Ophelia (2019)

Ophelia takes the initial concept of retelling Hamlet from the perspective of its most victimized (and, arguably, most tragic) character, giving her voice and agency and even some command over the plot and tries to morph Hamlet into a tale of a strong-willed young woman determined to find her way. Daisy Ridley is the title character, a girl in the Danish court who acts as lady-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). Despised by the other ladies-in-waiting due to her “low” birth, Ophelia spends most of her time alone or longing for the education in which her brother, Laertes (Tom Felton), indulges. But as we know, things are rotten in the state of Denmark. The king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen, in an unfortunate wig), wants power for himself and the young prince Hamlet (George McKay) wants Ophelia.

Ophelia has so much potential that it’s a shame it wastes it. Any attempt at psychological depth is abandoned for a teenage melodrama—Hamlet is a doe-eyed boy who falls madly in love with Ophelia practically the moment he sees her again. While the story does follow the basic arc of the play, there’s no screen time spent developing motivation for anyone except the villains—Claudius wants to be king, of course, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern want to . . . rape people? There’s some attempt made to develop the relationship between Ophelia and Gertrude and it’s here that Ophelia presents some of its best arguments in depicting two women at the mercy of powerful men, attempting to negotiate that in their own way.

But for a film based on psychologically complex play, there’s a remarkable degree of superficiality here. It presents Hamlet’s drive to take vengeance for his father’s murder as his “duty,” but in the absence of complex characterization, it feels more like he’s going through the motions because that’s what happens. A confusing subplot involving Gertrude’s drug addiction, Claudius’s past liaisons, and a witch in the woods tries to bring in plot points from Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and even, for some reason, Twelfth Night, still without attempting any depth characterization or, at this point, plot sense. Most maddening is that Shakespeare provides template for psychological depth, and yet Ophelia manages to render every character so superficially as to be, in places, laughable.

Ophelia also sets certain major scenes off-screen, because Ophelia (in the play) doesn’t witness them. Thus viewers are told of Hamlet’s madness and Polonius’s murder (the formative moments for Ophelia’s arc) rather than seeing them in action. The argument can’t be made that because the plot is focalized through Ophelia, the film cannot show things she does not see, for there are scenes to which Ophelia is not privy—just not the interesting ones.

If the comparisons to Shakespeare seem unfair, it’s worthwhile to point out that the film makes them as well. Ophelia takes away the language—which is understandable—but then renders Shakespearean speeches in “plain” English, resulting in Polonius telling his son to “never lend anyone money” and Hamlet shouting “go to a nunnery!”, as though the script were based on the No Fear Shakespeare version. This does a disservice to the actors, especially Ridley and Watts, who attempt to find nuance in their roles where the script gives them little.

Ophelia’s tragedy is her manipulation by a patriarchal and hierarchal structure that treats her as something to be traded—in the play, Hamlet violently repudiates her after she’s set up as bait to draw him out. Within short order, the man she loves rejects her and then murders her father, a double blow that ends with her madness. Yet these events are rendered entirely moot, and instead Ophelia’s character becomes a cipher apparently untouched by what happens around her. Hamlet is far more important than the beloved father or absent brother, and their romance makes her switch her allegiance to the point that she does not struggle with the fact that he’s murdered her father, even by accident. He’s just totally cute and that’s enough for her.

At best, director Claire McCarthy renders some lovely images as complex as Renaissance paintings, and these depictions of romantic abandon are among Ophelia’s most powerful moments. The film would’ve been better served by fully indulging in these romantic fantasy aspects. If it had been more melodramatic, wilder and romantic, it might have overcome the inherent silliness of the script to create something gorgeous, passionate, and over-the-top.

But, as a friend of mine commented, Ophelia is a fanfiction version of Hamlet, complete with plucky heroine, dastardly villains, and brooding love interest. There’s nothing wrong with romance, but the film wants too much to be taken seriously, unable to reconcile itself with its own extremity. Most problematic is its tendency to elevate Ophelia without making her more complex, as though she’s only worked on externally and has no inner life. By refuting her victimization by the world she cannot control, Ophelia actually abandons the depth of its lead’s psychology and tragedy, and removes itself from even an attempt to comment on patriarchy. Hamlet is just a bad boy that any teenage girl would love. Well, Ophelia always deserved better than Hamlet. She still does.

Ophelia comes to cinemas June 28 and VOD July 2.

Holy Lands (2019)

Holy Lands (2019)

Holy Lands is an odd, occasionally successful film about the dialogue between family, friendships, and faith. Taking place simultaneously in Nazareth and New York, the film traverses countries and faiths to try to find the heart of what unites a family. Harry Rosemerck (James Caan) is a lapsed Jew who moves to Nazareth to start a pig farm, largely as an act of defiance against Judaism itself. He particularly enrages Moshe (Tom Hollander), a local rabbi, with whom he develops a conflict-laden relationship. Harry is estranged from his son, David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a successful New York playwright, with whom he can only communicate via letter. His daughter, Annabelle (Efrat Dor), is a photographer who can barely support herself, migrating between Israel and New York to see both her parents. Meanwhile, Harry’s ex-wife, Monica (Rosanna Arquette), finds herself at a crossroads when she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. The film tries to combine these disparate familial narratives, each of them shaped and influencing the other, as it interrogates the meanings behind faith, love for family, and the development of some unlikely friendships.

When Holy Lands succeeds, it’s a moving, humorous film; when it fails, it’s difficult to follow or to invest in. The result is a curious, imbalanced narrative that would have been better for one or two fewer plot strands. Yet each of the strands also feels essential to an understanding of the others, and it would be hard to claim that you could lose any character or actor and maintain the same meaning. Most entertaining is the contentious and charming relationship between Caan’s irascible Harry and Hollander’s equally immovable Moshe. As the pair circle each other and spar over matters of practicality and faith, Holy Lands finds its most comfortable footing. There’s a sense that director Amanda Sthers knows that this is the story to be told, and that the others, as interesting as they are in places, are really ancillary to it.

However, Rosanna Arquette’s equally intense performance should not be lost. As Monica comes to accept her approaching death and attempts to reconnect with both her children, who love her but also find her difficult to handle, Arquette gives one of her finest, most nuanced performances. She’s multitudinous and sympathetic but also impossible, and her adoration of her family and equal inability to connect to them bears the soul of Holy Lands. But her narrative feels too independent in itself, and Holy Lands isn’t quite able to integrate her story with that of her children or her ex-husband.

Amanda Sthers writes and directs from her own novel, which explains Holy Lands’ sense of the personal combined with its undoubted messiness. The film is in need of restructuring and development, with an eye to creating a more stable narrative that allows for rising and falling action. An hour and forty minutes simply does not have the fluidity that a three hundred page novel does, and the result is an imbalanced work that never quite hits the right notes. Sthers appears to want to tell a story about generational conflict and separation, but also about the interaction between faith and culture, but also about a Jewish man trying to raise and sell pigs in Israel. The result is that none of the stories receive the attention that they warrant, even though buried within each are some fantastic characters and emotional beats.

Holy Lands is not a bad film by any stretch, and at times it even aspires to greatness. But it misses its mark too often and loses coherency in attempting to move between the stories, integrate them together, and succeed in doing justice to all the characters. The film just doesn’t quite work, yet it is also an admirable attempt, and reveals a director and writer that bears watching.

Holy Lands officially releases on June 21.

Ghost Light (2019)

Ghost Light (2019)

There’s a cliché that Shakespeare is the most adapted playwright in the world and, like many clichés, it’s probably true. His work has been transposed in multiple languages and across multiple platforms, inspiring new interpretations on stage, in art, in print, and on the screen. He’s also a remarkably meta-narrational playwright: his plays invite commentary on theater as theater (or cinema), integrating plays within plays, actors playing multiple roles (and referencing the roles they’re playing), and self-referentiality. Ghost Light, from director John Stimpson, plays further with Shakespearean meta, as he brings in traditions and superstitions to interact with the story of an acting troupe putting on the most ill-fated of the Bard’s plays.

Ghost Light utilizes the curse surrounding performances of Macbeth – excuse me, The Scottish Play – as a Shakespearean troupe arrive to perform the play in a charming Massachusetts village and find themselves in the midst of ghostly, horrific happenings. The troupe is complete with character types: a former soap actor and all-around ham leading man Alex (Cary Elwes, having the time of his life), his wife and Lady Macbeth Liz (Shannyn Sossamon), Thomas (Tom Riley) a jealous second-lead/understudy playing Banquo, the long-suffering director Henry (Roger Bart), and a deliriously extreme fading dame of the theater Madeline (Carol Kane). Thomas and Liz tempt fate and the theater gods when they invoke the play’s curse by shouting “Macbeth!” in the empty theater. With some very Shakespearean theatrics from nature, the curse begins to take hold and transform the relationships of the members of the troupe into the play itself.

Ghost Light takes a little while to find its feet, summoning a sense of menace from the start but with little initial payoff. The characters are certainly types—they’re meant to be, especially as they begin to morph into their own versions of their Shakespearean roles. The film draws together elements of theatrical traditions and superstitions, and not just surrounding Macbeth: the presence of the stage’s “ghost light,” the use of the phrase “break a leg” rather than “good luck,” the various contortions that one has to go through to break the curse of the Scottish Play. Ghost Light occasionally veers too far into the silliness of its premise and undercuts the elements of menace that both the play and its own plot conjure. At the same time, the film does pay off its premise, and the final act is a fantastically entertaining, horror-laden farce that brings all the elements of the narrative together.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most humorless tragedies, so it’s interesting that it has also been the one most often adapted into a black comedy. Ghost Light shares the stage with Scotland, PA, another story about Macbeth in the North American countryside. But where Scotland, PA adapted the story, Ghost Light adds another layer, making the superstitions that surround Macbeth are as important as the play itself. This means that the characters are fully aware they’re beginning to embody their parts—there are lines in which characters acknowledge that they’re acting like their on-stage roles and seem incapable of breaking out of the cycle. As a result, though, some of the minor parts unfortunately get left by the side in favor of the central narrative of Tom and Liz. But all the actors are game for their roles, enjoying the Shakespeare, both good and bad, that they get to perform.

The film does occasionally slip into the hokey and predictable, particularly at the beginning and before the final act transition to the night of the performance. Luckily, the final show is so enjoyable that it’s easy to forget some of the hokeyness and simply indulge in the slightly blood and very clever fun. After all, Shakespeare himself wasn’t above some amateur theatrics.

Ghost Light will drop on VOD on June 18.

Bull (2019)

Bull (2019)

Despite calls for gender equity across the board, the Cannes Film Festival has once again largely failed to address the disparity between the number of male and female directors with films appearing both in competition and out. But there are a few, thankfully, and one of them is Annie Silverstein’s feature film debut Bull, appearing in the Un Certain Regard section. The film chronicles the friendship between a troubled adolescent girl and her bull-riding next door neighbor.

Bull opens with Kris (Amber Havard), a teenager in a rundown Houston subdivision. Living with her grandmother while her mother serves time, Kris spends her days playing with her younger sister and trying to fit in with other kids. This leads her to break into her neighbor Abe’s (Rob Morgan) house one night, while Abe is off working the rodeo. Kris and her friends trash the place, releasing Abe’s chickens, drinking his booze, and consuming his painkillers. The next morning, Abe catches Kris sleeping on his backyard sofa. Rather than having her arrested and sent to juvie, Abe agrees to let Kris try to make amends by cleaning his house and repairing the chicken coop. The two soon develop an uneasy, contentious friendship as Abe introduces Kris to bull-riding and a small community of African American riders, providing her with an outlet for her undirected fury and a chance to break free of the world that confines her.

Bull has a great deal in common with The Rider, which interrogated the existential masculinity of rodeo riders, and The Wrestler, which focused on the ambivalent masculine experience of hurting oneself in pursuit of a profession. Bull takes place within a liminal community and deftly handles the numbness of poverty without making it either overly sentimental or overly violent The film filters itself through the communal experiences of a teenage white girl and an African American man.. Kris has all of the usual experiences of anger and listlessness that come with being an adolescent, but those are further developed through her poverty and her culture. Abe’s job is to distract the bulls following a bucking, and he’s injured on a regular basis, stomped, knocked over, and even gored. In his spare time, he teaches young men how to bull-ride, effectively training another generation of men like him. Both he and Kris find a kind of a solace in bull-riding, and in each other, as they deal with the unnamed and undirected anger that swirls around them.

This is, of course, a film about taciturn, apparently emotionless characters who find a kinship – if not quite love – with one another. Kris makes all the mistakes of being teenager but as she becomes more involved with “bad” kids and drug dealers, the danger of her position is apparent. She has no one to look after her or to guide her except for Abe, himself an aging bull-rider who can no longer get out of the way fast enough to be useful in the ring. The bull of the title is both the raison d’etre of the pair and a (somewhat muted) metaphor for their own behavior. As Abe describes to Kris how to stop a bull in his tracks, the combination of exhilaration and danger that inherent in a sport like bull-riding emphasizes the fundamental lack of emotion, or joy, in both their lives. Bull does an excellent job of showing just how such a dangerous, damaging sport can be so attractive to a particular type of person, and what things like it offer to those who have little other way out of their respective poverty.

Bull’s weakness is really in the recognizable nature of its narrative, but Silverstein evades turning the story into a cliché or a repetition of earlier films that delve into the lives of impoverished people in the South and West. It sets itself apart in the strength of its characterizations, done remarkably with minimal dialogue or discussion even between its main characters. Havard is a fascinating young actress making her debut here, with a haunted way of looking and speaking that indicates depth protected by a barrier to avoid pain. Rob Morgan, who appeared recently in Dee Rees’s Mudbound, matches her without overwhelming her as a man compelled to ride even as it endangers his life.

Bull has the potential to be this year’s The Rider, but it does it a disservice to simply compare the two films. Far from being a carbon copy, it is another multifaceted cinematic examination of characters that are often pushed to the peripheries or treated with pity. It’s a fantastic narrative feature debut for Silverstein, and more than worthy of Un Certain Regard.

Tater Tot & Patton (2019)

Tater Tot & Patton (2019)

American independent cinema has grown ever more vibrant over the past few years, but it can sometimes be hard for critics to separate the good from the bad from the merely mediocre, and give opportunities to films that deserve attention. On the surface, writer/director Andrew Kightlinger’s Tater Tot & Patton is yet another independent chamber drama, similar in tone and content to Abundant Acreage Available and any number of contemplative films about the declining Midwest. And the film is that, certainly, but it also stands out from the herd as a rumination on addiction and grief without becoming cloying, sentimental, or depressing.

Tater Tot & Patton focuses on the developing relationship between Andie (Jessica Rothe) and her uncle Erwin (Bates Wilder). After a failed stint in rehab, Andie is sent to stay with her aunt and uncle on their ranch in South Dakota. Her aunt is in the hospital, so Andie has to make do with an alcoholic uncle she barely knows. Erwin is first presented as a taciturn rancher annoyed with having to look after his sister-in-law’s daughter, Andie as a spoiled, phone-obsessed Millennial. But as their relationship grows, the film digs deeper into their characterizations, uncovering their emotional and psychological layers as they spar with each other against the alternately bleak and beautiful South Dakota landscape.

What could be a typical fish-out-of-water narrative becomes a bit more in Tater Tot & Patton. The film evades proposing simple solutions to the characters’ problems, instead focusing in on the way they come to understand and eventually support one another, despite and often because of their brokenness. Erwin’s alcoholism has deeper origins than it at first appears, and his growth is directly tied to his increasing sympathy with his niece, whom he had only known as a four-year-old who used to pour water on people she didn’t like. Andie’s growth is likewise tied not just to the cliché of getting rid of her phone (though there is that) and engaging with the land and the people around her, but in trying to draw out and understand an uncle who continually turns in on himself.

The South Dakota landscape is a character in itself, informing on the characters’ isolation but also pushing their engagement with each other and with the land, acting a metaphor for introspection and self-assessment that is often ugly and frightening. Erwin’s physical isolation permits him to remove himself from human society and from having to engage with his emotions; Andie’s aggressive connectedness allows her to isolate herself in the same way, through disengagement from the world around her. Both have to come to terms with their desire for isolation by interacting with each other, even when they don’t want to.

Tater Tot & Patton does occasionally slip into clichés, but that doesn’t particularly harm the film. It avoids offering clichéd solutions to real-world problems, slipping past the Hollywoodized emphasis on “fixing” people who are damaged, traumatized, or dealing with grief in different forms. Andie and Erwin begin to find help with each other, a way to deal with their emotions together, even if that means occasional co-dependence that might not be healthy in the long-term, but is helpful in the short-term.

There’s much to be said for the current American independent film scene, and Tater Tot & Patton is a good example of what can be achieved with a small cast and a director with a clear, cogent eye for both character and mis-en-scene. It’s a small film, and well worth seeking out.

Tater Tot & Patton is available on VOD, including Amazon, Vimeo, and Vudu.

For Now (2019)

For Now (2019)

For Now can certainly claim to be a true indie. It was funded by Kickstarter and is near-documentary in both style and substance – the script is largely improvised, though the plot is not, and plays off the real life relationships between the four principles. The result is an occasionally uneven but diverting road-trip film about a group of twenty-somethings traveling up the California coast and navigating their problematic relationships along the way.

For Now occupies an odd position between Duplassian mumblecore and near-documentary, and the overlap between real life and fiction is one of the most intriguing things about it. The film is a seven-day road trip undertaken by Hannah (Hannah Barlow), her boyfriend Kane (Kane Senes), their friend Katherine (Katherine Du Bois), and Hannah’s brother Connor (Connor Barlow), as they travel up the California coast to take Connor to an audition at the San Francisco Ballet Company. There’s tension in the car, as Hannah and Kane deal with a rough patch in their relationship and their careers, complicated by Katherine, who has been staying on their couch, and the conflict-laden relationship between Hannah and Connor, their past, and the deaths of their parents.

There are really two ways that a film like this can go: self-serious pretension, and an interesting exhumation of relationships. For the most part, For Now is in the second category, thanks largely to the warmly ironic leads and the fact that the conversations play out like real conversations, with arguments, tangents, diversions, underlying animosity, and sibling rivalry bubbling to the surface. There’s very little self-aware quirkiness here, and what there is is tempered by naturalistic shifts in dialogue and mis-en-scene. The leads are human—at times annoying and egotistical, at others revealing layers of character and motivation often missing in self-styled indie comedies. The film doesn’t promise solutions for grief, co-dependence, or the occasionally drifting sensibilities of Millennials—the characters are muddling their way through as best they can, attempting to make art and to form connections to their families, friends, and significant others.

For Now plays like early Duplass Brothers (and it’s no wonder, as Barlow and Senes were inspired to make it by a Mark Duplass speech at SXSW), which will endear it to some while repelling others. There’s no doubt that this film sits comfortably in the mumblecore niche, though it doesn’t go as far into the realms of humorous discomfort as some films in the genre. The unmoored nature of the characters, and the desire to find some meaning in a post-post-modern landscape, can come off as cloying, but For Now never edges into the “privileged yet incompetent” territory of some indie filmmaking. The central relationship is really Hannah and Connor as they navigate their sometimes difficult dynamic and the way that each deals with their parents’ loss. The pair have the intimacy of siblings close in age, their own private language and way of relating to each other, which both Katherine and Kane have difficulty understanding or penetrating. But the conflicts, when they come, are just as intense as the moments of joy, and it is to the film’s credit that it neither dwells on nor shies away from the more uncomfortable moments.

There’s a tendency to require small films to revolutionize genres or concepts in order to be deemed worthy of attention, but we should also recognize when a film attempts a project or an experiment and does it well. There’s something surprising that For Now, beyond its cinematic competency, is hardly revolutionary yet is refreshing and enjoyable nonetheless.

For Now is available to stream on VOD, including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu.

America Adrift (2018)

America Adrift (2018)

As America deals with an intensifying opioid crisis, both independent and mainstream films have stepped in to raise awareness about the problem, and sometime to propose solutions. While Beautiful Boy gave the Hollywood treatment to the cycle of addiction and relapse, America Adrift instead focuses on a Latinx family in Long Island as they cope with the youngest son’s descent into heroin addiction and crime.

America Adrift tells the story of the Fernandez family, a well-to-do Latinx family living in East Neck, Long Island. Despite a comfortable home life and loving parents, the youngest Fernandez boy, Cameron (Angel Bismarck Curiel), has become a victim of the opioid crisis. First using and then dealing heroin, the young man is a source of constant worry to his mother Cecelia (Lauren Luna Velez), father William (Tony Plana), and elder brothers Sam (Davi Santos) and Alex (Esteban Benito). As the family deals with the endless cycle of Cameron’s addiction and deeper dive into drugs and crime, they come unstuck, unable to help the boy they love and searching for ways to cope with a problem they cannot solve.

America Adrift makes use of some odd cinematic and visual choices, some of which pay off while others fail to. The early part of the film makes use of temporal confusion to emphasize the cyclical nature of addiction, as conversations take place again and again in different spaces and at different times. Each member of the family deals with Cameron’s constant moves in and out of rehab in their own way – the men largely get angry or shut down, as William can’t handle his son’s relapses, while Alex removes himself from the family altogether. Sam is closest with his brother, but even he steps aside to write a book about his brother instead, leaving their mother Cecelia to deal most intimately with Cameron’s problems. Cecelia herself is blind to her son’s abuse of her trust, and there are moments of excellent pathos as she argues with husband and sons that Cameron has changed when it’s quite obvious that he hasn’t.

The problem of the film, however, is in failing to establish anything particularly sympathetic about Cameron other than his opioid addiction. There’s little no treatment of him as a likable kid, or as someone who has fallen into a cycle he can’t escape from. His mother’s willful blindness to his exploitation of her trust would make greater narrative sense if there was something cutting through that – if he had an inherent sweetness or was able to move between his wildness and his attempts, honest or not, to become better. While it’s of course realistic that some people will love and care for family members simply because they’re family members, Cameron’s consistent exploitation of his mother feels neither clearly co-dependent nor manipulative – he’s just not a very nice person.

Some of these issues are down to the script and the directing. America Adrift often feels like a school special intended to showcase the problems of opioid addiction by making everything easy to access—which is a venerable project in itself, but not conducive to a deep exploration of addiction and grief. All of the emotions are on the surface, as characters scream, cry, and threaten each other one minute, then calm down and carry on with dinner the next. There’s a bit of tonal whiplash going on here, through which the film evades digging deeply into its subject matter.

As America Adrift proceeds, it begins to strain credulity, leaving large gaps in time and character development that keep the film from ever digging deep into its subject matter. There’s a lack of establishing shots or location in space and time. The temporal overlaps can be interesting, but after a while they begin to feel like a good idea never quite carried through to its logical conclusion. And there are a lot of good ideas here, and some strong performances, especially from Velez, but none of that can quite keep hold of the film and stop it from, well, drifting away into some unbelievable territory.

Ultimately, this is a film that has its heart in the right place, that wants to discuss the depths of the opioid crisis, particularly focusing on a Latinx family to do it – a nice change from the upper middle-class white people of films like Beautiful Boy. But its superficiality stops it from finding a strong center of pathos, and a final act shift becomes unintentionally comical. It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of potential here that the film never manages to exploit.

America Adrift is available to stream on VOD, including Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.