by Hope Madden
Making her feature debut behind the camera, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about women unable to find a place to truly belong. The film is Passing, and Hall mines Larsen’s insight and longing to produce a visually stunning, melancholy period piece.
Filmed appropriately and gorgeously in black and white, Passing transports us to the Harlem Renaissance. Irene (Tessa Thompson), wealthy wife of a doctor, pulls her fashionable hat down a little over her eyes and shops in upscale, very white boutiques looking for the book her son must have for his birthday.
She then cautiously risks an afternoon tea in a high-rent bistro, intrigued but terrified of being discovered as she passes for white. A familiar laugh rings through the room and Irene is recognized, not by angry white faces, but by an almost unfamiliar blonde — high school friend Clare (Ruth Negga), whose entire life is built on the falsehood Irene only flirts with for an afternoon.
What follows is a relationship fraught with anxiety, envy and yearning as two people consider what might have been and what might still be, depending on how they position themselves in the divided racial culture of 1920s NYC.
The languid beauty and comment on class play like a more delicate take on Gatsby, Hall subtly drawing attention not only to the racial divide but to the socioeconomic divide within Irene’s own home and life. Never showy, never heavy-handed, the film’s themes prick at the audience just as they slowly, cumulatively wound Irene.
Thompson delivers an introspective performance unlike anything thus far in her impressive career. A great deal of Irene’s arc plays across Thompson’s face, but an early, cynical burst of laughter and other small gestures speak volumes as Irene’s satisfaction with life drains away.
Negga is superb, just incandescent and haunting as a damaged, elegant survivor. For all her glitter and glamour, Clare haunts the screen. The tenderness between the two characters haunts, as well, delivering a sorrowful tone at odds and yet in keeping with the glorious, snow-globe-esque set design.
Hall might seem an unusual talent to deliver such a richly textured examination of the Black experience in America, but she took inspiration from her own grandfather, a Black man who passed for white. Whatever the background, the result is a meticulously crafted, deeply felt gem of a film.
Nocturna Side A & B
Argentinian filmmaker Gonzalo Calzada has been thinking pretty hard about time, sin and redemption. This week he invites you to two sides of the same story. Side A — The Great Old Man’s Night shadows ninetysomething Ulises (a heartbreaking Pepe Soriano) on his last night on this earth.
Like a surreal take on Michael Haneke’s Amour, the film puts you in the shoes (likely slippers) of a man who’s never sure what’s real and not real, someone struggling to do what’s right and yet terrified that everything he’s doing is wrong.
Soriano’s befuddled, valiant performance never feels less than authentic. As grief and regret call up memories that blur with a reality that’s already smeary from dementia, Soriano keeps you as off-balance as his character. The performance aches with tenderness for this man, and it’s that tenderness that gives Calzada’s film its haunting poignancy.
Set inside a once-elegant, now crumbling Buenos Aires apartment, The Great Old Man’s Night becomes a kind of haunted house tale, the building itself an image of the ravages of time. But where the set feels of decay, Soriano finds the bridge between age-related confusion and the wistful wonder of childhood.
Calzada returns to the same Buenos Aires apartment building for Side B – Where Elephants Go to Die. Essentially the same film told from a different perspective, Side B is no Rashomon trick.
For this track, the filmmaker sees regret, loneliness and time as a loop. And once this loop is recorded, it becomes a trap. For that reason, Side B becomes an outright ghost story and horror film.
Calzada’s themes are the same, as are his characters and setting. The approach is different, though. More experimental in nature, at barely an hour, Side B is also more tedious.
Rather than any kind of traditional narrative, the film strings together hauntingly poetic images narrated with voiceover soliloquies. This may have worked far better in Calzado’s native tongue, but the length of these monologues makes reading English subtitles difficult. Reading and also paying attention to the images dancing across the screen is frequently impossible.
Stylized treatment and herky-jerky editing do give the film an unnerving time loop quality, but scenes mainly feel stale. The imagery lacks a traditional storyline, which means that sequences need to hint at a story that wants to be unearthed. On the whole, these vignettes feel like stories you’ve already heard, usually more than once.
Side B is best digested as a tandem piece to Side A, an appendix of sorts. But the real treat is watching a film that values an old man, sees his humanity and contribution through his last breaths. For that reason among others, Side A is the novel and impressive work.
Nocturna Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night
Nocturna Side B – Where Elephants Go to Die
A Mouthful of Air
by Hope Madden
Writer Amy Koppelman does not fear the murky, unpopular waters of an unredeemed female protagonist. She challenges you to face that character and recognize your own discomfort, your own desire to either wag your finger or to pity, but not to understand.
Her novel I Smile Back gave Sarah Silverman fodder for a blistering, unforgettable lead role in Adam Salky’s uneven 2015 film adaptation. What Silverman ran with was the notion that depression and trauma create selfishness, necessarily, and audiences hate to see selfishness in women.
It’s that tension that makes A Mouthful of Air so devastating. Directing her adaptation of her own novel, Koppelman taps Amanda Seyfried to play Julie Davis, a children’s book author and struggling new mom.
Seyfried’s performance aches with tenderness and raw emotion, but she never caves in, never makes Julie more sympathetic than she should be. Once again, the tension in the film is the reality that your own personal demons demand as much from those who love you as they demand from you.
A Mouthful of Air is not entirely forgiving of all those who orbit Julie — the sister-in-law (Jennifer Carpenter) who’s protective of her brother, the mother (Amy Irving) whose love and lived-in dysfunction play such a role, the father (Michael Gaston). Neither does it condemn. Instead, Koppelman attempts to show the human complexities at work in relationships weighed down with trauma.
Finn Wittrock excels at finding a human center — tender, desperate, angry, compassionate – in an underwritten, heroic character. The great Paul Giamatti lends his considerable talent to a small but important role.
As was the case with I Smile Back, A Mouthful of Air prefers to hint at past trauma co-mingling with chronic depression without spelling anything out. The result is both appealing in the way it avoids easy answers and problematic in its vagueness.
That vagueness is part and parcel of a script that, even with its bravery in depicting an honest truth about motherhood that most films avoid or deny outright, still feels superficial.
There’s power here, especially in Seyfried’s raw performance. For all its flaws, A Mouthful of Air is a film you’ll be thinking about long after the credits roll.
Addiction is its own horror story, which may explain why so many filmmakers use monstrous imagery as metaphor for addiction. We count down the best horror films that use addiction to freak you out.
5. Enter the Void (2009)
Gaspar Noe films from the point of view of Oscar, an American who deals drugs in Tokyo. When Oscar is shot in a police raid, the camera follows his subconscious as Noe tries to illustrate a nightmarish link between drugs and death.
Noe’s trademarks – jarring opening credits, roller coaster camerawork, extended takes – are all here, and the result is a nearly two-and-a-half hour barrage of extreme violence, graphic sex, drug-fueled hallucinations and an often hypnotizing gloom that may leave you feeling physically beaten. It’s an experience. But like most of Noe’s work, it’s also hard to turn away from, even if you want to.
4. Habit (1995)
Writer/director/star Larry Fessenden explores alcoholism via vampire symbolism in this NY indie. Fessenden plays Sam, a longtime drunk bohemian type in the city. He’s recently lost his father, his longtime girlfriend finally cut bait, and he runs into a woman who is undoubtedly out of his league at a party.
And then he wakes up naked and bleeding in a park.
The whole film works beautifully as an analogy for alcoholism without crumbling under the weight of metaphor. Fessenden crafts a wise, sad vampiric tale here and also shines as its lead.
3. The Addiction (1995)
Like most of director Abel Ferrara’s work, the film is an overtly stylish, rhythmically urban tale of brutal violence, sin and redemption (maybe). Expect drug use, weighty speeches and blood in this tale of a doctoral candidate in philosophy (Lili Taylor) over-thinking her transformation from student to predator.
Taylor cuts an interesting figure as Kathleen, a very grunge-era vampire in her jeans, Doc Martens and oversized, thrift store blazer. She’s joined by an altogether awesome cast—Annabella Sciorra, Edie Falco and Christopher Walken among them.
Ferrara parallels Kathleen’s need for blood to drug addiction, but uses her philosophy jibberish to plumb humanity’s historical bloodlust.
2. Evil Dead (2013)
With the helpful pen of Oscar winner Diablo Cody (uncredited), Fede Alvarez turns all the particulars of the Evil Dead franchise on end. You can tick off so many familiar characters, moments and bits of dialog, but you can’t predict what will happen.
One of the best revisions is the character of Mia: the first to go and yet the sole survivor. An addict secluded in this cabin in the woods with her brother and friend specifically to detox, she’s the damaged one, and the female who’s there without a male counterpart, which means (by horror standards), she’s the one most likely to be a number in the body count, but because of what she has endured in her life she’s able to make seriously tough decisions to survive – like tearing off her own damn arm. Nice!
Plus, it rains blood! How awesome is that?!
1. Resolution (2012)
Michael (Chris Cilella) is lured to a remote cabin, hoping to save his friend Chris (Vinny Curan) from himself. Chris will detox whether he wants to or not, then Michael will wash his hands of this situation and start again with his wife and unborn baby.
But Michael is in for more than he bargained, and not only because Chris has no interest in detoxing. Directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (working from Benson’s screenplay) begin with a fascinating and bizarre group of characters and a solid story, layering on bizarre notions of time, horror and storytelling in ways that are simultaneously familiar and wildly unique. The result is funny, tense, and terrifying.
by Hope Madden
A quarter-century ago, horror master Wes Craven reinvented his genre of choice—again—with a savvy, funny, scary murder mystery. Scream was an inside-out spoof of the genre, a clever dissection of the tropes and cliches wrapped up in a celebration of those same elements.
It was not our first meta-movie, but it was the first movie to refer to itself as such.
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (Ready or Not) return to Woodsboro for the franchise’s fifth installment. This go-round comments blisteringly (and entertainingly) not just on horror, but on the post-internet realities of cinema in general.
They really have a good time with that.
Tara Carpenter (the first of maybe 300 horror name drops), played by a remarkable Jenna Ortega, is home alone when she receives a threatening phone call. She doesn’t want to talk about slashers, though. She’d rather discuss “elevated horror.”
That’s an in-joke, one of dozens, each landing but none taking away from the larger story. In that one, Tara’s older sister Sam (Melissa Barrera, In the Heights) returns to Woodsboro upon hearing of Tara’s attack. She follows advice from someone who would know and assembles Tara’s close-knit ring of friends to suss out suspects.
But to really anchor these newfangled reboot/sequels (or, in the parlance of another inside gag, “requels”), Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin will need some familiar faces. Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and David Arquette are three excellent reasons to see the new Scream, a film that is both a fan of the franchise and a cynic of fandom.
The young cast excels as well—Dylan Minnette and Jasmin Savoy Brown, in particular. In fact, Barrera in the central role is the only real weak spot. As was the case in In the Heights, she poses more than acts, a flaw that’s never more obvious than when she shares the screen with the noticeably more talented Ortega.
The filmmakers, along with writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, fill scenes with nostalgia too cheeky to be simple fan service. Their clear affection for the franchise (a surprisingly strong set of films, as horror series go) is evident and infectious.
You do not have to know the 1996 original or any of its sequels to enjoy Scream. It’s a standalone blast. But if you grew up on these movies, this film is like a bloody message of love for you.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
by Hope Madden
Every so often you come across a movie and think it must have been made specifically for you. In my case, that film is Kier-La Janisse’s 3-hour documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.
Yes, that does seem like a very big time commitment to folk horror, but Janisse’s film repays your undertaking with not only an incredibly informative documentary but an engaging, creepy and beautifully made film.
Dividing her topic into chapters, Janisse portions out information theme by theme. And while this essay-style documentation is driven by expert commentary, the filmmaker surrounds the scholarly material with beguiling imagery.
Every chapter has its own look and feel, each one opening with an appropriately bewitching bit of rhyme. Then it leads you through a clearly articulated and fairly comprehensive examination of certain moments in folk horror. Janisse opens on the big three, The Unholy Trinity–Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man—as a way to ease us into the conversation by pinning major themes on well-known films.
She goes on to explore TV and written tales tangentially, though her focus is always primarily on film, taking us from The Wicker Man through Midsommar. In between, she introduces dozens of underseen films and traces not only the history of folk horror but the societal anxieties that these films represent.
And while many may think mainly of British films of the 1960s and 70s for this category, Janisse presents an intriguing global history that unveils universal primal preoccupations from England to Argentina, the US to Lapland and beyond.
Dry as that may sound, between the snippets of the movies themselves and the fluid, often creepy presentation, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched becomes as transfixing a film as those it dissects. And it digs deep, into obscure titles new and old. Border! White Reindeer! Onibaba! Viy! Prevenge!
Bonus: You can find a gorgeous array of folk horror streaming on Shudder this month, including The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General.
There are so many, you can’t blame even a 3-hour film for leaving some out. Here are a few masterpieces glimpsed but not discussed and well worth your time:
And even then, there are some favorites not discussed at all that you might want to check out:
How can three hours of folk horror discussion not be enough? It’s a question that points to what may be the greatest strength of Janisse’s film. Like any truly strong documentary, her film not only covers its topic comprehensively, it inspires you to dig deeper on your own time.
by Hope Madden
“Delightful” is a word I wouldn’t expect to use to describe a documentary about the rise and fall of a hip-hop empire. And yet, there you have it. Dawn Raid, Oscar Knightley’s doc about the seminal New Zealand rap label, is just that: delightful.
The main characters in the tale, Dawn Raid co-founders Danny “Brotha D” Leaosavai’i and Andy Murnane, are delights themselves. Humble, funny, self-deprecating and excellent storytellers, the duo tell their tale the way a buddy might over a few beers.
“Dude, listen to this — it’s crazy!”
The pair met taking a trade school business course that preached entrepreneurial spirit. Well, these two had that, so why finish the training? They wanted to start South Auckland’s first hip-hop label. To generate funds, they made and sold t-shirts.
The t-shirts, like their label’s own name, took ugly stereotypes about Polynesians and turned them on ear. (Dawn Raid itself refers to racist, government-sanctioned police action meant to rid NZ of unwanted Polynesian Islanders who’d outstayed their welcome.)
The joy and community pride that infects the pair’s actions inform not only their entire career but the film itself. While Murnane talks consistently of his desire to go bigger and get richer, it’s clear that both entrepreneurs wanted primarily to give South Auckland the chance to show the world its worth.
And it did. Beyond the charm of the film’s leads is the joy of the music itself. Knightly is wise to showcase each of Dawn Raid’s major artists—Deceptikonz, Adeaze, Aaradhna, Mareko and Savage. This not only provides a remarkable soundtrack, but it amplifies the impressive and unique style of music Dawn Raid recorded.
The typical ups and downs associated with this kind of music doc take on a freshness for the sheer energy Murnane brings to the film. Not a moment is wasted on regret, even though the digital age and the NZ government were not kind to Dawn Raid.
Still, Leaosavai’I and Murnane have little but joy to share when they remember the ups and the downs. Regardless of the fact that the outline is the same as many an entertainment doc, the soul is as jubilant as the music.