‘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

How Does Rebecca Hall Handle the Confounding Scares of ‘The Night House’? Let’s Find Out

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The Night House (CREDIT: Searchlight Pictures)

Starring: Rebecca Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Evan Jonigkeit, Vondie Curtis Hall, Stacy Martin

Director: David Bruckner

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for Creepy Sequences and Salty Language

Release Date: August 20, 2021 (Theaters)

Can we ever really know the people closest to us as well as we think we do? Not when there’s a demonic possession lurking around your home! (Which is what I think The Night House is saying.) Rebecca Hall plays Beth, a high school teacher who lives on her own in a lake house now that her seemingly well-adjusted husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) has killed himself. And honestly? That’s some spot-on casting. Hall excels at doing her damnedest to remain mentally put-together while suddenly becoming beset by all-consuming skepticism. We can believe that she will never give up on the search for the truth but also that she is too flummoxed to ever see it clearly. It’s a purposely erratic approach that might be too maddening for some audiences, but for my money, Hall holds it all together sufficiently, and director David Bruckner has plenty to offer in the creeps department.

For most of its running time, The Night House appears to be hurtling headlong towards a clear explanation for all the strange goings-on. Why does Owen shoot himself in the head? What’s the meaning of the enigmatic note he left behind? When Beth is dreaming, what’s the deal with the alternate dimension she seems to be entering and its attendant mirror image house? And what about that mysterious woman (or women?) Owen was surreptitiously hanging out with who looks just like Beth? Is this some sort of Vertigo situation? The best I can figure is that Owen has fallen prey to some sort of evil supernatural entity that is now threatening Beth’s life. But I’m not entirely sure if that’s correct. That vagueness can be frustrating for some, but I appreciate it to a certain extent, because it means that this is nowhere near your standard devil-made-me-do-it story.

The easiest metaphorical read is that Beth is a victim of all-consuming depression, but her situation resists easy interpretation. She offhandedly mentions past mental health struggles without going into too much detail, and while she seems distressed now, she doesn’t come off as particularly depressed. More like obsessed, which is certainly understandable in light of her husband’s suicide. Ultimately, The Night House is writing its own new language of psychological anguish, in which Beth’s waking hours lose all their stability, while her subconscious is beset by a creatively disruptive force. It ends exactly where it needs to without having to definitively clear up the mystery.

The Night House is Recommended If You Like: Vertigo, Insidious, possibly The One I Love? (I haven’t seen it, but the premise seems to have some similarities)

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Nightmares

Godzilla vs. Kong vs. My Internal Composure: A Movie Review

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Godzilla vs. Kong (CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Godzilla, King Kong, Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Eiza González, Julian Dennison, Lance Reddick, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Mechagodzilla

Director: Adam Wingard

Running Time: 113 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: March 31, 2021

What if it were Godzilla vs. Kong vs. … jmunney? Does the latest no-holds cinematic brawl between these two iconic behemoths make me want to join the fight? Hey man, I’m a pacifist! But entering their domain in some capacity might be fun. They seem like good company.  Kong is certainly a clown. And sensitive, to boot! Godzilla’s harder to peg, but I’d be willing to put in the emotional groundwork to make the connection. What’s Mechagodzilla’s deal, though? He sure comes out of nowhere. Does he even have a soul?!

Grade: 5 Podcasts of 10 ASLs

Movie Review: ‘Teen Spirit’ is a Sublime Musical Journey for Elle Fanning and for Us, the Audience

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CREDIT: LD Entertainment/Bleecker Street

Starring: Elle Fanning, Zlatko Burić, Agnieszka Grochowska, Rebecca Hall

Director: Max Minghella

Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Little Bit of Drunkenness

Release Date: April 12, 2019 (Limited)

Does watching Elle Fanning sing her heart out to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” sound appealing to you? Because, let me tell you something: when I witnessed that moment happening in Teen SpiritI was absolutely spellbound. Now, this is an actress I have enjoyed for quite some time, but with this performance, she has transported me to a realm of cinematic satisfaction that I was not fully prepared for. She plays Violet Valenski, an English teenager of Polish descent who makes her way from a tiny town on the Isle of Wight into the glitz and blinding neon of the titular reality singing competition.

I don’t know if Teen Spirit is the name of an actual British reality show or not, but it doesn’t matter, as it might as well be called “Generic Singing Contest.” The plot is thin and predictable, but that’s not a big deal. First-time feature director Max Minghella (probably best known as Nick on The Handmaid’s Tale) is more concerned about capturing the emotion of the moment. That is the approach typically employed with music videos, but what works over four or five minutes can be difficult to stretch out after ninety. But Minghella has pulled it off, with his camera often focusing on emotionally intense close-ups and fluid bodily movements. One standout scene features Violet letting loose in her bedroom, inviting everyone into the transcendence that can be experienced by just plugging into the music.

Joining Violet on her journey is Vlad (Zlatko Burić), an aging opera singer enamored by her star quality who decides that he simply must be her manager. This could so easily be a character who is plotting to take advantage of our protagonist in any number of ways. But instead, he just wants to see her triumph, and he has some well-earned wisdom to offer for how she might go about succeeding. It’s always lovely when you’re watching a movie and suspecting the worst but instead you see a whole village having the main character’s back. Is global superstardom in Violet’s future? Perhaps, but what’s important now is that she has busted out enough of what she feels deep inside herself to share that joy with a grateful audience.

Teen Spirit is Recommended If You Like: Sing Street, Bye Bye Birdie, The music of Robyn, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Tegan & Sara

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Explosive Choruses

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’ is a Love(s) Story Like No Other

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CREDIT: Claire Folger/Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt

Director: Angela Robinson

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Getting It On Unapologetically

Release Date: October 13, 2017

I think every man, woman, boy, girl, or whatever personal nomenclature you prefer should go and be inspired by Wonder Woman. I also want to recommend just as wholeheartedly Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the story of Wonder Woman’s creator and his inspiration, but fair warning: William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) lived an unprecedented life, by any era’s standards. His biography is not absolutely necessary to understand the context of Diana Prince, but it is enlightening. His story is also alarming, but also ultimately joyous, and that is true especially in light of the Wonder Woman film so pointedly emphasizing Diana’s prerogative to protect all life.

To get right into it: Marston did not come into comic books through publishing or 9-to-5 hackery, but rather psychology and academia. He is noted for developing DISC Theory, which proposes that all human behavior can be categorized as either dominance, inducement, submission, or compliance. To be clear, this is not just sexual behavior he is talking about, but all human behavior. If you’re wondering if a guy like this would be intrigued by sexual bondage, then your instincts are correct. However, if you’re also thinking that this part of the story has nothing to do with the creation of Wonder Woman, you clearly have not read her early issues. Marston is also famous for inventing an early lie detector prototype, and now that are you are remembering the Lasso of Truth, it should be abundantly clear how his ideas have lived on.

But while all that history is important to the film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a love story through and through, and an unapologetically nontraditional one. Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), a fellow psychologist, lived with another woman, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), lover to them both. If this arrangement sounds like misogyny lurking underneath a supposed ally of women, well, this staunchly feminist does not see it that way, and neither do its staunchly feminist characters. Instead, Bill, Elizabeth, and Olive, in their decision to live together in defiance of society’s standards, are positioned as self-sacrificing heroes ahead of their time. This is true perhaps in the sense that as the inspirations of an iconic fictional character, the ladies’ legacy lives on. But it is not exactly true (at least not yet) in the sense that polyamory is still far from normal.

Personally, I do not object to polyamory on any moral grounds, but rather, because I find the prospect emotionally exhausting. But damn if Professor Marston doesn’t have me cheering for those who believe in it. There is no doubt that this trio are in fact deeply in love with each other. A series of lie detector scenes make that effervescently clear. These moments may be cinematic contrivances, but I don’t care, as they are so entertainingly bold! Indeed, it is rare to find any major theatrical release whose social and romantic politics are so unapologetic, and for that, it should be cherished.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is Recommended If You Like: Wonder Woman comics – the classic and the obscure stuff, Jules and Jim, Shakespeare in Love, Secretary

Grade: 4 out of 5 Lie Detectors

This Is a Movie Review: If ‘The Dinner’ Has Its Way, You Will Lose Your Appetite

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This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall

Director: Oren Moverman

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: R for Children Getting Up to No Good and Their Parents Yelling About It

Release Date: May 5, 2017 (Limited)

Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere, and Rebecca Hall invite you to a very special evening. Coogan and his wife Linney are on their way to meet Coogan’s brother Gere and his wife Hall at the fanciest restaurant in town. Coogan is dreading the evening and would much rather stay home, but alas, there is no wiggling out. This is family, and there is an outstanding issue that must be addressed. Coogan is caught snooping around his son’s cell phone, so that should tell you something about what sort of father he is. It should also be noted that Gere is a politician in the middle of an all-consuming campaign, so that just gobbles everything in its vicinity.

The deal is that both couples’ teenage children have gotten themselves into extraordinary trouble. Far be it from me to reveal any specifics, as the film’s whole raison d’être is gradually revealing the details. But suffice it to say that the event in question has legal and ethical implications that are unavoidably disturbing. They are the kinds of consequences that no child should ever force their parents to face, especially when mental illness, the public eye, and years of seething resentment are in the mix. The formula is set for the most unpleasant outing ever for this foursome and for the audience. It is thrilling to watch a quartet of thespians like The Dinner’s volley vitriol back and forth, but ultimately this meal is more frustrating than anything else.

The Dinner is designed to be challenging, as any story with a clinically depressed character at its center should be. It is unreasonable to expect a cheerier arc, or even necessarily some possibility of relief. But what there ought to be is a chance for understanding. The structure consists of frame devices within frame devices, as flashbacks fill out the motivations forged over the past several weeks and the past several years and lifetimes. When in the outermost frame, The Dinner is naggingly difficult to pierce, but when it opens up to its deepest core, the viewer can say, “I accept you for who you are.”

The Dinner is Recommended If You Like: Having Your Stomach Knotted Like a Fist

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Courses