Tag Archives: Rebecca Hall

A Life Divided

Passing

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.

Buyer Beware

The Night House

by George Wolf

The Night House rests on a trusted horror foundation that’s adorned with several stylishly creepy fixtures. But it’s a terrific lead performance from Rebecca Hall that becomes the support beam preventing total collapse.

Hall plays Beth, a New York teacher still reeling from the recent death of her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit). As Beth drifts through her impressive lakefront house trying to adjust, new discoveries bring unexpected questions about her late husband’s outside interests.

Though Beth’s neighbor (Vondie Curtis-Hall, always a pleasure) and best friend (Sarah Goldberg) both warn her not to fill the void in her life with “something dark,” the dark keeps calling. The more Beth digs into things Owen left behind, the more signs point to an unsettling secret life, and to the possibility that Owen may not have entirely moved on.

Director David Bruckner (The Ritual, The Signal) and screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times) each have resumes showing impressive results within limited budgets. Stepping up a bit in class, their metaphor for the fog of grief and depression is familiar but well-crafted, with soft-pedaled jump scares and effectively spooky visuals.

Bruckner fuels the standard what’s real/what’s-in-her-head questions with some nifty camera tricks that make the house come eerily alive with forced perspectives and Dali-esque illusions.

As solid as the film’s construction may be, it falls on Hall to make sure the reveals waiting in the third act land with more emotion than silliness.

She’s more than up to the task. Early on, Beth’s sustained grief, and her indignation toward everyone who’s not Owen, carries an authenticity that gets us squarely behind Beth’s personal journey. And that pays dividends once the film relies on our belief in what Beth believes. Thanks to Hall, we end up buying in.

Looking ahead to 2022, Bruckner, Collins and Piotkowski will team up again for the Hellraiser reboot. That means that while there’s enough in The Night House to satisfy horror fans today, there’s also plenty here to get us hopeful about the future.

Place Your Bets

Godzilla vs. Kong

by George Wolf & Hope Madden

Here’s a sampling of the things we yelled at the screen during Godzilla vs. Kong:

“Boom! In the face!”

“Kyle Chandler is a terrible father.”

“Skull f**k him!”

“It’s just a flesh wound, get up!”

So you could say we were engaged in this battle, the one that’s been brewing since the end credits stinger from the excellent Kong: Skull Island four years ago. GvK can’t quite match that film’s tonal bullseye, but it easily lands as second best in the “Titan” Monsterverse that was reborn with 2014’s Godzilla.

Picking up three years after the tedious Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the film finds Kong contained on Skull Island under the respectful eye of Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall).

Meanwhile, Godzilla attacks APEX’s Florida headquarters – seemingly unprovoked. Mansplaining Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) says Godzilla’s changed his hero stripes, but his daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and “Titan Truth” podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry, committing grand theft scenery) think there’s got to be more to the story.

There’s plenty more, and Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) believes Kong could be the key to proving his Hollow Earth theory about the Titans. Ilene agrees to allow the heavily sedated Kong to be transported by sea, but far from Godzilla’s favorite swimming holes, of course.

Riiiight.

Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, Blair Witch) clearly realizes that monster mashes aren’t compelling if you can’t tell who’s fighting, and the technical aspects of GvK bring the Titan battles to vibrant life. Pristine cinematography, detailed CGI effects and a wonderfully layered sound design elevate the thrills early and often.

And that is what we’re here for, isn’t it?

That’s a familiar refrain when the human arcs in these films are so woeful, but screenwriters Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein toss the overwrought melodrama of King of the Monsters and add a frisky sense of welcome fun.

Yes, there’s another cute kid (Kaylee Hottle) with negligent guardians, and more than enough characters, locations and theories to keep up with. But even if you fall behind, you’ll catch up when these two Titans throw hands and tails, because they mean business.

They’re timing ain’t bad, either, as this is the kind of cinematic spectacle that could mean very good business for newly reopened theaters that badly need it. It’s a PG-13 return to form for a legendary franchise, with plenty to reward your popcorn munching and ringside commentary (keep it clean at the multiplex, please).

Just pick your screen size, and get ready to rumble.

Super More Than Friends

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

by George Wolf

My my, turns out Wonder Woman’s lasso was designed for a little bit more than just truth-telling.

Writer/director Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is the fascinating story of the birth of an iconic superhero, told with enough earnest emotion and sly subversion to craft a captivating, entertaining history lesson with a naughty side.

Anchored in 1945, when Wonder Woman creator William Marston (Luke Evans) is defending his comic against charges of indecency, the film flashes back often to the 1920s, as Marston and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) were psychologists at Radcliffe college. After taking on a young teaching assistant (Bella Heathcote), the three develop a relationship that launches both scandal and inspiration.

A mix of Saving Mr. Banks and A Dangerous Method, PMATWW boasts excellent performances and a refreshing, if a bit idealized worldview.

Call it Super More Than Friends.

 





Bon Appetit

The Dinner

by Hope Madden

Enduring a dinner party – in cinematic terms, it can lead to a cathartic catfight (Carnage), mass suicide (The Invitation) or an all out apocalypse (It’s a Disaster).

It would appear that having to remain civil through such a meal causes us, as a civilization, a lot of anxiety.

Writer/director Oren Moverman (Rampart, The Messenger) ignites that discomfort and then looks at it from all angles with his newest, The Dinner.

Richard Gere – that silver fox – is Stan Lohman. A politician with a congressional race on the line and an important bill currently up for a vote, he’s juggling a lot right now. So why stop everything to join his brother Paul (Steve Coogan), along with Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) and his own wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) for a 5-star meal?

Well, it isn’t good news.

The restaurant of choice is beyond posh, its lushly appointed dining rooms and obscenely laden tables a fascinating surrounding for the drama unfolding. When Moverman remains with his primary foursome inside this restaurant, an involving and curiously repellant morality play unfolds.

Moverman has a particular talent – one that these veterans relish. He scripts characters who are rarely entirely what they appear at first blush, never go where you expect them to go, and somehow wind up being the same and yet remarkably different than what you’d imagined.

This kid of layered challenge can prove too much for many actors, but Hall, Coogan, Gere and especially Linney are custom made for such work. Indeed, in many respects these actors are superior to their material.

Linney and Hall suffer from underwritten characters, which is a shame because both find something primal under all their characters’ studied polish.

Gere is breezily at ease as the smooth politician, convincing himself and others of his genuineness as he works the room.

Coogan is the standout surprise, playing against his traditionally comedic type as the enigma in the middle of this conundrum.

Suffice it to say, the couples have a parental nightmare to contend with, and it’s when Moverman brings in flashback to enlighten the audience that his drama begins to lose its way. Mix in some additional flashbacks to illuminate Paul’s character, including an excruciating Civil War sequence (we get it – sibling rivalry – enough already!), and the slow film comes to a stand-still.

It’s a frustrating way to spend an evening, The Dinner, but not a waste of time. Every member of the cast has a moment of brilliance working with a script that also shines in fits and spurts.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Unfair and Unbalanced

Christine

by Hope Madden

There’s a moment in Christine – Antonio Campos’s clinical character study of ‘70s on-air reporter Christine Chubbuck – when a violently depressed Christine chastises her mother’s parenting. Had she been a better parent, maybe Christine would understand how the world worked.

There is such honest, bewildered frustration in that moment. With that single thought, a career-best Rebecca Hall exposes Chubbuck’s isolated, lonely, crippled soul.

We’re invited to join the stormy decline of Chubbuck’s life. An awkward, severe professional at odds with the era’s sensationalistic news trends, Chubbuck clashes with her Sarasota station’s news manager (Tracy Letts) and pines for its handsome anchor (Michael C. Hall).

Chubbuck’s professional frustrations and personal isolation come to a head simultaneously. Thanks to Hall’s meticulous performance, what we can see is that the emotionally brittle, deeply depressed Chubbuck hasn’t the resilience to contend with it.

Hall’s body language, her gait, her facial expressions and her speech amplify her character’s growing turmoil. It’s a creeping darkness that grows to be almost unbearable before bursting into an eye-of-the-storm calm that’s even eerier for its realism.

Though Craig Shilowich’s screenplay leans too heavily on frustrated spinsterisms as a handy excuse for Chubbuck’s behavior, and Campos’s direction intentionally keeps Christine at arm’s length, Hall’s harrowing turn guarantees that Christine Chubbuck makes an impression.

Campos’s disturbing 2012 horror Simon Killer remained intentionally distant as well – a provocative approach that suited the mystery of the titular sociopath. Here, though, it feels too chilly, almost heartless.

That seems inappropriate, because neither Chubbuck nor those she left behind were heartless. In fact, one of the great successes in Hall’s performance is her ability to personify Chubbuck’s amazingly off-putting, alienating behavior while simultaneously pointing out that most of us are only a few social misjudgments away from pariah status ourselves.

Inevitably, the film feels like a 110-minute prelude to Chubbuck’s infamous on-air suicide, and that’s where Campos and Shilowich’s weaknesses show. What was at the heart of Chubbuck’s final display – institutional sexism, unending loneliness, mental illness, professional integrity, irony?

The filmmakers showed a great deal while exploring very little, but thanks to a performance likely to be remembered come awards season, Rebecca Hall makes sure Chubbuck’s struggle resonates.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Beware of Ex-Classmates Bearing Fish

The Gift

by Richard Ades

Joel Edgerton is determined to set our nerves on edge with The Gift, and he succeeds pretty well. The writer/director/co-star knows just how to push the audience’s collective buttons.

The tale revolves around Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), who no sooner move into their new California home than they run into one of the husband’s old classmates: Gordo. Thanks to Edgerton’s subtly creepy portrayal, we instantly distrust this guy—to the extent that our stomachs tighten a little when Gordo overhears the couple’s new address.

Sure enough, he’s soon showing up unannounced, invariably when Robyn is home alone. Annoyed, Simon recalls that Gordo was always a “weirdo” and suggests that he has the hots for the pretty Robyn. She, on the other hand, thinks he’s just trying to be helpful.

Robyn, as we eventually learn, is not an accomplished judge of character.

As Gordo’s behavior grows more and more erratic, director Edgerton builds tension by supplying a series of shocks constructed in the time-honored fashion: He primes us with scenes of quiet dread followed by a sudden sight or sound. These are fun, especially when experienced with a vulnerable audience.

But Edgerton’s goal ultimately extends beyond eliciting Pavlovian responses. We learn that Simon has more history with Gordo than he’s willing to admit. It’s an ugly history that Simon would like to forget and that Gordo is unable to let go.

Frankly, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the early scenes, with their stock shocks, and the third act, with its unexpected complexity. That’s one of the few signs that this first-time director has more to learn.

A bigger disappointment is that the tale’s female lead is less interesting than her male counterparts.

Edgerton’s Gordo, as stated, is wonderfully creepy, while Bateman’s Simon has a tendency toward ruthlessness that becomes increasingly obvious as the story unfolds. As for Hall’s Robyn, we never quite get a handle on her.

We know she’s an accomplished interior designer, mostly because her husband tells us she is. We also know she has a history of pregnancy-related trauma and addiction. But she mainly comes across as simply a woman in danger—more of a plot device than a flesh-and-blood character.

Hall makes her watchable, but Edgerton’s script fails to make her knowable. The result: Even though The Gift continually scares us and surprises us, it never quite moves us.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 





Handsome Artificial Intelligence, Dumb Movie

Transcendence

by Hope Madden

Johnny Depp fans could use a little good news. The genuine talent hasn’t made a film worth watching since 2011’s Rango, and that was a cartoon – and his only half-decent movie since 2007’s Sweeney Todd.

Unfortunately, Transcendence isn’t going to help matters.

Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a very happily married scientist doing research that will make unfathomable breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. And oh what a muddled mess it turns out to be. The movie, I mean. The A.I. turns out to also be Johnny Depp, which beats the hell out of Arnold Schwarzenegger any day.

Making his debut as a feature director is Wally Pfister – Christopher Nolan’s go-to cinematographer. Predictably, the film has an evocative look. Unfortunately, he did not pick up his colleague’s grasp of the intricacies of a heady fantasy.

Jack Paglen’s screenplay offers a cautionary tale about our blind acceptance of the invasion of technology. Unless it’s warning us about pollution. Our personal isolation? Lack of privacy? All of the above, often while undermining its own other arguments? Bingo.

Basically, Paglen bites off more than he or his cast can chew. The film offers sparks of relevance, but it can’t decide what direction to go. It layers its fantastical warnings around a love story, and at least for that it relies on the natural talent of its leads, Depp, Rebecca Hall, and Paul Bettany as their colleague and friend.

Their work draws whatever attention the film manages to pique. Unfortunately, it’s not enough, particularly since their tale is saddled with a dopey ending that defies even the film’s own nonsensical internal logic.

But at least it’s not Lone Ranger.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars