Passing Review

Much of the drama in Rebecca Hall’s debut feature, based on a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, is elevated by passing glances and comments overheard at gatherings. The term Passing refers to light skinned African-Americans who are deemed white to unsuspecting individuals. It’s a disguise that Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga) is living in and during the early moments of the picture, she has a chance encounter with Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson). They are childhood friends who’ve lost touch and their reconnection leaves Irene bewildered. She’s never left Harlem and has married successful but weary doctor Brian (Andre Holland). Irene fills her days with civic duties and some nights entertaining an author (Bill Camp) who’s endeared himself to the black community (though perhaps not for purely endearing reasons).

While Irene seems to have a nice upper class life going in a 1920s era filled with despair, a closer look is warranted. Her marriage is bordering on loveless. The couple struggle with proper child rearing to their two boys in a subplot that’s barely there (it should have been either explored in greater detail or dropped altogether).

Clare’s sudden presence reminds Irene of some chinks in the armor of her perceived blissful existence. That goes both ways. Clare is married to a vocal racist (Alexander Skarsgard) who has no clue what lies beneath. She’s a free spirit whose wings appear to grow when placed back in familiar territory. One of the strengths with this screenplay is that Clare’s reaction to her bonds rekindling is unexpected. Instead of substantiating her choice to pass as Caucasian, it fills her with a longing to return to her roots. In doing so, a strange and often unclear romantic dynamic emerges between Clare, Irene, and Brian. Jealousies and frailties come to the forefront. And those passing glances and comments take on deeper meaning as time goes by. Irene’s perception of Clare soon turns as cold as the wintry night air while Brian’s has blown in a warmer and cozier direction.

This is a picture that sneaks up on you with how powerful it ultimately becomes. Hall, a fine actress recently seen in The Night House, has her own complicated and for years unknown racial history that surely influenced her delicate handling of the subject matter. The performances are terrific across the board. This is not a story that over explains character motivation and it’s sometimes up to Thompson and Negga in particular to convey what’s really cooking in this tinderbox of a stew. They achieve that mission and Hall’s filmmaking prowess (shot in black and white with an aspect ratio of its era) accentuates that. By the climax, we are presented potential outcomes that occur in a flash and you may find yourself pondering them far longer. It all passes for a richly rewarding experience.

***1/2 (out of four)

News of the World Review

In the filmography of Tom Hanks that intersects with Paul Greengrass, he was the Captain then and he is the Captain now in their collaborations. The first was 2013’s Captain Phillips and I still harbor a grudge that the multiple Oscar winner and nominee didn’t pick up another nod for it. His final scene in Phillips as he’s in shock over the real life events in which he barely survived was reason enough for further awards consideration. That movie left me floored. News of the World left me satisfied as Hanks once again gives a commanding performance with a newcomer costar who is his equal.

This time around, Hanks is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. Set in 1870 amidst gorgeous Western scenery, Kidd is a former Confederate soldier traveling the American South. He earns his living schlepping from town to town and reading the latest newspaper stories to an attentive crowd. The happenings of Washington D.C. (led by President Ulysses S. Grant who Southerners aren’t exactly fond of) are hundreds of miles away. Yet 150 years now, they might as well be on Mars. The film doesn’t dwell on these struggling towns digging their way out of the Civil War, but that history is always present underneath the surface.

Kidd’s solo journey is interrupted when he happens upon a young girl Johanna (Helena Zengel). Her blonde hair and blue eyes indicates her German heritage, but her Native American garb tells a different background. She speaks the language of a tribe and it is revealed that her original family and those who raised her after their demise have perished as well. A double orphan, Kidd reluctantly accepts the responsibility of returning Johanna to her surviving family that she’s never met. Kidd’s own familial history is gradually revealed.

Thus begins an episodic quest where the language barrier between the two leads isn’t the only complication. There are also ex-soldiers who try to purchase Johanna and that leads to Kidd entering into battle a half decade after the war’s end. There are rough stops on the speaking tour that put the wild in the west. And, being that it’s Tom Hanks leading the horse drawn wagon, there’s a fundamental decency in his interactions with his copilot and a paternal instinct that kicks in.

News of the World is, quite simply, a rock solid picture. We know Hanks will turn in exemplary work and he does. The performance of Zengel is the surprise and is one of the best child performances in recent memory. She says more with an expression than plenty of actors do in a monologue. It has become cliche to call Hanks the Jimmy Stewart of his time, but it’s so true. There are times when I could imagine Stewart playing this part in something from the 1950s or 60s. That old fashioned vibe is a contrast to Greengrass’s earlier catalogue that includes the Bourne franchise, United 93, and Captain Phillips. Those pictures had a fierce urgency to them. World is more laid back, but with frequent reminders of the violent atmosphere permeating the post War era.

Hanks could read the phonebook and it would draw interest. Telephones didn’t come around until 1876 so his tales off the printed page do just fine. He also has a worthy partner in Zengel and top notch work from his director and crew.

***1/2 (out of four)

Oscar Watch: Passing

Rebecca Hall is known for her many performances including Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town, Iron Man 3, and The Gift, among others. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, she’s made her directorial debut with Passing. Based on a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, the drama pairs Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga as mixed race friends navigating the tensions of the times. Costars include Andre Holland, Alexander Skarsgard, and Bill Camp.

Early critical reaction includes some raves with particular attention to the work of its leads. The Rotten Tomatoes score currently sits at 79%. Based on the buzz, there’s little question that Passing will score a streaming or studio pickup in short order. It’s also likely that whoever distributes this will mount an awards campaign.

What that will look like is in question. Some reviews have singled out Negga’s performance, who nabbed a Best Actress nomination in 2016 for Loving. It is feasible that both Thompson and Negga could both be campaigned for in the lead race, but a shift to Negga in Supporting Actress could increase the chance for exposure.

The current reviews indicate this could be a long shot for Best Picture or Director consideration. However, a well constructed push by its distributor may change that dynamic. Bottom line: Passing is worth keeping an eye on in 2021 and especially with Negga. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

 

Oscar Watch: Dark Waters

Director Todd Haynes has guided Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett to previous acting nominations in Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, and Carol. His latest effort is the corporate legal thriller Dark Waters, based on a true story. Mark Ruffalo stars and produces, playing a lawyer taking on the DuPont conglomerate.

Somewhat surprisingly, Waters skipped the late summer and autumn festival circuit ahead of its November 22nd release and reviews are just trickling out. They’re decent and the Rotten Tomatoes score is currently 75%.

Critics have praised Ruffalo’s work. He is thrice nominated in the Supporting Actor race for 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, 2014’s Foxcatcher, and 2015’s Spotlight. He would stand the best chance at recognition for the first time in lead – over the film itself and costars including Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, and Bill Pullman. Yet, as has been discussed before on the blog, Best Actor is packed. I believe there’s eight thespians at the moment with legit shots at nods. Ruffalo isn’t in that mix.

Bottom line: chances for Dark Waters in the awards conversation are murky at best.

Joker Box Office Prediction

Opening wide in theaters amidst controversy regarding its violence and fresh off a surprise Golden Lion victory at the Venice Film Festival, Joker is unleashed next weekend. Donning the makeup once worn by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto, this stand-alone and hard R rated DC Universe pic casts Joaquin Phoenix in the title role as Batman’s most legendary villain. And like Ledger before him in The Dark Knight, our multiple Oscar nominee here is garnering Oscar buzz for his work. Todd Phillips (best known for the Hangover trilogy) handles directorial duties with a supporting cast including Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Marc Maron, and Bill Camp.

As mentioned, Joker made quite a splash overseas when it premiered in Venice. Critics have mostly been on board and it sits at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes. There’s awards chatter and an equal amount of ink about its potential adverse influence on audiences. This is certainly not a picture flying under the radar. No other movie studio chose to open anything against this Warner Bros potential juggernaut.

Forecasts range all the way up to $100 million or over with most below that mark. In order to set the all-time October opening record, this will need to set one achieved just last year with Venom ($80.2 million). It should have no issue representing a personal best for Phoenix, which is 2002’s Signs at $60 million. As for Phillips, his highest start is The Hangover Part II at $85.9 million.

I believe all the buzz surrounding this (both positive and negative) could propel Joker to a record setting weekend on all fronts mentioned.

Joker opening weekend prediction: $89.6 million

Oscar Watch: Joker

Comic book movies arrive in quick order these days, but not many draw comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Such is the case with Joker, the breathlessly anticipated stand-alone DC Universe title featuring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. It has premiered at Venice Film Festival ahead of its October 4 stateside release. Early critical reaction portrays this as a grim, sometimes terrifying, and often brilliant experience. And Phoenix’s work is being called masterful.

You’ll recall that it was just over a decade ago that Heath Ledger posthumously won an Oscar in The Dark Knight as the same iconic villain. Based on word from Venice, there seems to be a strong possibility that Phoenix will receive his fourth nod for his acting (Supporting for Gladiator, lead in Walk the Line and The Master). Even with a high profile costar like Robert De Niro, I suspect all the acting chatter will be directed to the head clown.

Joker could prove to be a massive box office success and that might increase its chances for a Picture nod, direction for Todd Phillips, and the Adapted Screenplay. Bottom line: don’t be surprised if Phoenix becomes the second actor to get Oscar love for this character. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

The Kitchen Box Office Prediction

Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish go out of their comedic comfort zones next weekend with the release of The Kitchen. The crime thriller casts the two performers alongside Elisabeth Moss as the wives of incarcerated gangsters who take over Mob operations in New York. The late 70s set pic marks the directorial debut of Andrea Berloff and is based on a comic book miniseries. Costars include Domhnall Gleeson, James Badge Dale, Brian d’Arcy James, Margo Martindale, Common, and Bill Camp.

If McCarthy and Haddish were headlining a high profile slapstick comedy, my estimate for The Kitchen would likely be considerably more (easily double). However, I’m skeptical that a wide audience is eager to see them in this. If solid reviews pop up in the coming days, that could potentially change the dynamic a bit. I think it’s going to have difficulty reaching double digits.

The Kitchen opening weekend prediction: $8.3 million

For my Dora and the Lost City of Gold prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/07/31/dora-and-the-lost-city-of-gold-box-office-prediction/

For my Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/07/31/scary-stories-to-tell-in-the-dark-box-office-prediction/

For my The Art of Racing in the Rain prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/07/31/the-art-of-racing-in-the-rain-box-office-prediction/

For my Brian Banks prediction, click here:

https://toddmthatcher.com/2019/08/04/brian-banks-box-office-prediction/