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This week: novel adaptations, vampire mockumentaries, interplanetary parental trauma!
Netflix releases a couple of notable original films with the directorial debut of Rebecca Hall Passing, and Red Notice, which we cannot in good conscience recommend to you. Meanwhile Prime Video adds James Gray’s emotional sci-fi epic Ad Astra, and the horror streaming service Shudder plays Taika Waititi’s hilarious What We Do in the Shadows.
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Passing - Netflix
Based on Nella Larsen’s early-20th century novella of the same name, Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut Passing is set in 1920s New York City, where Irene (Tessa Thompson), a Black woman, becomes intertwined with her former childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), who is passing as white without her racist husband’s knowledge. Larsen’s book existed on an ambiguous, blurry line, and Hall’s film is mostly only concerned with replicating that tone by highlighting the various conflicting emotions onscreen between Thompson and Negga.
Jealousy, confusion, pity, anger and even romantic love are all tied up at once, which makes it all the more strange how insensate it ultimately feels. Perhaps its thanks in part to how it uses black and white film — which rather flattens its complicated intentions rather than throw them into stark relief — through the fairly light, monochrome celluloid, Thompson’s and Negga’s skin tones are basically equated, and as critic Jourdain Searles points out, the nuances of colourism are lost. It certainly looks nice, but it feels inert, distant.
While its character work feels somewhat lacking as a result, at least its atmosphere remains emotionally evocative, thanks in part to a sumptuous score by Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange), with an isolated piano motif that punctuates every scene.
Also new on Netflix: Red Notice, 7 Prisoners
The Colour Room - NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership
The Colour Room has the feel and look of something that lives on Sunday afternoon television. Fine performances and awkward charm from lead Phoebe Dynevor — conducting herself well in her feature film debut — and Matthew Goode uplift things, but can’t quite rescue the biopic from feeling stolid and fairly dry.
The film follows a pioneering ceramic artist who roared to prominence in the 1920s while working in Britain’s Stoke-on-Trent pottery industry. For all its talk of Clarice Cliff’s eccentricities and groundbreaking decisions, it doesn’t embody much of that trail-blazing attitude in its own craft, which is largely a simple mix of various medium shots and straightforward biography with no real sense of artistry. An okay time-filler and delivery system for info about an undersung artist, but that’s about it.
Also new on NOW: Beat The Devil
Ad Astra - Amazon Prime Video
Filmmaker James Gray, maker of historical epics (The Lost City Of Z, The Immigrant), turned his eye to the future in Ad Astra. Set in a time where humanity has finally moved beyond the confines of earth, Gray still maintains the humble human core of his previous work, focusing in on the fraught paternal relationship between astronaut Roy McBride (a sombre, excellent Brad Pitt) and his distant father (played by Tommy Lee Jones).
A mysterious phenomenon menaces to destroy life on Earth, and Roy undertakes a mission across space and its many perils to discover the truth about his father’s lost expedition from decades before, which boldly went into the far reaches of space. Gray’s vision of humanity’s future is visually breathtaking but also darkly amusing in its acknowledgement of how globalisation and capitalism might evolve with it — Roy flies Virgin airways to the moon, the landing port there has an Applebees.
Watch a clip from Ad Astra
But most of all it's a film about the terror of meeting your maker, in one way or another: that could be with God and the end of your life, or the parent that irreparably damaged you. Like a number of other filmmakers before him Gray uses the void of outer space as a reflection of the inner self. Pitt is incredible as he portrays the quiet agony of a man who has closed himself off so much that light appears to literally pass through him as if he weren’t there, often appearing as a sort of refracted/obscured image, a shadow or an empty spacesuit.
Pitt's narration can be overly instructive at times, but it feels genuine enough in its message about the difficulty of choosing to live in the world, and opening yourself up to it.
Also new on Prime Video: John Wick: Chapter 2
What We Do in the Shadows - Shudder
The breakout film for Oscar-winning New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi — now probably best known for his work on Thor: Ragnarok — What We Do in the Shadows remains the director’s best. The mockumentary follows the lives of Viago, Deacon, and Vladislav, three flatmates — and vampires — who are just trying to get by in modern human society; the film observing the mundanities of their everyday lives from paying rent and doing housework to trying to get invited into nightclubs, to “doing [their] dark bidding on the internet”.
One day their 8000-year-old roommate Petyr turns the twentysomething human hipster Nick into a vampire, and the boys are forced to show him the ropes and guide him through how to live his newly eternal life. Dry-witted, and hilariously glib.
Also new on Shudder: Resident Evil
Also new on Disney+: Shang Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, Jungle Cruise, Home Sweet Home Alone