Film Review: Freaks (2019)


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…

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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.


Download or listen here!

Film Review: Ophelia


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


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…

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Film Review: Olympic Dreams


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?…

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Film Review: Banana Split

The plot of Banana Split is very simple but, in many ways, the story is revolutionary. April (co-writer Hannah Marks, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency) is a high school senior who is reeling from a breakup with her first love, Nick (Dylan Sprouse). Their 2-year relationship ended because they will soon attend college on opposite coasts. April is gutted when Nick immediately takes up with Clara (Liana Liberato). But just as April’s final summer at home begins, she meets Clara at a party and, instead of battling, they become instant besties. What follows is a touching tribute to the profundity of platonic first loves between young women, colored by the existential angst of that emotional limbo between high school and college.

The Romantic Comedy begs for subversion and Banana Split delivers. First-time director Ben Kasulke, uses a light touch, letting the performances and character arcs effortlessly breathe new life into a stale genre. Both April and Clara’s relationship with Nick takes a back seat to their burgeoning friendship, while the underdeveloped quip machine in an advisory role is a straight white boy named Ben (Luke Spencer Roberts)…

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Film Review: Wild Nights with Emily


History isn’t always written by the winners. Sometimes, it’s written by mediocre opportunists capitalizing on the talents of others. Regardless, history has always had a patriarchal hue, even when written by women. We now know that Emily Dickinson was not a spinster recluse, but a passionate and vibrant woman who understood that if she wanted to follow her heart in the 19th century, she would have to do so in secret.

Madeleine Olnek’s third feature film, Wild Nights with Emily, is more than just an attempt to right the way history has wronged Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon). Though the story takes a few narrative liberties, a great deal of it is based in fact. Olnek used Dickinson’s letters and poems – with permission from Harvard University Press – in order to piece together an honest supposition regarding Dickinson’s personal life. She suggests that the person responsible for creating and perpetuating the myth was likely also a victim of her time. Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz) forged Dickinson’s persona without ever actually meeting the woman. Furthermore, she did so whilst carrying on an affair with Emily’s married brother, Austin (Kevin Seal). Seimetz plays Todd with a lighthearted humblebrag swagger atop a desire to do what she felt was necessary to get Dickinson’s work published. Todd erased the name “Sue” from many of Dickinson’s more impassioned works. It’s likely that she wasn’t acting completely out of self-interest. She thought that the world wasn’t ready for a lesbian poet, but that Dickinson’s verse was too revolutionary to keep hidden…

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