Passing, one of the most unassuming and unpretentious films to premiere at this year’s Sundance, might have been the festival’s best. As noted by The Guardian way back in 2018 when the project was announced, the film’s subject matter revives a cinematic trope that used to be fairly popular in the ’40s and ’50s: non-white characters “passing” in order to enjoy the privileges of whiteness. Odd, perhaps, to think of such a thing as a “trope,” as “popular,” or as fodder for melodramas like Pinky or comedy-musicals like Show Boat. As it pertains to real life, the practice is decidedly more complex than its depiction in film would lead one to believe. Passing is one of the few to treat this social maneuver with care and restraint, and in doing so it instantly becomes the defining film on the subject.
The film follows Irene (Tessa Thompson) as she reconnects with her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), discovering that Clare has been passing for some time. She’s married to an unsuspecting white man (Alexander Skarsgård) prone to a matter-of-fact hatred of non-whites, and their child together was “thankfully” equally so light-skinned as to not give her away. Clare is immediately fascinating to Irene, and Irene’s obsession only grows when her own husband (André Holland) seems to take an interest in Clare as well. The criss-crossing relationships become fraught with ambiguities, true motivations and intentions often shrouded by a social façade that each character carries like a shield.
Continue reading Passing (2021)
The Human Stain tackles a great many things, with racism and African-American struggles being only the largest of the many themes at play. The dehumanizing power of racism is an undeniable part of America’s past, but it was every bit as important a discussion in the early years of the new millennium when the film came out. It’s every bit as important now at the time of writing and will be every bit as important there, where you are, in the future, at time of reading. As with anything so powerful, so socially destructive, the cultural perception ebbs and flows with time and with provocation. Do we remember that dark past? Do we really? Do we hold a part of it in secret? These questions pry at Coleman Silk, our “hero”. Before we delve into Coleman it must be noted that The Human Stain (the novel) should be a mainstay of every contemporary African-American literature curriculum, and it was written by an Old White Jewish Guy.
That guy is Philip Roth, an author so prolific that it’s surprising so few of his works have been adapted to the screen. The long-gestating adaption of American Pastoral, arguably Roth’s most famous work, is now looking set for the year ahead with Ewan McGregor taking on directing and starring duties. And the adaptation of Indignation just played at Sundance a few days ago to positive reviews, too, so maybe we’re in for a bit of a Roth resurgence in the same way No Country for Old Men prompted a scramble to adapt the best stuff by Cormac McCarthy. Here in The Land of Hypothetical Roth Adaptations we’d cast Johnny Depp as the possibly-demented Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater, so when that happens in real life just know that you heard it here first.
Continue reading The Human Stain (2003)
I don’t exactly have strong feelings one way or the other about Meet Joe Black. Some despise it for being overly long and uneventful, some enjoy it as a meditation on death and love and living a fulfilling life. I’m neutral. Consistently so, in fact: pretty much every single facet of Black lands in a sort of middle ground. The premise? Interesting enough. The writing? Passable. The great Anthony Hopkins? Yes, he’s certainly Anthony Hopkins. The direction is fine, too, from the reliably careful Martin Brest, though this is him turning in his final film before the reliably careless Gigli; shame that every time you think hey, that’s a nice shot the little homunculus in your head whispers don’t forget Gigli. Anyway, I’m aggressively neutral on Meet Joe Black.
Do you want to talk about something else? Have you seen the commercial with the little baby and the car and the thing? Did you know that Rogaine is fatal to cats? Oh, you really came for Meet Joe Black? On purpose? And you haven’t even seen it? Abridged version: everything is starting to die (Anthony Hopkins) or starting to live (Claire Forlani) or Brad Pitt’s hair (Brad Pitt’s hair).
Continue reading Meet Joe Black (1998)
Though known primarily for his novels, Michael Crichton made a name for himself in Hollywood not only through popular adaptations of his novels such as Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain but also by directing films himself for more than a decade. Westworld was both Crichton’s feature directorial debut (barring the ABC made-for-TV film Pursuit) and one of his earliest original screenplays. Plagued with production woes from the start, Westworld is largely renowned today as a major landmark in science-fiction cinema and an important advancement in film technology.
As David A. Price writes in this New Yorker piece, computer-generated imagery is commonplace at the movies these days. Star Wars gets a lot of the credit for sparking the technological revolution in Hollywood (although there have been a few technological advances since then), and it’s certainly true that the effects team behind that space saga deserves most of the commendation in which they bask. But if the question is where did all of this start? — Star Wars and Avatar and every other CGI-laden movie of the past thirty years — then the answer is almost certainly Westworld.
Continue reading Westworld (1973)
It’s actually borderline impressive how dull Kidnapping Mr. Heineken ends up being. The true story of the capture, ransom and eventual release of beer mogul Freddy Heineken is a harrowing one. Heineken was one of the richest men in the Netherlands when he was kidnapped. He was held for weeks in a brilliantly-constructed soundproof cell that probably inspired that twist from Denzel’s Inside Man. His ransom was the largest ever paid for an individual, and his captors evaded police for weeks following their release of Heineken. The media had an absolute field day with the entire affair, but the personal motives on the part of the captors are interesting as well.
As a film, though, pretty much all of that falls flat. Jim Sturgess plays the ringleader and de facto mastermind Cor Van Hout, flanked by Sam Worthington’s Willem and Ryan Kwanten’s Cat, and each actor does fine with the part allotted to them. Anthony Hopkins is the veteran and obvious draw in the part of Freddy Heineken. Finally, director Daniel Alfredson is an intriguing choice as well, having previously helmed the original Millennium Trilogy before David Fincher took over for the American version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Continue reading Kidnapping Mr. Heineken (2015)
According to my mom Misery was the first movie I ever watched start to finish, late one night in one of my first few weeks when I just didn’t want to sleep. Apparently all I wanted to do was watch an utterly insane Kathy Bates hold James Caan against his will in her snowy, isolated Colorado home. A lifetime of watching movies later, I returned to that first movie that started it all for me as a viewer (full disclosure: I can’t seem to find my notes on it from a couple decades back).
My first thought upon re-watching my first film: it’s no wonder I couldn’t sleep! I probably couldn’t sleep for weeks. Kathy Bates is so terrifyingly good as the psychotic Annie Wilkes — writer Paul Sheldon’s (James Caan) “biggest fan” — that bipolar does not even being to describe her. One second, she is exactly as self-advertised: Sheldon’s biggest fan, in pure admiration. However, one slip up by Sheldon, such as killing off the main character in his “Misery” series of novels, and she becomes a different person all together — violent, inconsolable, and capable of anything. Regardless of which mood Wilkes happens to be in, though, it is always clear that she will not let her favorite writer go, ever. They are meant to be together, or at least that’s what she thinks.
Continue reading Misery (1990)
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Theatre Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a double feature of Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
Robin Williams was an actor who selected his film roles very carefully. Despite his ironclad station as the greatest American comedian of his time, Williams acted in drama nearly as much as he did in comedy. One need only look to the shy Dr. Sayer of Awakenings or to the chilling villains of One Hour Photo or Insomnia to see the acting mastery Williams commanded.
On the surface, John Keating of Dead Poets Society and Sean McGuire of Good Will Hunting are two more of these “serious” roles that broke the mold for Williams the comic. There is no doubt that both helped to establish him as a master thespian regardless of genre. He was nominated for Academy Awards for both roles and won Best Supporting Actor for the latter, beating out the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Robert Forster.
Continue reading Dead Poets Society (1989)