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Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga in ‘"Passing," a film adapted from a book and produced by Rebecca Hall.

Streaming in December: “Passing,” “Elves,” “tick, tick . . . BOOM!” and more

Wilting from a summer heat wave, Harlem resident Irene (the luminous Tessa Thompson) seeks a cooling beverage in a tearoom in the mainly White midtown of 1920s New York. There she encounters a half-forgotten childhood friend, visiting from Chicago, Clare (the always great Ruth Negga), a vision – in the film’s black-and-white palette — of creamy, blond luster. At first, Irene doesn’t recognize her. Clare is successfully passing as White. She’s even married to a Nordic, cheerfully racist man named John (Alexander Skarsgård), who has no idea he’s married to a Black woman.

There’s a woozy, hushed, disorienting tone to these opening minutes of Passing, and you might worry that first-time film director, actor Rebecca Hall, is simply clumsy with her technique. But as the Netflix film continues, adapted by Hall from Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, what seems a weakness proves to be a deft and intentional choice. Watching the movie, we sometimes feel as dislocated as the two main characters. (Daughter of legendary British theater director Peter Hall, Rebecca Hall comes from a mixed-race background on her mother’s side, something that was never really discussed when she was growing up.)

After encountering Clare, and repelled by her charade, Irene tries to avoid contact. Irene is married to upright doctor Brian (André Holland), who has a clearer sense of the nation’s innate white supremacy, and wants to move with their two sons to another country. Not surprisingly, he’s also repulsed by Clare’s self-hating charade. But she deftly insinuates herself into the lives of both Irene and Brian, who’s initially dismissive of her but slowly comes to value, possibly even love, Clare. Or is Irene just imagining things?

Hall’s film puts us in a world of in-betweenness, in multiple ways. If Irene is jealous of Clare’s ability to survive in two worlds, Clare seems to be genuinely remorseful that she’s not living a more “pure” life as the wife of a Black man like Brian. Or is this simply one of her seductive poses? “I find it shameless, what she does — always playing the victim,” says Irene and Brian’s progressive White novelist pal Hugh (a fine Bill Camp). The movie ultimately suggests that, yes, Clare is a victim. What’s not clearly answered is whose victim she is. And even if the dialogue is a little too on-the-nose, there’s weight to Irene’s line, “We’re all of us passing for something or other.”

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NETFLIX | The Harder They Fall

A very distinguished cast play real-life historic Black figures, put through bloody gunslinger paces in director Jeymes Samuel’s revisionist Western The Harder They Fall. Since the plot mainly concerns a series of betrayals and counter-betrayals, I won’t give any spoilers. But Idris Elba plays the meanest of the hombres, Rufus Buck, backed by saloon owner Trudy Smith (the great Regina King). Their relatively do-gooder rivals are Jonathan Majors as Nat Love, his prickly girlfriend Mary (Zazie Beetz) and a coterie that includes LaKeith Stanfield and Atlantan Danielle Deadwyler, who steals every scene she’s in as a gruff, cross-dressing tough named Cuffee. Fall goes on way too long (139 minutes), and it’ll be too gory for some viewers. But everyone onscreen seems to be having a great time, laying claim to the mythic Western material that was the territory of mainly White filmmakers for more than a century.

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AMAZON PRIME | The Wheel of Time

The latest attempt to create the next Game of Thrones, Amazon’s The Wheel of Time adapts the series of Robert Jordan’s YA-skewing fantasy books. The main thrust is the search by a sort of magical priestess named Moiraine (the understandably grim-looking Rosamund Pike) to determine which of four young villagers may be the reincarnation of the so-called Dragon, who has the power to make or break the world. Or something like that. The basic plot is mainly there to justify action sequences involving a lot of horseback riding across remarkably beautiful scenery, and attacks by some Orc-like monsters and eerie horsemen that seem to have been lifted without much translation from the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s clear a lot of Jeff Bezos’s money has been spent on production design and CGI effects, and if you’re looking for a fantasy series placeholder until something better comes along, there are worse things to watch. But from what I understand, longtime fans of the books have felt underwhelmed and badly served by some changes in characterizations, and the aging up of the main players.

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NETFLIX | tick, tick . . . BOOM!

More than the fact that it gives us a fictionalized version of the life of young Broadway composer Jonathan Larson, who tragically died right before his Rent became a sensation in the 1990s, tick, tick . . . BOOM! earns some extra wistfulness by the presence of the recently deceased Stephen Sondheim. Actually, he’s played in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Larson’s early musical by Bradley Whitford, doing a sly impersonation.

It’s almost surprising that the real Sondheim wasn’t pressed into service, since almost every other available Broadway star makes a cameo at the diner where Larson (played here by Andrew Garfield) waits tables. Look, there’s Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, Brian Stokes Mitchell, two Schuyler sisters from Hamilton, and director Miranda himself, peeking in from the kitchen.  As you might gather from this, BOOM! is really about and for Broadway babies like Larson himself was. Otherwise, with its paper-thin plot about the young artist’s struggle to launch his first musical at Playwrights Horizons, and with a less-than-catchy, sub-Rent score, the movie is earnest, adorable and immediately forgettable.

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AMAZON PRIME | The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

An epic, whimsical miscalculation, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain takes the estimable talents of Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy and badly squanders them.

Cumberbatch plays the title character, whose fascination with electricity never exactly makes sense in the script, since Wain is best remembered for the charming, eccentric drawings he made of anthropomorphic cats. Foy plays the governess Wain falls for and marries, only to (spoiler alert) lose her midway through a movie that doesn’t figure out how to compensate for her absence. Instead, Life becomes an extenuated, unpleasant series of scenes showing Wain gradually losing his mind, all his money and his health. Narrated by the always-welcome Olivia Colman, the movie promises a charming tale that proves to be anything but.

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NETFLIX | Elves

In the tradition of Leprechaun and Jack Frost — taking characters associated with beloved holidays and turning them evil — the Danish limited series Elves does a nightmare number on Santa’s little helpers. In six half-hour episodes, a family vacationing for Christmas on a remote island slowly comes to learn why a giant electrical fence surrounds the forest near their cottage. Sure, the adorable little critter the young daughter discovers on this side of the fence looks like the love child of a Gremlins Mogwai and Baby Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. But the adult versions of these elves grow long, wicked teeth and develop a thirst for human blood. Forget kissing under the mistletoe; everyone is soon running around or being bullied by the island’s stern matriarch, who is aptly named Karen. Too often, Elves doesn’t seem to know if it’s designed for kids or adults, but at least it’s counterprogramming to the overly saccharine holiday shows we usually get this time of year.

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APPLE TV+ | Finch

We’ll always love Tom Hanks, but his patented, aw-shucks everyman shtick is starting to grow a little threadbare. In the future-apocalypse movie Finch, he plays the title character, a loner surviving a sun-blasted Earth, accompanied only by his beloved dog and a robot (voiced by Caleb Landry Jones). Finch trains the robot to take care of the pooch after he dies, which his bad cough signals will be soon. With elements of WALL-E, Silent Running and I Am Legend, this is one of the most misguided, formulaic flicks I’ve seen in a while. Finch doesn’t really justify Hanks’ presence or give him anything interesting to do. And maybe it’s time we have a moratorium on adorable talking robots, yes?

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APPLE TV+ | The Shrink Next Door

Based on a popular, true-life podcast, The Shrink Next Door stars Will Ferrell as an insecure Manhattan nebbish who gradually allows smooth-talking therapist Paul Rudd take over and partially destroy his life through steady manipulation. The limited series probably gave the actors something they wanted, a chance to act very much against the broad comedy style familiar from their Anchorman collaborations. But I found the show to be an uncomfortable hybrid — not exactly funny, but also not entirely plausible, even though it’s based on facts. I had the same uneasy reaction to the podcast itself, and I bailed on Shrink early, in both incarnations. But hey, there’s obviously an audience for this.

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NETFLIX | Red Notice

Playing smirking versions of their familiar screen personas, Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Gal “Wonder Woman” Gadot chase each other around the globe and blow things up in the wannabe crime caper Red Notice. As master thieves searching for precious relics known as Cleopatra’s Eggs, the well-paid actors seem to be having a swell time. Viewers may have a very different experience. After about 30 minutes of this overblown, under-baked product, I decided that life’s too short and hit the off button.

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Steve Murray is an award-winning journalist and playwright who has covered the arts as a reporter and critic for many years. Catch up to last month’s Streaming column by Steve here.

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