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.

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Film Review: King of Beasts

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It’s nearly impossible for a documentary to remain purely objective. Even without narration, the director is still choosing who to interview, what to film, and what to leave out in the editing room. The filmmakers still have a stance, whether or not they choose to reveal it to the audience. Nonetheless, Tomer Almagor and Nadav Harel come very close to presenting the subject of King of Beasts in an unbiased light. Their protagonist is Aaron Neilson, a middle-aged white man who makes more than a livable income as a hunting guide in the Colorado mountains. He leads a relatively simple life, and gives his girlfriend shit about how much she’s spending at the nail salon. Meanwhile, he’s planning his fourteenth trip to Tanzania so that he can add to his prodigious lion trophy collection. He kills plenty of other animals too, but lions are his passion. They’re the reason he spends thousands of dollars and flies 9000 miles. He reminds me of my daughter with her endless amassing of plushies. It would be amusing, were it not for the fact that his toys were once majestic living creatures. But he maintains that his hobby is misunderstood. They have to go to Tanzania and see it for themselves. Through this film, we can do just that. And guess what? It’s still not a great look.

Almagor and Harel offer all this without comment – there are no titles or narration in King of Beasts. It’s a true fly-on-the-wall account. Neilson tells the camera that he just wants a chance to show things from his side. The animal rights activists who admonish him on the internet haven’t met a lion up close. They haven’t felt the thrill and righteousness of knowing you’re at the top of the food chain. He respects the animals, he says. But it’s his god given right to take their lives. He’s not murdering Simba from The Lion King. These animals are nothing but natural born killing machines. On top of that, he’s totally helping the people of Tanzania by bringing them his tens of thousands of dollars…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!

Film Review: This World Alone

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Everyone is feeling pretty bleak these days. The Worldwide Magic 8-Ball keep coming up “Outlook Not Good.” So there seems to be no shortage of cinematic post-apocalyptic hellscapes. This World Alone is set after the collapse of modern society known as “The Fall.” But what sets this film apart is that it manages to paint a pretty effective picture of post-electronic life through dialogue and forest settings. Screenwriter Hudson Phillips wrote a powerful story that could be produced on a shoestring budget. His debut feature tells the story of 3 women attempting to thrive in a remote cabin, apart from a society that has embraced Old Testament thinking to bring order to the chaos. Director/editor Jordan Noel compliments the script with his intimate direction and slow-burn pacing.

Belle Adams stars as Sam, a 20-year-old woman who grew up with only books to inform her world view. And so, she longs to see what’s left of the world. But her hardened mother Connie (Carrie Walrond Hood), doesn’t think Sam would make it a day out there on her own. Connie tries to prepare Sam for a harsh world by teaching her to fight and forcing her to sacrifice her pet pig for their supper. Sam is less than enthused about these lessons, creating a familiar mother/daughter power struggle. You can expect to hear Sam make vows about how she will treat her own children someday…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!

Film Review: Mapplethorpe

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Like most Americans, I was first introduced to Matt Smith as the 11th incarnation of the Doctor on Doctor Who. That’s why a part of me will always feel a little scandalized by his darker roles. His performance in Womb haunts me to this day. I feel a bit like his mother when I see him bare his ass for extended periods of time on screen. “My stars, Matthew!” I think. “Is that really necessary?”

In regard to a biopic about “the Shy Pornographer,” Robert Mapplethorpe, it is necessary. Mapplethorpe would hate to be pigeonholed in such a way, but his legacy is, essentially, photos of butts and penises. This is acknowledged in the film when Mapplethorpe preps his colleagues for an upcoming exhibition. Even though Mapplethorpe aspired to be a “modern Michelangelo,” he knew that, “people will be expecting some cock.”

Mapplethorpe Director Ondi Timoner (Dig!) also knows this. More importantly, the woman knows how to capture difficult artists. She makes it seem perfectly reasonable – crucial, even – for the subject to get angry when someone tells him his behavior hurts people. It’s a tale as old as time. Hurting people is part of the process…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!

Film Review: All About Nina

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There may come a day when movies like All About Nina seem antiquated. Remember when the patriarchy infected everything, including comedy? And women had to struggle every second of every day to achieve equal opportunity and respect? And they were slut-shamed and victim-blamed for the transgressions of powerful men? And it was often painful simply to exist as a woman on this earth?

Unfortunately, Eva Vives directorial debut couldn’t be timelier. The prevalence of “#MeToo” might create the illusion that we’re making progress. But change is coming at a snail’s pace. People (not just men) are holding on to the status quo for dear life. That includes the world of comedy, in which women have to work their asses off to justify their inclusion. Most of the time, talent and hard work aren’t enough. All About Nina is a dramedy that’s heavy on the dram. But it’s also a breath of fresh air because it confronts the toxic masculinity that infects the comedy world…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!

Podcast: Mandy

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The wonderful fellas behind Ex Rated Movies invited me back for a “Quick and Dirty” discussion of Panos Cosmatos’ revenge flick, Mandy (2018). It was great fun attempting to process this insane movie in real time with them. Listen here!

Film Review: Skate Kitchen

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Vérité teen dramas don’t have to be depressing. Documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle (The Wolfpack) makes her narrative debut with Skate Kitchen, a coming-of-age tale which follows an 18-year-old Long Island native on her journey to both independence and finding her tribe. Apart from conflict with her single mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez, Orange is the New Black), and a little boy drama, nothing horrific happens to Camille (Rachelle Vinberg). Instead, she joins the ranks of the titular girl skate group, and they traverse Manhattan in empowering formation.

The driving drama comes after a board-related trip to the E.R. Camille’s mom tells her she got lucky, and makes her promise to quit skating. Camille tries to get her fix through the Instagram exploits of the Skate Kitchen. But when they post about a “girl’s skate sesh”, Camille can’t help herself. She creates a cover story and makes the long journey into the city to carefully orchestrate a “casual” meet-up with the like-minded ladies. Because Camille’s talent for skating matches her passion, it’s not long before they’re posting videos of Camille’s tricks and welcoming her into the fold…

Read the rest at Hammer to Nail!

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