Film Review: Sunday Girl

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Here is an actual note I took whilst watching Sunday Girl, the sophomore effort by writer/director Peter Ambrosio:

Uyuuuuuuugggghhgggf.

Frustration was my prevailing emotion throughout the seemingly interminable 78-minute run-time. It’s not the worst film I’ve ever seen. It’s not offensive (unless you’re offended by a female lead whose personality is defined by her unseasonable red trench coat). It’s just that so much time, energy, and money goes into making a film – any film – that when something like this has gotten as far as the press stage, I want to weep for the thousands of talented artists without the resources to tell their stories. How many Numa Perriers and Eva Vives and Coralie Fargeats have an unmade masterpiece sitting on their hard drive? Maybe there’s still a market for the white male perspective on female-driven romantic comedies, but it ain’t me babe.

Sunday Girl tells the story of Natasha (Dasha Nekrasova), a twenty-something social media artist based in Lafayette, LA, who unexpectedly finds herself dating five men at once. One Sunday (presumably), she decides to commit to one man in particular: a bearded piece of cardboard named George (Brandon Stacy). In order to do that, she must first dump the other four. And so, she dons a red trench coat, hops into her barely-functional vintage VW Bug, and drives a perplexingly short distance to the home of her first victim.

And boy do these men play the victim. They are so tedious during their short scenes, that I’m surprised Natasha’s eyes don’t roll right out of her head and float up into space. Victor (frequent Ambrosio collaborator, Bilal Mir), is a poet who speaks in verse, huddles against door frames in anguish, and says shit like, “I’ll be left in the morning light to consider the emptiness of not only this day but the rest of existence.” Natasha reluctantly extends her stay after he threatens suicide. Finally, she stubs out her Everlasting Gobstopper of a cigarette and heads to her car.

She drives another short distance to the next item on her to-do list, Jack (Dave Davis). He’s a ball of testosterone who leaped off the page of a Tennessee Williams play to pace around his house in a white tank top and khakis, whilst calling Natasha cheating nightmare. He might be painting his house, but he might also always have a ladder in his living room. For a while, he makes her talk to him while he digs a hole in his backyard (part of a dispute with his landlord, who is also his mother). He cooks her a steak and then practically throws it at her, along with salt, pepper and a fork. She eats it whilst finally getting to the meat of her visit. He responds that if she were a decent person, she would have fucked him first. At this point in the movie, I actually thought this guy was the same actor as in the previous scene. She certainly has a type.

Cue the shoehorned conflict involving the hunt for gas money. She makes some plays to get paid, but refuses the offer of help from the gas station attendant (because she doesn’t want to fall in love with him or something? I’m not 100% sure and I also don’t care all that much.) She still has two more dudes to cut loose before we can all go home.

The point is, Natasha is barely a person. Her job-as-character-development is that she works at an art gallery, but is ditching that day to dump her boyfriends. She also has a following on social media because her account features surreptitiously-taken photos of people crying in public. That’s about all we ever learn about this woman. We don’t know why she has decided to commit to George. We meet him in a flashback during which he refuses to speak but gives her a present. He looks almost exactly like her other boyfriends, but he has a thicker beard. Is that all it takes to get a leg up as one of Natasha’s Gentleman Callers?

I don’t hate Natasha as a protagonist. I don’t know her well enough to make any real judgments. I do know that she doesn’t say thank you when a guy gives her free ice cream. Instead, she tells a little girl ogling her cone that ice cream will make you fat. Neither does she thank her roommate for scraping together her last $3. I don’t know how Natasha can see where she is going when her eyes are in a perpetual state of rolling. I also don’t know what Ambrosio is trying to say with his late-night grocery store scene wherein hordes of athleisure-clad women purchase ice cream and wine.

Every man with whom Natasha interacts is either a romantic prospect or an existing paramour. Her roommate has a name (Kim) but exists solely to lend Natasha money and hear the backstory about how she came to be in this romantic predicament. Who is Natasha? What does she want? Neither her nor the audience are any closer to figuring anything out by the end of the film. Sunday Girl feels like it was written by a man searching for an explanation about why his crush doesn’t want him, but he doesn’t actually know anything about her below the surface. Maybe Gillian Jacobs could have injected something interesting into this character, but Nekrasova seems to stick to what was on the page, and it isn’t enough to make this movie worth your time.

Film Review: The MisEducation of Bindu

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From the Duplass Brothers (a trusted name in film producing), comes Prarthana Mohan’s directorial debut, The MisEducation of Bindu. It’s not exactly a coming-of-age story – there’s simply not that much honest growth that can happen in one narrative day – but 15-year-old Indian immigrant, Bindu (Megan Suri), does make significant leaps in learning how to stand up for herself and navigate public high school in Middle America. She does so with the help of Peter (Phillip Labes), a fellow outcast who is harboring a potentially-alienating secret of his own.

Bindu could have tested out of high school a long time ago were it not for her stepfather (David Arquette, Scream), who convinced her mother (Priyanka Bose, Lion) that she was missing out on an important developmental experience by being homeschooled. At the same time, Bindu’s mother refuses to let her date or attend school dances. So she’s really only getting the worst parts of the high school experience – the condescension from teachers, people whispering about her in the halls and defacing her locker…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!

Film Review: Freaks (2019)

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Legion meets 10 Cloverfield Lane in this entertaining low-budget sci-fi film from Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein, the directors of the upcoming Kim Possible live action reboot. Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) plays the hyper-protective father of a 7-year-old girl with supernatural gifts. Hirsch’s character, known only as “Dad”, harbors Chloe (Lexy Kolker, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in a derelict suburban home. Liberal use of bedsheets and duct tape imply that even a glimpse from an outsider could destroy them. We follow the story through Chloe’s perspective, so the particulars of their peril are hazy at first. When Chloe peeks outside, the view of an idyllic neighborhood and an ice cream truck don’t match the apocalyptic horror Dad infers when he returns from armed-and-desperate trips to the grocery store. Chloe eyes the outside world with longing, especially after Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern) tempts her with a custom illustrated picture book that suggests she’s an imprisoned princess. Choe becomes increasingly suspicious of Dad’s motives, especially during her punitive time-outs in a possibly haunted closet, and hatches a plan for independence.

But the audience knows Dad’s paranoia isn’t completely unwarranted thanks to glimpses of TV news reports about terrorist attacks and drone bombings. Also, Dad is desperate to never fall asleep and occasionally bleeds from his eyes. To pass the time, they play poker with real stacks of large bills and Dad quizzes daughter on her cover story that will come into play if something happens to him. She is to lie about her name, her family, and even her hobbies, and take refuge with a neighboring family. Everything they do together, from games, to drawing, to reading children’s books, is in the service of training her for his inevitable and sudden absence. Dad is clearly keeping something from Chloe, but he tells her enough to give her what he believes to be a healthy level of distrust. There are people out there who want to kill them because they are different. But he also tells her things that are blatant lies, like that Mr. Snowcone’s truck is filled with the bodies of children just like her…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!

Podcast Appearance: Ex-Rated Presents – Womb

I got to be on another episode of Ex-Rated Podcast, discussing the 2010 mind-fork of a movie, Womb.

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Download or listen here!

Film Review: Ophelia

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I think we can all agree that Shakespeare wrote some good plays. But, because he wrote them over 400 years ago, even his best work can feel a bit dated. While he is responsible for creating several nuanced female characters including Lady Macbeth and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, they could always use some tweaking for modern viewers. Especially if the target audience is young adults as with Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia. Based on the novel by Lisa Klein, and adapted by Mad Men writer, Semi Challas, the film tells Shakespeare’s celebrated tragedy from the perspective of the woman formerly known as Hamlet’s girlfriend.

Purists will probably come away from this film with many complaints, not the least of which is the updated language. Ophelia’s dialog isn’t modern, per se, but more of a translated Elizabethan. Because it follows one of Hamlet’s minor characters, most of the scenes are new, but there are pivotal scenes shared with the source material, and Challas chooses to re-write those scenes to match the language of the rest of the film. For me, this was the one miss in an otherwise refreshing story of female empowerment and clever revisionism that will hopefully serve as a gateway for young adults into the wide world of Shakespeare’s works.

Daisy Ridley (Star Wars) stars as a low-born girl who becomes Queen Gertrude’s (a breathtaking Naomi Watts) most trusted lady in waiting before falling for her son, Hamlet (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic), just as a suspicious accident shakes up the monarchy. The King’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen, Children of Men), quickly takes his place on the throne and in Gertrude’s bed. But, as you may have heard, something is rotten in Denmark. Ophelia overhears some loaded conversations which implicate a conspiracy. Soon, she and Hamlet are in danger and must orchestrate an elaborate and theatrical plan to expose the guilty parties lest they succumb to “accidents” of their own.

The film opens with a rendering of John Everett Millais’ 1850 painting as a visual representation of everything we know about Ophelia: She was Hamlet’s girlfriend, but his cruelty and obsession with his father’s death led to her madness and accidental drowning. In Hamlet, we never even see her fate. The Queen reports it in a mournful monologue. But Ridley’s voice-over tells us that there is much more to this story.

Next, we meet Ophelia as muddy little girl running around the castle after her older brother. She isn’t allowed to follow him into the library but he promises to teach her to read in private. Meanwhile, a young Hamlet is on his way to boarding school, leaving Queen Gertrude with an empty nest. She recognizes herself in young Ophelia and declares that she will “see to the raising” of this plucky young thing.

Years later, Ophelia has become a confidante to Gertrude, much to the jealousy of her other ladies in waiting. Gertrude asks Ophelia to read her erotica at bedtime and sends her into the woods to get more “medicine” from a mysterious witch who bears a striking resemblance to the Queen.

Klein’s story takes the openings provided by Willy’s lack of character development and runs with them, turning Ophelia into a whole and admirable female protagonist. She’s not flawless, but she is truly fleshed out, and you fervently root for her, despite thinking you know what becomes of her. She has that classic Disney princess backstory of a dead mother and an inattentive father, where she has to become a self-made woman who attracts the attention of a prince. She’s a cross between Belle and Cinderella, but with even more nuance and life.

Klein also cleverly adds several classic Shakespearean tropes, including potions that mimic death, extra scenes of people overhearing and misinterpreting pivotal information, witty banter as flirtation, and a woman successfully infiltrating an event dressed as a boy. There are also plenty of fairy tale moments such as a costume ball that looks like it was directed by Baz Luhrmann, and a scene that involves Ophelia donning a literal red riding hood to fetch the queen some more of those sweet CBDs from a witch’s woodland dispensary. This lady has potions for all kinds of ailments including aging, chronic pain, marital strife, unwanted advances from brothers-in-law, bad court theater, and making murder look like an accident. You’d better believe her wares also serve as foreshadowing for the drama that’s about to unfold at Elsinore Castle.

MacKay plays Hamlet sympathetically, which is crucial because he is a character who can so easily come off as a selfish dick. In this case, he has joined forces with his love in a clever plot to expose Claudius rather than to use Ophelia as a pawn in his game. Oh, and that play-within-a-play that he orchestrates isn’t just successful in catching the conscience of the king. It’s also a truly beautiful shadow play. Who knew Hamlet was so multi-faceted?

Tom Felton (Harry Potter) plays Laertes with effective earnestness but there’s not much more to him here than in the source material. Devon Terrell (Barry) gives a standout performance as Horatio, who is a true friend to both Hamlet and Ophelia. Owen is a suitable baddie despite an unfortunate hairdo. Everyone looks incredible in gorgeous period costumes amid some breathtaking scenery. The Czech-set film goes a long way toward transporting the viewer to another time and place. Anyone would feel glamorous eves-dropping behind such grand tapestries.

I do wish they’d kept some of the more famous lines, because one of the coolest things about reading the Bard for the first time is learning the source of idioms like “To thine own self be true”. It loses something when Polonius’ memorable speech to Laertes is summarized as “don’t borrow or lend money” and “you cannot hide your true self”. That said, I’m always a fan of films that make Shakespeare accessible to young audiences without feeling the need to set them in high school.

Ophelia is currently on VOD.

Film Review: International Falls

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The best comedy (and indeed, most art) tends to come from a place of deep, unrelenting pain. Even someone as family-friendly as Ellen DeGeneres has admitted that she’s tapped into dark places for her bits. But just because pain can birth comedy, doesn’t necessarily mean that comedy will alleviate pain. That is the underlying theme of Amber McGinnis’ debut feature, International Falls, based on a two-person play by Thomas Ward, who also adapted the screenplay.

Rachel Harris (The Hangover, TVs Lucifer) stars as Dee, a middle-aged working mother who is bitter that her husband, Gary (Matthew Glave), has stepped out on her and checked out of their marriage. She works as a desk clerk at a hotel in the titular touristy Minnesota town on the Canadian border. Dee has spent her whole life in the Midwestern-as-hell International Falls, where there are no falls to speak of. It’s so cold that even Smokey Bear has to wear a shirt. The hotel hosts weekly no-name comedians, but the funniest person around is Dee herself, who keeps her co-worker, Ruthie (Jessie Sherman) in stitches during their grueling shifts…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!

Film Review: Olympic Dreams

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There are over 200 athletes that compete in every Olympics, and each one has a story. But we only hear about a handful of them, and they’re never the athletes at the bottom of the rankings. Nevertheless, every single person who competes in the Olympics has spent the better part of their lives preparing for it. One of the main aims of the Olympics is to make the audience feel good. We want inspirational stories about people overcoming adversity to achieve their goals. The alternative is almost too much to bare. With Olympic Dreams, director Jeremy Teicher and his muse/co-writer/star Alexi Pappas, seek to find the consolation prize in making it all the way to the most prestigious of athletic competitions, only to lose their event on day one.

Pappas, who collaborated with Teicher on two previous films (Tall as the Baobab Tree, Tracktown), stars as Penelope, a 22-year-old American cross-country skier who, after failing to place in her event, suddenly finds herself with a lot of time on her hands in Pyeongchang, South Korea. We don’t learn why her coach declined to accompany her to the most important competition of her life thus far, but we can feel her crushing loneliness and disappointment as it rapidly morphs into an existential crisis regarding next steps. Should she take the GREs and start a new life, or sign up for another four-year track to the next Olympics?…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!