all, Haynes and Lou Reed’s crew are both known for doing things a little differently in their respective fields. So I’ll use this review to let you know what I was thinking and then how the movie lived up to or didn’t live up to those expectations. (I guess that’s what movie reviews usually are!)

Considering this pairing of director and subject matter, I expected something a little off-kilter. After all, Haynes’ last music-focused cinematic effort was the sort-of biopic I’m Not There, in which several distinct actors more or less played Bob Dylan. The focus with The Velvet Underground is a little more straightforward, but only when compared to how weird Haynes has been in the past. This is mainly a talking heads doc, but there’s fun in filling out the frame, with liberal use of split-screen providing the visual cortex much more to process than a simple camera on somebody’s face. Interview clips are paired with archival footage, lending the presentation a dollop of free-associative flair.

Overall, The Velvet Underground the documentary feels like a history lesson presented by the band members themselves, or as much as that can be the case with a few of them having passed. If, like myself, you’re not already a Velvet Underground expert, you’ll come away learning some new factoids, like how much Lou Reed cared about de-tuning the guitars and that their collaborator Nico made a splash in the Fellini film La Dolce Vita. Those are the sorts of takeaways that are typical of music documentaries, though less typical of Todd Haynes films. But that’s not necessarily a criticism. I knew from the jump that this wasn’t trying to be another I’m Not There, and that’s okay. It doesn’t need to be that; instead, it can do something like capture the droning energy of the Velvet Underground classic “Venus in Furs,” and it proves itself perfectly capable of pulling that off pretty well.

The Velvet Underground is Recommended If You Like: Rock ‘n’ Roll history, General transgression, Detailed epilogues

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Boots of Leather

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 10/8/21

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Muppets Haunted Mansion (CREDIT: Mitch Haaseth/Disney)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Lamb (Theaters)
No Time to Die (Theaters) – Daniel Craig is so happy that this is finally coming out.
The Rescue (Theaters)

TV
Muppets Haunted Mansion (October 8 on Disney+) – Ed Asner has passed away, but he was not murdered or scared to death on the set of this.
Nancy Drew Season 3 Premiere (October 8 on The CW)
Whose Line is it Anyway? Season 18 Premiere (October 9 on The CW)
Legends of the Hidden Temple Reboot Premiere (October 10 on The CW) – Formerly of Nickelodeon.
The Baby-Sitters Club Season 2 (October 11 on Netflix)
Chucky Series Premiere (October 12 on SyFy) – Chucky the Doll, that is.
A Night in the Academy Museum (October 12 on ABC) – Hosted by Laura Dern and Tom Hanks.
B Positive Season 2 Premiere (October 14 on CBS)
The Kids Tonight Show Series Premiere (October 14 on Peacock)

Sports
-WNBA Finals (Begins October 10, ABC and ESPN)

‘The Rescue’ Embeds Itself Within the Thai Soccer Team Cave Rescue

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The Rescue (CREDIT: National Geographic)

Starring: Junior Soccer Players, Cave Divers, Thai Navy SEALs

Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG for Dangerous Situations

Release Date: October 8, 2021 (Theaters)

If you want to experience very high levels of vicarious stress, then I recommend watching The Rescue. If that sounds awful, know that you’ll also be rewarded with plenty of inspiration! This documentary tells the story of the Thai soccer team that was trapped in and subsequently rescued from a cave in 2018. The operation lasted a few weeks, and while the film lasts less than two hours, you really get a sense of just how long the boys were waiting to be freed. The whole time I was watching, I just wanted it to be over. I knew the major details about the story, so I could rest assured that it was going to be a happy ending, but that didn’t make it any more bearable. That’s not a criticism about the filmmaking; on the contrary, the fact that I could experience that much secondhand claustrophobia and still be enthralled speaks to the power of the presentation.

The Rescue is about once-in-a-lifetime ingenuity fueled by whatever hope is available, all undergirded by the question “What does the impossible look like?” An international team of the best cave divers in the world is assembled. If anybody can retrieve the boys safely, it’s these guys, but their assessment is that it will be the most difficult job they’ve ever had to pull off. With poor visibility, lowering oxygen levels, and rising water levels that are only going to get higher with the looming monsoon season, the task is urgent and requires levels of expertise that have quite possibly never been utilized. Solutions are made up on the fly that theoretically sound like terrible ideas to the people capable of pulling them off, but they’re certainly better than doing nothing.

I can tell you this with genuine certainty: I won’t be doing any spelunking anytime soon. Not that I was planning on doing that before watching The Rescue, but now I have something I can point to if anybody ever asks me why I’m so against it. Maybe I’ll dip my toe in a cave or two, but never so far that I can’t see where I entered from. But thank God there are people on this world who feel very differently than me about this. As this documentary demonstrates, we kind of need them.

The Rescue is Recommended If You Like: your documentaries inspirational and death-defying

Grade: 4 out of 5 Tham Luangs

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