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.

Love Notes

Sylvie’s Love

by Rachel Willis

Writer/director Eugene Ashe (Homecoming) helms a charming, if paint-by-numbers, love story in Sylvie’s Love.

Young saxophonist Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha, Crown Heights) is instantly smitten with Sylvie (Tessa Thompson, Annihilation, Little Woods) when he walks into her father’s record store and sees her at the counter. Though Sylvie’s engaged, that doesn’t stop two from forming a connection.

The chemistry between Thompson and Asomugha is undeniable. Particularly in the early stages of the relationship, these two characters radiate attraction. The early sexuality of young love then gives way to a sensuality that blends seamlessly into something more mature as the years pass. Thompson and Asomugha bring an unmistakable authenticity to the relationship, and to the depth of their characters’ feelings for each other.

The first two acts follow a conventional pattern, much of the dialogue you could voice before the characters do. But at times, Ashe surprises with a few well-chosen moments. The third act strays outside the realm of predictability, but not by much. It’s not hard to figure out where the film is going to take you, but whether or not that bothers you depends entirely on how invested you are in Sylvie and Robert’s relationship.

The focus is sometimes too narrow, which one sees very rarely. Far too many films take on more than they can handle. One of my biggest criticisms of the film is too much of a spoiler to reveal, but a particular character feels like an afterthought in much of Sylvie and Robert’s orbit. This is their world, and other people barely inhabit it. This leaves a few irritating loose ends that, while not essential to the film to clear up, are a thorn in its side.

An epic love story must have its characters go through a few ups-and-downs and navigate obstacles to determine if theirs is a love that will last. There is some fun in watching Robert’s career as a saxophone player over the course of the film, and as a jazz musician in the 50’s and 60’s, you can be sure there’s a fantastic soundtrack boasting some of the greatest songs of the era. The same can’t be said for the score, which is often distractingly sappy.

The holidays seem a perfect time to get lost in an epic love story, but Sylvie’s Love isn’t quite compelling enough to join the ranks of the truly great romances.

Back in Black

Men in Black: International

by Hope Madden

Someone somewhere at some recent point in history must have said, “What we need is another Men in Black movie.”

Someone else surely disagreed, suggesting that they’d beaten that dead alien long enough.

“We’ll change it up,” this imaginary and somehow sad conversation continued. “Hire a new director, new writers, new actors, take it international. It’ll be—”

“Great?!”

“—mediocre.”

And there you have it. F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) directs an entirely new batch of humans in black as they don sunglasses, erase memories and suss out an alien conspiracy in their ranks, this time on European soil.

Tessa Thompson shines, as is her way, starring as Molly, a tenacious nerd who’s tracked down this mystery organization in hopes of a shot at joining. Head of the US division, Agent O (Emma Thompson—no relation that we know of, but how cool would that be?!) reluctantly gives her a shot.

As expected, all scenes between the Thompsons spark. And, as T. Thom has proven twice already, she shares solid onscreen chemistry with Chris Hemsworth, here portraying her new partner, H.

Gizmo-riffic adventures follow, although it’s pretty soft. There are a couple of fun sight gags, especially one with a hammer. Kumail Nanjiani pops off a few drolly comical lines as this go-round’s cute little alien sidekick, Pawnie.

Then the three are off to Marrakesh, then a fortress island, back to London, a desert, and London again all in pursuit of answers about a tiny little device and the evil twins looking for it. But the storyline was never really the MIB selling point, it was the relationship between the partners.

Thompson and Hemsworth seem like fine choices, having shown both chemistry and comedic spark in Thor: Ragnarok. But Thompson’s early, geeky charm is given little opportunity to show itself once she dons the black suit, and Hemsworth—fun enough as he, once again, basically mocks his own persona—has even less opportunity.

Writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum don’t articulate enough in the way of plot or character arc and Gray’s listless direction leaves us with a Summer popcorn muncher that coasts rather than thrills.

American Pastoral

Little Woods

by Hope Madden

If you already know the name Nia DaCosta, the likely reason may be that Jordan Peele pegged her to direct the Monkey Paws-produced remake of 1992’s horror gem Candyman that’s due next year.

What had she done to so impress the new American emperor of horror?

Little Woods.

DaCosta’s feature directorial debut, which she also wrote, is not a horror film. It’s an independent drama of the most unusual sort—the sort that situates itself unapologetically inside American poverty.

Tessa Thompson anchors the film as Oleander. She has 8 days left on her probation for running drugs across the Canadian border and she means to get the F out of her dead end town the first minute she can. Her sister Deb (Lily James) complicates things.

There is a predictability in the setup that DaCosta uses to betray your preconceived notions. While the traditionally structured narrative does its job to elevate tension, the characters within that tale veer wildly—or, authentically—from the expected.

This is less a film about the complicated pull of illegal activity and more a film about the obstacles the American poor face—many of them created by a healthcare system that serves anyone but our own ill and injured.

Films that honestly explore American poverty are scarce—The Florida Project, Frozen River, The Rider and very few others. Little Woods joins this list, all beautiful gut punch films that choose to present realistic tales with fully drawn characters rather than easy, noble tragedies.

The border crossing scene in Little Woods holds particular resonance, even more than it did back in 2008 when Courtney Hunt put Melissa Leo and her car on Frozen River‘s thin ice. Echoes of images from our own Southern border help to contextualize the nation’s narrative about saving society from the poor families and the criminals out to exploit our riches.

But politically savvy filmmaking is not the main reason to see Little Woods. See it because Tessa Thompson and Lily James are amazing, or because the story is stirring and unpredictable.

See it because it’s what American actually looks like.





Family Feud

Creed II

by George Wolf

In the history of elephants and rooms, Creed II earns a special mention for its spit take-worthy moment when a boxing commentator finally deadpans,”It’s all a bit Shakespearean, isn’t it?”

Why yes, it is, in fact more than a bit.

It’s a daddy issues melodrama on steroids, one that hits every crowd pleasing note and works every manipulative angle it can pull from the long and storied history of this franchise. And true to the fighters at the heart of these films, the new Creed will not be denied.

Let’s be honest, the first Creed rebooted the Rocky warhorse so effectively, it was a surprising left hook to nearly everyone who hadn’t seen writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan’s stunning work in Fruitvale Station.

But that was pre-Black Panther, and though Coogler is missed for this sequel, promising indie director Steven Caple, Jr. displays similar instincts for slaying sentimentality with smaller moments of conviction.

And lots of great fighting.

Much of that needed conviction comes from Jordan, who returns with fervor as Adonis Creed, the newly-crowned heavyweight champ who gets an instant challenge from Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of…who else but Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Adonis’s father Apollo when Rocky wouldn’t throw the damn towel.

Drago the Younger is huge and strong (one trainer rightly dubs him “a balanced breakfast”), leading Rocky (Stallone), still haunted by Apollo’s death, to advise against the fight.

Adonis also has Bianca (Tessa Thompson, splendid as always and sharing great chemistry with Jordan) and their positive pregnancy test to consider, along with a truckload of pride and unfinished business.

Stallone, who of course started all this with the original Rocky screenplay, steps back in as co-writer, and in many ways Creed 2 becomes just as much Rocky’s story as Adonis’s. But it feels right, thanks to another award-worthy turn from Sly and a character arc that rings true enough to consider moving on without him next time.

Caple, Jr. delivers some of the same grit that made his The Land such a hardscrabble, underseen winner, while also bringing a fresh eye to the boxing choreography. Yes, each round is as unrealistically action-filled as most boxing films, but what do you want, a Pacquiao/Mayweather tap-dance?

No, you want to applaud the good guy knocking the evil Russian’s mouthpiece out while you cheer like it’s Cold War Reunion Night at TGI Fridays, and Caple, Jr. makes sure you will.

It doesn’t hurt when that original Rocky music kicks in, and it’s again weaved into a vital soundtrack subtly enough to not overstay any welcomes.

But beyond all the button pushing, sentiment and nostalgia are characters, and this all falls like a tomato can in the fist round if we don’t have reason to care about them. We still do.

Gotta fly now.

 





Feel the Burn

Sorry to Bother You

by Hope Madden

The stars are aligning for Boots Riley. The vocalist and songwriter for The Coup—the funkiest radical socialist band you’re likely to find—has managed to produce a wild and relevant satire of capitalism that might possibly find a mainstream audience.

And that’s not because he whitewashed his message.

Sorry to Bother You uses splashes of absurdity and surrealism to enliven the first act “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” tale of a weary young man’s ascension through the ranks of telemarketing. It is a funny and pointed send-up of cubical hell that—unlike most office comedies—focuses quickly on a system that benefits very few while it exploits very many.

There is so much untidiness and depth to relationships, characterizations, comedy, horror, style, message and execution of this film that you could overlook Riley’s directorial approach. He expertly uses the havoc and excess, first lulling you into familiar territory before upending all expectations and taking you on one headtrip of an indictment of capitalism.

Led by Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out, Atlanta) and Tessa Thompson (star of Creed, Thor: Ragnarock and her own gleaming awesomeness), Sorry to Bother You finds an emotional center that sets the friction between community and individual on understandable ground.

Thompson offers bursts of energy that nicely offset Stanfield’s slower, more necessarily muddled performance as the “everyman” central character for a new generation.

And who better to embody everything a capitalist system convinces you is ideal than living Ken doll Armie Hammer? He is perfect—an actor who entirely comprehends his physical perfection and how loathsome it can be. He is a hoot.

Riley’s film could not be more timely. Though he wrote it nearly a dozen years ago, and it certainly reflects a trajectory our nation has been on for eons, it feels so of-the-moment you expect to see a baby Trump balloon floating above the labor union picket line.

Bursting with thoughts, images and ideas, the film never feels like it wanders into tangents. Instead, Riley’s alarmingly relevant directorial debut creates a new cinematic form to accommodate its abundance of insight and number of comments.

Does it careen off the rails by Act 3? Oh, yes, and gloriously so. A tidy or in any way predictable conclusion would have been a far greater disaster, though. Riley set us on a course that dismantles the structure we’ve grown used to as moviegoers and we may not be ready for what that kind of change means for us. Isn’t it about goddamn time?





What We Do on Asgard

Thor: Ragnarok

by Hope Madden

What if the next Avengers movie was a laugh riot? A full-blown comedy—would you be OK with that?

The answer to that question has serious implications for your appreciation of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

You’re familiar with Thor, his brother, his buddies, his hair. But how well do you know Waititi? Because he’s made a handful of really great movies you should see, chief among them What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Waititi’s films are charming and funny in that particularly New Zealand way, which is to say equal parts droll and silly. So a total goofus has made our latest superhero movie, is what I’m trying to tell you, and you’ll need to really embrace that to appreciate this film, because Thor: Ragnarok makes the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise seem dour and stiff.

There’s a real Thor movie in here somewhere. Thor (Chris Hemsworth and his abs) learns of his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett—hela good casting!). Sure, Thor’s the God of Thunder, but Hela’s the Goddess of Death, so her return is not so welcome. But daaayumn, Cate Blanchett makes a kick-ass Goth chick.

Indeed, the film is lousy with female badasses. Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed) proves her status by taking all comers, Thor and Hulk among them.

But can you get behind the idea of Hulk and dialog? Because he has dialog in this movie. Like whole conversations. Dude, I don’t know about that.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns, as does Idris Elba, so this is one bona fide handsome movie. Mark Ruffalo makes an appearance in a vintage Duran Duran tee shirt. It’s like Waititi thought to himself, how many of Hope’s crushes can we squeeze into one film?

One more! Jeff Goldblum (don’t judge me) joins as a charming and hysterical world leader. His banter with his second in command (Rachel House—so hilarious in Wilderpeople) is priceless.

Also very funny, Karl Urban (who brings a nice slap of comic timing to every bloated franchise he joins), Waititi himself (playing a creature made of rocks), and one outstanding cameo I won’t spoil.

Thor: Ragnarock lifts self-parody to goofy heights, and maybe that’s OK. There’s no question the film entertains. Does it add much to the canon? Well, let’s be honest, the Thor stand-alones are not the strongest in the Marvel universe.

You will laugh. You’ll want to hug this movie, it’s so adorable.

Unless you’re totally pissed about the whole thing, which is entirely possible.





Weed Dealers Don’t Count

 

Dear White People

by George Wolf

In case you’re not up on current events, we elected a black President (twice!), so that means racism in American is over.

That ridiculous notion lies at the heart of Dear White People, a 20 megaton smartbomb dropped by writer/director/producer Justin Simien. In a supremely confident feature debut, he takes on tough issues with a rapid fire mix of sarcasm, satire, outage, hilarity and disgust.

Taking his cue from the insanely racist parties thrown on several actual campuses the last few years, Simien presents Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League school, during a time of social unrest.

Mixed-race student Sam (a terrific Tessa Thompson) dishes “dear white people” advice on her college radio show (“you now need two black friends to not appear racist, and your weed dealer doesn’t count”) and enters student politics with a pledge to bring more black culture to the school.

Meanwhile, the gay, introverted Lionel (Tyler James Williams from Everybody Hates Chris – also stellar) takes note of the waves Sam is generating, using the situation as his ticket to writing for the school’s major newspaper.

There’s much, much more going on at Winchester, culminating with this year’s theme for the annual Halloween bash:   “liberate your inner Negro!”

At times, the criss-crossing storylines take some overly convenient turns, the directing is light on style, and yes, the students are in class about as often as General Hospital doctors treat patients, but the film is always rescued by Simian’s whip-smart script.

He dissects countless black/white stereotypes, always staying one step ahead of the standard rebuttal. Even better, he sometimes throws purpose pitches, such as intentional contradictions that provoke the inevitably weak counterpoints he’s ready for, or a self-aware mention of being self-congratulatory.

It’s a glorious brand of honest, in-the-moment writing that is so elusive, you’re taken aback at how giddy you are at hearing it.

Dear White People is an entertaining, stimulating film that we need, badly.

Dear everyone:  go see it.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars