With the streaming season stretching on, here are some of the most recent film highlights.
Passing (Netflix) A deft and at times brilliant adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing is remarkable in that respect alone. But it’s also exceptional in a small multitude of ways—as a multifaceted character study, as a richly evocative period piece, as actress Rebecca Hall’s very impressive directorial debut, as an uncommonly perceptive meditation on race and personal identity in modern America.
The story revolves around two light-skinned women of color who were friends as kids in Harlem. But when they meet again as adults in a posh New York City tearoom, they both have taken on identities which include “passing” for white—Irene (Tessa Thompson) occasionally, Clare (Ruth Negga) full time. Clare has married a wealthy white man (Alexander Skarsgaard) while Irene is married to a black physician (André Holland) with whom she has two sons. After their chance reunion, Clare and Irene get entangled in each other’s lives in increasingly discordant—and revelatory ways.
Old Henry (Amazon Prime) Tim Blake Nelson ferociously inhabits the title role in a brusquely intense western which is set in 1906 but with a story that links up with events and Wild West legends from earlier decades.
Nelson is superb as a crusty middle-aged galoot who’s trying to make a go of the farming life even as increasingly dark reminders of Henry’s apparent outlaw past keep catching up to him. In some ways it’s similar to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and in other ways to Blackthorn, which had Sam Shepard playing an aging but still active Butch Cassidy.
Scott Haze is good as the somewhat mysterious wounded man whom Henry rescues, and Trace Adkins and Stephen Dorff are both sharp in key supporting roles that enhance the interplay of ambiguous identities within the drama’s violent action. With the exception of the flimsy characterization of Henry’s understandably confused son (Gavin Lewis), writer-director Potsy Ponciroli’s work is very good throughout.
About Endlessness (Hulu, Amazon Prime) This film is another of Swedish auteur Roy Andersson’s feature-length gatherings of brief sketches and vignettes that prove both mundane and exhilarating. Here, as in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence, the calm, deadpan mixtures of the ordinary and the dramatic generate an uncanny blend of earthy realism and ethereal blessing. Droll absurdist humor mingles with the occasional bit of Bergman-like metaphysical anguish, but the overall effect is intriguingly similar to the lyrical, meditative calm found in the films of the great Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu.
East of the Mountains (Amazon Prime) Adapted from the novel of the same name by David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars), East of the Mountains stars Tom Skerritt as an aging, cancer-stricken cardiologist who sets off on a trek into the eastern wilds of Washington state, ostensibly on a hunting trip in his old stomping grounds but actually to end his life on his own curmudgeonly terms.
Misadventures ensue—his Range Rover breaks down; his beloved dog, Rex, is attacked by the dog of a hostile loner; he has nasty confrontations with that man and his dog; etc. But he also gets friendly assistance from an adventurous young couple in a minivan, has an uneasy reunion with his estranged brother (Wally Dalton), bonds more than once with an empathetic rural veterinarian (Annie Gonzalez) whose help he enlists in treating Rex’s wounds.
There’s also a touching reunion with his adult daughter (Mira Sorvino), but director S. J. Chiro and writer Thane Swigart keep things free of easy sentiment. And the effulgent landscapes east of the Cascades (via Sebastian Scandiuzzi’s fine cinematography) are, implicitly, healing forces as well.
Shooting Stars (Amazon Prime) In this restoration of a British silent film from 1928, a romantic triangle among movie actors spirals toward ironic—and fatal—consequences on a studio set. As it happens, I watched this film just a few days before news broke of a shooting death on the set of an Alec Baldwin movie in New Mexico. But even without that eerie coincidence, Shooting Stars has enough style, beauty and emotional complexity to remain a fresh and exhilarating experience nearly a century later.
Annette Benson (star of the movie within the movie), Brian Aherne (as her husband and leading man) and Donald Calthrop (as her unlikely seeming lover) all give sharp performances under the smartly stylized direction of Anthony Asquith, a future master of British cinema in his filmmaking debut.