PASSING (2021)

December 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. “We’re all passing for something or other.” Irene (played by Tessa Thompson) speaks the line that cuts to the quick of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, adapted here by first time writer-director Rebecca Hall. We are familiar with Ms. Hall’s many film projects as an actor, and her debut as a director shows immense promise. Ms. Larsen’s novel was inspired by her own life as a mixed-race woman.

It’s Irene whom we first see as ‘passing’ as white as she visits a retail store and takes tea at a fancy restaurant that most assuredly would not serve her if her light complexion and drawn-down hat were not hiding her true self. Cinematographer Eduard Grau has the camera track Irene’s darting eyes that are trained to notice potential trouble. Her gaze stops on a woman seated alone. There is a familiarity between the two and soon, Clare (Ruth Negga) has joined her long-ago childhood friend, Irene, at her table. While Irene “passes” when it’s necessary, she clearly identifies and lives as an African-American – married to Harlem doctor Brian (Andre Holland). Clare, on the other hand, is living a lie. She has permanently “passed” as a white woman, marrying John (Alexander Skarsgard).

The film’s best scene occurs when Clare takes Irene home and introduces her to husband John. His vile, racist nature immediately shows, creating a tense moment filled with excruciating and subtle exchanges of knowing glances between Clare and Irene. It’s a dangerous moment and we aren’t sure where it’s headed. What is clear is that a childhood bond may exist between the two ladies, but there is now a void that can never be filled. But what happens is that Clare finagles her way into the lives of Irene and Brian (and their kids). What we see is that Clare finds the ‘honest’ life quite enticing. Allowing herself to be who she is … dropping the façade … energizes her. Racial identity and sexuality are at stake here, and so are class and culture.

Bill Camp plays a pompous writer named Hugh who always seems to be hanging around the same parties and events as Irene. One of the best lines of the film occurs after Bill asks someone why they are hanging around. The answer is brief and insightful, and cuts to the quick. It’s a strong debut film from director Hall. It has a dreamlike look and excellent performances from the two leading ladies. The grey area in life is teased, and we do wish the dive had been a bit deeper on Irene and Clare, but that ending is one that will stun you – even if you’re expecting it.

Streaming on Netflix

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AD ASTRA (2019)

September 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Astronaut Roy McBride’s pulse rate may never go above 80 bpm, but mine certainly did during the opening sequence which features a stunning and spectacular space fall. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. Roy has trained his entire life for this work; however his true mental state is only revealed slowly throughout the film’s run. After witnessing his actions and hearing (through narration) his thoughts, we are left to decide what we think of Roy … stoic hero or simmering psychopath? Either way, he’s haunted by a past that has rendered him mission-focused and the world’s worst party guest. The film takes place in the not-too-distant future.

Brad Pitt stars as Roy McBride, in what may be his career best (and most inward-looking) performance. Roy is the son of NASA hero Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), the leader of The Lima Project – a decades old mission to Neptune tasked with searching for extraterrestrial life. The elder McBride has long been assumed dead with no signals or response signs in many years. A recent power surge that threatens humanity has been traced to Neptune, and now Roy is being used as bait to track down his rogue astronaut father and prevent him from causing further damage.

Roy’s assignment requires him to journey from Earth to the Moon to Mars and, ultimately, on to Neptune. Along the way, he travels with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), an old friend of Clifford’s, who is sent along to make sure the son doesn’t acquiesce to the father. Of course, it’s a nice touch to have Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland together again in a space movie 20 years after SPACE COWBOYS, a more upbeat adventure. Here we see a populated moon – yet another place we humans have messed up – replete with turf wars. There is also a shootout in a space capsule, and an unscheduled stop that provides shocking visuals and causes a shift in the crew.

James Gray, who directed the vastly underrated THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) delivers a space film with terrific visuals and a script he co-wrote with Ethan Gross, that examines how a father can affect the life of his son even when he’s not present. The film has an unusual pace to it. There are a few action sequences, but the core of the film is the psychological state of son versus absent father. Roy’s inability to connect with loved ones is displayed through flashbacks involving Liv Tyler, and it’s his own narration that provides us much more insight than his regularly scheduled psychological tests.

Ruth Negga (LOVING) has a nice turn as Helen Lantos, one of the key officials at the Mars space station, and her encounter with Roy provides him with yet more background on his father. It’s easy to recall both APOCALYPSE NOW (only with Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Kurtz) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY given the isolation, questionable mental state, and mission-gone-wrong. The cinematography Hoyte Van Hoytema (DUNKIRK) is outstanding, and never allows us to forget Roy is in space … with danger present in every moment. The title translates “to the stars”, and it’s true in every sense.

Mr. Gray has delivered a thought-provoking big budget science fiction film. It has incredible special effects, but the personal story packs even more punch than the galactic adventure. Many will compare this to other space films like CONTACT, GRAVITY, and FIRST MAN, but this one requires more investment from the viewer, as it’s the character study that resonates. This is Brad Pitt’s movie (he’s in most every scene), and the ties to his father are never more evident than when he (and we) see The Nicholas Brothers performing in black and white on that monitor. If a daily psychological profile was required for each of us, it would be interesting to see how much work would actually be accomplished. Now, imagine yourself stationed in space and just try to keep your heartrate below 80!

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LOVING (2016)

November 12, 2016

loving Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine you are sound asleep in bed with your significant other. It’s the middle of the night. Suddenly, the sheriff and his deputies crash through your bedroom door with pistols drawn and flashlights blinding you. You are both taken into custody. For most of us, this would be a terrible nightmare. For Mildred and Richard Loving, it was their reality in June of 1958. Their crime was not drug-dealing, child pornography, or treason. Their crime was marriage. Interracial marriage.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) proves again he has a distinct feel and sensitivity for the southern way. There is nothing showy about his style, and in fact, his storytelling is at its most effective in the small, intimate moments … he goes quiet where other filmmakers would go big. Rather than an overwrought political statement, Nichols keeps the focus on two people just trying to live their life together.

Joel Edgerton plays Richard Loving, a bricklayer and man of few words. Ruth Negga plays Mildred, a quietly wise and observant woman. Both are outstanding in delivering understated and sincere performances (expect Oscar chatter for Ms. Negga). These are country folks caught up in Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, though as Richard says, “we aren’t bothering anyone”. The counterpoint comes from the local Sheriff (an intimidating Martin Csokas) and the presiding Judge Bazile (David Jensen) who claim to be enforcing “God’s Law”.

Nichols never strays far from the 2011 documentary The Loving Story from Nancy Buirski, who is a producer on this film. When the ACLU-assigned young (and green) lawyer Bernard Cohen (played with a dose of goofiness by Nick Kroll) gets involved, we see how the case hinges on public perception and changing social mores. Michael Shannon appears as the Life Magazine photographer who shot the iconic images of the couple at home … a spread that presented the Lovings not as an interracial couple, but rather as simply a normal married couple raising their kids.

In 1967, the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, unanimously held Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act of 1924” as unconstitutional, putting an end to all miscegenation laws (interracial marriage was still illegal in 15 states at the time). In keeping with the film’s direct approach, the Supreme Court case lacks any of the usual courtroom theatrics and is capped with a quietly received phone call to Mildred.

Beautiful camera work from cinematographer Adam Stone complements the spot on setting, costumes and cars which capture the look and feel of the era (over a 10 year period). Nichols forsakes the crowd-rallying moments or even the police brutality of today’s headlines, but that doesn’t mean there is any shortage of paranoia or constant concern. We feel the strain through these genuine people as though we are there with them. The simplicity of Richard and Mildred belies the complexity of the issue, and is summed up through the words of Mildred, “He took care of me.”

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