Fate’s Shadow (Short) (2020)

Michelle Arthur’s short film Fate’s Shadow transplants the story of Carmen into a narrative about a woman in an abusive relationship being awakened to past lives. Eva (Arthur) is in a complicated relationship with Zach, an unseen, emotionally abusive boyfriend whom Eva’s friend Sara (Kathleen Randazzo) wants her to dump. But Eva claims that she’s been to a hypnotherapist who discovered that Eva and Zach were lovers in a past life, before he left her when his family threatened his inheritance. The juxtaposition of the narratives comes to the fore in the use of a dance performance, also depicting the Carmen story, that Eva and Sara attend.

Fate’s Shadow plays like the simplification of a feature length film, which is exactly what it is—the full-length version is currently in production. While low budget, it nonetheless raises some interesting questions about abusive relationships and romanticization—Eva initially won’t dump Zach because she’s convinced that their fates are intertwined. There’s a bit of a limitation in a short film to fully explore this issue, and the possibilities it raises, but Fate Shadow isn’t a short story—it’s the synopsis of a longer one, one in which hopefully these themes will be fully explored.

Silent Panic (2019)

Silent Panic takes a standard thriller narrative and uses it to launch a character study of three friends’ very different reactions to the same event. The film opens with the abandonment of a woman’s body in the trunk of a car. The car belongs to Eagle (Sean Nateghi), an ex-con camping with his friends Dom (Jay Habre) and Bobby (Joseph Martinez) in Angeles National Forest. The three are having a perfectly pleasant time until they discover the body and wind up disagreeing on how to handle it. Dom and Bobby are all for going to the police, but Eagle doesn’t think that the cops will believe them that the body just showed up in their trunk. As their decisions compound the problem, the film becomes something of a case study in how the men react to the circumstances, and how their choices complicate things further.

The basic setup of Silent Panic is the sort of thing we’d expect from an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the initial events play out much as an episode would. The responses of the three men are natural – Eagle doesn’t want to be sent back to prison, the other two are disturbed by his recalcitrance and increasingly guilt-ridden themselves, especially Bobby, who struggles with a drug problem. And the film makes much of this conflict, as the three move farther from being able to reveal the presence of the body without implicating themselves. Nor can they agree on what to actually do with the body—it remains in the trunk of Eagle’s car, and is the source of the film’s best tension, as he attempts to conceal its presence from his girlfriend, Robin (Constance Brenneman).

The strength of the film lies in its ability to establish and maintain tension, something which it succeeds at much of its runtime. The choice not to go to the cops is primarily Eagle’s, and he’s at once the most interesting and least sympathetic of the three protagonists, essentially telling his friends what to do in an effort to protect himself. There’s betrayal and complication, anger and misdirected energy, and the question of how the body even got there, who it is, and why it’s in their trunk. For the most part, Silent Panic manages to maintain its tension without going overboard.

The film’s weakness, though, lies in the increasingly unbelievable choices made by its protagonists, a few plot holes that are difficult to ignore, and the occasional divergence into near-comedy that seems, in places at least, unintentional. Bobby heads off to his drug dealer when he can no longer stand the tension, resulting in an extended scene in which Jeff Dowd (touted as the real-life inspiration for the Dude in The Big Lebowski) tries to convince Bobby to go to rehab, all while puffing on a vape pen. Entertaining? Yes. But not particularly applicable to the plot at large.

More problematic are some of the characters’ reactions to the presence of the body, as when Eagle decides to go off gambling and deny the body’s existence at all. Most thrillers have some kind of plot hole, but there are a number of open questions: if the woman disappeared, do the police know? Why aren’t they mentioning her disappearance? Isn’t that body beginning to smell? And so forth. While we can get past some of the problems, others become more prevalent the more you think about them.

Silent Panic is a middling thriller, with a solid concept and mostly solid performances. Director Kyle Schadt finds some excellent points of tension to keep the viewer engaged, but the film becomes less believable as it goes on. Still, it’s a good piece of entertainment and a character-driven approach to the thriller that should be lauded for the attempt.

Silent Panic is available to stream on Tubi, Amazon, YouTube, and Google Play.

Union (2019)

Writer/director Whitney Hamilton’s film Union is an ambitious, intriguing work that attempts to navigate some difficult waters, made more difficult by a limited budget. It opens with the near-death of Henry Keiler (Hamilton), a Confederate soldier who’s shot, captured, and taken to a Union Army infirmary in Virginia to await execution. When the doctor tends to Henry’s wounds, it’s discovered that he’s a woman, Grace, posing as her dead brother to fight in his place. Through the machinations of her fiancé, Henry survives, only to escape again and try to make his way back to the woman (Virginia Newcomb) that he left behind.

Union begins with a briefing about the more than four hundred women who posed as men during the Civil War, on both sides, in order to fight, and purports to tell one of their stories. The complexity of gender, how it’s perceived, and who suffers because of it is an intriguing concept for a Civil War narrative, and in this element, Union acquits itself quite well. It’s never revealed for how long Henry has been posing, or when it started, but the fluidity of Hamilton’s performance, and Henry’s romance with Virginia, makes for the most interesting scenes of the film. The addition of indigenous concepts—I want to say Cherokee, but I’m not entirely certain on that point—of gender and its mutability make for an intriguing critique of white Western essentialism, especially as female soldiers are executed when discovered.

Union is a high-budget concept with a low budget, meaning that the film has to rely on some deft camerawork and action happening off screen in order to establish verisimilitude. The concept is a fascinating one, but there are sections the narrative suddenly elides over, to its detriment. Is Henry/Grace engaged to the Union captain who captures her? Does Henry know the widow from before? What about the scenes of a wife and child? The movement between timelines confuses the issue, making it difficult to follow the tribulations of the characters and understand their relationships, as though missing half the story.

Union must also overcome the patchy nature of its acting and story structure. Hamilton and Newcomb acquit themselves well, especially in their scenes together, but some of the others read their lines with a stiltedness that belies a discomfort. There’s little tension in Henry’s potential discovery—he’s protected on all sides, and somehow manages to hide, get married, and work a farm, without the Union soldiers being any the wiser. The elision over chronology and an imprecise indication of character relationships means that the film’s denouement, as Henry goes looking for a son stolen by the Union army, feels more like an add on than a central conceit. It was not always easy to follow the plot or understand, for instance, why the Union Army suddenly stops looking for Henry, why no one seems to notice that a Confederate soldier has been holed up in a local farm, or why Henry heads all the way to Canada to find a child taken from Virginia.

The central interrogation of transgender issues and the mutable nature of gender is what lends Union its strength (though, God knows why we must continue to treat Confederates as the scrappy underdog and Unionists as a malicious invading force). The most effective sections of the film occur after Henry has come home and begun to work the land alongside his wife. The digressions into concepts of gender, its fluidity, and the indigenous acceptance and even veneration of those who have “a man and a woman’s soul” in one person are interesting enough, though there are places where it begins to veer too far into “native mysticism” territory, as the group that helps to protect and support Henry constantly pop up across the narrative to be certain everything goes well. But these elements have the capacity to lift certain sections of Union above its limitations.

All in all, Union is a patchwork film, some of it excellent and intriguing in concept and execution, some of it severely lacking. It’s such a game attempt to bring to light an underdiscussed element of Civil War history, especially in terms of the issues of gender both in that time and our own, that I hesitate to dismiss it outright. Its weakness lies in not establishing strong enough narrative stakes or making clear its character relationships at the outset, leaving the viewer to work out things for themselves in increasingly confused and confusing ways. It’s based on Hamilton’s original short film, which might be more cohesive, and thus perhaps needed another editorial pass. Still, there is something in here that deserves to be paid attention to, and Union is far from a waste of time.

Union is available to stream on VOD, including Amazon and YouTube.

Night Sweats (2019)

Low-budget horror continues to flourish in the twenty-first century, launching whole subgenres and giving audiences access to a plethora of terrifying tales that stretch beyond the standard Hollywood fare. While everyone really wants to be the new Paranormal Activity, it’s not the easiest thing to craft a narrative that manages to truly frighten. So when writer/director Andrew Lyman-Clarke’s virus-run-amok film Night Sweats popped up on my radar, the possibility of some proper Cronenbergian scares within a small budget film seemed an interesting prospect. 

And it is indeed an intriguing premise. Night Sweats opens with skateboarder Yuri’s (Kyle DeSpiegler) arrival in New York City, where he’s come to join his friend, Jake, who works as videographer for shadowy self-help company True Healing. Yuri falls for MK (Mary Elaine Ramsey), a waitress in Bushwick, whom Jake has been filming as a subject for True Healing’s “trauma” videos, which the company sells to pharmaceutical companies. When Jake dies suddenly of a mysterious illness, Yuri decides to investigate, discovering that a number of True Healing’s subjects have died the same way. As he digs deeper, he uncovers a winding conspiracy that leads to some of the unlikeliest places.

Night Sweats has all the makings of decent, low-budget horror flick about a virus engulfing New York City, a shadowy company trying to profit from it, and a plucky do-gooder working against the clock to discover its source. The film is well paced and generally well shot, clipping along nicely without dwelling too long on its occasional body horror moments. Yes, there are a few plot gaps, and the acting tends to wobble into histrionics, but the sections of the film that build Yuri’s dread and the varying, developing nature of the mysterious illness have real teeth to them. Creepy and effective, Night Sweats even overcomes its budget restrictions (and the occasionally patchy acting of its leads) to deliver some real scares and tension. But for all its strengths—and it has many—it’s entirely let down by the final act, which tosses much of the good will it has built up into a massive buzz saw of misogyny.

I don’t know if the filmmakers thought they were being clever or if they legitimately missed the vicious problematics of their big reveal, but dear God, boys. The denouement would have fit in perfectly with right-wing hysteria at the height of the AIDS epidemic and is so backwards thinking that it reads (perhaps accidentally, if we’re being charitable) as an MRA horror story. There’s really no excuse for this, and one would only hope that Clarke and his cast did not realize what they were doing. There are so many horror possibilities inherent in the notion of a company that sells and profits from recordings of trauma that to shift the focus at the end onto an actual victim, especially given contemporary politics surrounding trauma and victimhood, at best exhibits ignorance and lack of understanding, and at worst comes off like a deliberate attempt to craft an insidiously misogynist horror narrative.

Night Sweats might have worked were it not for this denouement. The filmmakers effectively up the tension throughout, and the occasional wobbles are forgivable for the instances of real excitement. The bogeyman of Big Pharma is a legitimate one, but the late act shift to another (male) fear absolutely undoes all that came before. It’s seldom that contemporary film is actually offensive in its gender politics, but this goes beyond casual, thoughtless sexism and enters the realm of explicit, self-satisfied, and unreflective misogyny. It’s an insidious conclusion to an effective film, one that begins to develop about partway through and that had me whispering, “Oh no,” for much of the last ten minutes. It’s a shame, too, because there’s plenty of good stuff in Night Sweats. If only the narrative wasn’t so hateful.

Night Sweats is available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.

Sunday Girl (2019)

Sunday Girl (2019)

Sunday Girl opens with its lead character, Natasha (played with disarming charm by Dasha Nekrasova), casually snapping an image of an off-camera man with her iPhone, then heading down the street to her old-school Volkswagon Bug, which she pulls up a few feet to stop in front of suburban home. There, she breaks up with the first of what turns out to be four different boyfriends, all of whom have different reactions (and feelings) about their relationships with Natasha. Natasha, however, is doing her best to commit to a fifth guy, George (Brandon Stacy), with whom she’s had an on-again/off-again relationship for some months. The opening shot is actually Natasha doing her job – she’s a photographer working on a project involving images of people crying – and over the course of the Sunday (we assume), she begins to question the core of how she lives her life.

Sunday Girl could come off as an unbearably twee entry into mumblecore, complete with an idiosyncratic wardrobe, nostalgic callbacks, Wes Anderson-style shots, and a set of increasingly obnoxious, talky boyfriends with whom Natasha splits. But somehow the film works, due largely to the gradual revelations about Natasha’s character, her desires, and her attempts to do the right thing. At first, Natasha appears to be your typical cinematic representation of a detached Millennial, passing through life on her phone, halfheartedly engaging with the real people around her. But her increasing desperation and attempts to fix a problem that she created turns the film into more of a journey of the heart, as she tries to enforce her own sense of self-worth and self-control over relationships that she seems to have accidentally fallen into. The men themselves run the gamut of navel-gazing, self-serious poets, to corporate lawyers, but it’s less about whether they’re too good or not good enough for Natasha, and more about her need to detach herself from them in order to move on with her life.

The film’s anchor point is Dasha Nekrasova, a podcaster whose bonafides are increasingly in question (beyond Red Scare, a left-wing yet nihilist podcast, her major claim to fame is appearing on Last Week Tonight, and showing up in an episode of Mr. Robot); better, though, is that she’s an actress who does have some screen presence and is likely to gain more as time goes on. She’s a strong but uncomfortable presence in Sunday Girl, and focalizes the confusion of tone that the film, especially in its third act, falls into. This is certainly not a feminist march toward freedom from (stupid) men, but it’s also not explicitly anti-feminist. Natasha comes off as a confused but basically decent woman trying to figure out what she wants, and knowing pretty well what she doesn’t. She’s looking for a solution to the direction of her life in her relationships, but neither the film nor Nekrasova’s performance provides a sense that she’s able to be “fixed” by the right one. Rather, she’s stumbling through, attempting to do the right thing without really knowing how.

Writer/director Peter Ambrosio doesn’t attempt to do too much with his story, which is probably why Sunday Girl doesn’t come off as an attempt to transmogrify mumblecore. The point is the character and her trials, even if there are occasional flourishes with a fancy red coat or the ubiquitous presence of an adolescent girl whom Natasha cautions against cigarettes, ice cream, and falling in love. While the early parts of the film dwell too long on the men holding forth about their relationships with Natasha, the film picks up when she reveals her problem to her roommate, Kim (Ashton Leigh), who gives her some inept but well-meaning advice.

Sunday Girl’s final act unfortunately undoes some of the good will of its first two, constructing a semi-nihilist conclusion for Natasha without providing much solution to her conundrum – or even finding any satisfactory conclusion in the lack of a solution. But it’s a film that works fairly well until then, developing a thin narrative into something potentially profound. For a slight film that comes in at barely eighty minutes, Sunday Girl has some fine qualities that makes it more than a diverting indie exercise.

Sunday Girl is in limited release in New York and Los Angeles starting November 8.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Jojo Rabbit has been called many things – an anti-hate satire, as the poster and trailers proclaim; a descendant of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; a misstep of catastrophic proportions comparable to Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried. (The latter is quite a trick, given that the vast majority of the world has never seen that film.) Making a film that comedically deals with Germany nearing the end of World War II, that addresses Nazism, fascism, anti-Semitism, and the toll of hatred, is always an uphill battle. But Jojo Rabbit proves to be perhaps one of the most essential political films of the past five years, cutting through a complexity of issues with humor and pathos. It’s film that demands common humanity without excusing or arguing for “understanding” fascists. The Nazis are the undoubted villains of the film, even as they are also its center.

Jojo Rabbit tells the story of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year-old boy in Germany nearing the end of World War II. Jojo spends his days with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), his friend Yorki (Archie Yates), and his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Jojo’s also a member of the Hitler Youth and an apparently passionate fascist, a fact challenged first by his mother and then by his discovery of Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie), a Jewish girl (and friend of his missing sister, Inge), whom Rosie has been concealing in their house. As Jojo grapplies with the humanity of the object of his hate, he begins to wonder if Hitler really is such a great guy.

Jojo Rabbit threads a fine needle between satire and reality. It demands sympathy with, superficially, the least sympathetic of people, but by telling the story largely through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy, it lays bare the difference between true fanaticism and fanaticism created by circumstance and culture. The “imaginary Adolf” character begins as a cartoonish friend – Jojo sees him as an exuberant, silly pal who encourages Jojo to go out there and be himself, even when he fails at being a “good Nazi” by not being able to kill a rabbit. As the film proceeds and Jojo comes face to face with the starker reality of Nazism, Adolf shifts from an encouraging cheerleader to downright terrifying. Hitler is an imaginary figure who represents Jojo’s need for acceptance and encouragement, a celebrity icon who provides comfort in much the same way that children can imagine they’re friends with Batman or The Beatles. The conflict that develops between Jojo and his imaginary friend acts as an externalization of the ideological conflict within Jojo as he comes to see the difference between the cult of Nazism and the reality of it.

This elucidation of mythology and children’s games is at the base of Jojo Rabbit, revealing the cult of personality that surrounded Hitler—and, by extension, all fanatical political and cultural movements—how it was formed, and how it conflicts with reality. His mother attempts to keep him human, reminding him of his father’s true personality, instilling in him an understanding of love and humanity, even as he parrots Nazi propaganda and claims that metal and muscles are stronger than love. Later, Elsa tells Jojo, “You’re not a Nazi. You’re a ten-year-old boy who wants to be part of a club.” But this does not excuse Jojo’s passive acceptance of the tenets of Nazism. Just because he is comparatively innocent and led astray by adults does not mean that he’s not culpable. It’s through his discovery of common humanity, and the reality of the situations of his family, friends, and country that he’s able to put aside the costumes and trappings of fanaticism and seek forgiveness.

It should be noted that the “Hitler” of Jojo Rabbit is not the real Hitler, but a made-up version that acts as the friend and father surrogate of a little boy, a projection of what he sees and hears and imagines the “hero of the nation” to be. The real Hitler appears only once, in archive footage during the opening sequence, as an icon gazed upon by adoring fans. Waititi imposes The Beatles singing “Komme Gib Mir Deine Hand,” the German-language version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (yes, that is actually The Beatles) over images of Hitler’s rallies and Nazi salutes. This identification of Hitler’s “fandom” is far deeper than it might appear – Jojo fully indulges in his love of Nazi iconography, putting up posters of Hitler on his wall and fantasizing about being best friends with his idol. The promotion of “Hitler as heartthrob” was encouraged in Germany, a fact which the film exploits as it explores the concept of fascism as fandom, and the way in which Nazism enticed boys and girls to participate in its cruelty by framing it in terms of desire and adulthood.

The film further develops the cult not just of Hitler himself, but of the complicated mythology of Germany that the Nazis relied on for promulgating propaganda and their worldview, including the cult of death in which young men and women were trained to die for distant figures. Joj Rabbit focuses on the fetishization of violence, death, and weaponry—Jojo receives a knife at the beginning of the film, told that it is his friend. He imagines the violence he would do to a Jew if he ever caught one, and seeks to prove his bravery by stupidly seizing an active grenade. Yorki is conscripted as a soldier, despite being a child, and the images of child soldiers carrying massive weapons and firing guns walks the lines of humor, surrealism, and terrifying reality.

None of this would be possible without the deft hand of Waititi himself, as writer, director, and in the role of Imaginary Hitler, whom he plays as a cartoonish buffoon and terrifying bully. The imagery of a Polynesian Jewish man playing Hitler is, in itself, a transgression, but Waititi and his actors go beyond broad satire. The children are all uniformly excellent, a requirement for a film told through their eyes. Roman Griffin Davis carries the movie on his slight shoulders, portraying the central character with humor, nuance, and intelligence. Scarlett Johansson is likewise fantastic as Jojo’s mother, a good woman navigating a bad world, attempting to protect her son and do the right thing, as far as she is able.

Jojo Rabbit is about minor resistance, about a war being fought not just on the front lines but ideologically, in homes and cities. Rosie’s act of maintaining her son’s humanity and showing him what love is, is more transgressive and daring than anything done in violence. The film has been criticized for treating Nazis as human beings rather than monsters, much in the same way that Chaplin urged the common humanity of all people in The Great Dictator. But recognizing Nazis as human beings does not equate to saying that they’re misunderstood; rather, it says that their very monstrosity is a human monstrosity, a crime of human beings against each other, that all were culpable for their nation’s crimes, and all had a choice. What is more, it argues that we all have a choice, like Jojo, to remain human. We can reject hate and embrace love, and let the rabbit go.

 

The Riot Act (2019)

The Riot Act (2019)

The Riot Act opens, auspiciously, with an opera and a murder. Dr. Willard Pearrow (Brett Cullen), a powerful doctor/opera house owner living in a small Southern town sometime around the turn of the century, murders an opera star who has taken up with his daughter, Allye (Lauren Sweetser). Allye’s a witness to the crime and flees, leaving her father to clean up his reputation. Two years later, the nearly defunct opera house gets a new lease on life with the arrival of a travelling vaudeville act, thanks to efforts of the local blacksmith/stage manager August (Connor Price). Dr. Pearrow is skeptical of the act but willing to take the risk, even if the opera house is menaced by a supernatural phantom in a mask who follows him around. Of course, Allye makes up one of the members of the troupe, hell-bent on taking revenge for the murder of her lover.

The Riot Act is attempting quite a lot, and in places, it succeeds. The “phantom” figure is a simple but freaky image and, when used effectively, as in one haunting sequence, quite a terrifying one as well. Conceptually, the film takes on elements of class, gender, and power structures that are tacitly under threat in a post-Civil War, slowly electrifying South. The division between the classes is at times viciously enforced, even if the narrative does somewhat skirt over elements of racism that it introduces and then abandons.

But The Riot Act unfortunately doesn’t work as well as its concept or structure would suggest. The idea is sound – a murderous oligarch of a small town faces the wages of his sins via his wronged daughter and, possibly, a supernatural force. But the narrative telegraphs its message pretty early on and abandons the possibilities of the wandering vaudevillian troupe that sweep into town like the circus of Something Wicked This Way Comes. The narrative isn’t quite certain of itself, sometimes tending toward a supernatural thriller a la Phantom of the Opera, sometimes a tale of vengeance and the sins of the father. Either could work, and even work in tandem, but the disparate elements don’t quite come together here.

Some of this is due to the limited budget that renders the small Southern town a little lacking in scene-setting. Lack of establishing shots and a fundamental failure to create consistent atmosphere means that it’s hard for the audience to ground themselves in the world. Where are we? What’s the location? What, for that matter, is the time period? While some obscurity can be welcome in films like this, there’s little concrete to hold onto, as though we’re meant to infer the period and setting through the few elements of dress and dialogue that serve to establish it.

The performances are generally strong, especially Sweetser as Allye, whose deep-seated desire to punish her father for his crime means that she often acts her own best interests and selfishly sacrifices her other relationships for the chance of vengeance. Cullen’s Dr. Pearrow is an unlikable character with edges of sympathy—he legitimately misses his daughter and mourns for her loss, even as he refuses to interrogate his personal failings and the class privilege that made him into a murderer. The film’s strongest thematic underpinnings come from this element of class and violence—Pearrow acts violently because he can be assured that he will not be punished for something so banal as murdering an opera singer or giving bad medical advice to a blacksmith. He hardly even rates those he hurts as people to be considered, and as such he makes an effective, pathetic monster. The most frightening and well-done moments occur in the final act, as motivations for different characters is laid bare and Pearrow finds himself face to face with his demons.

The Riot Act is an intriguing experiment, and might have been a successful one, perhaps with another editing pass. As it stands, it’s a film in which you can easily spot the seams, holes, and patch jobs. While far from perfect, it deserves some attention at least for Sweetser and writer/director Devon Parks, who does much with little and constructs an interesting, sometimes assured narrative. Not an award-winner, but hardly a failure either.

The Riot Act will be on VOD this October.

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.

Outrage (1950)

Outrage (1950)

Between 1949 and 1953, actress/writer/director/producer/general badass Ida Lupino directed five feature films, making her the most prolific female director of her era. She was only the second woman to join the DGA, and she learned to direct during one of her extensive suspensions from Warner Brothers, where she wandered the backlots and watched directors at work. She was vocal about the need for more female directors, for directors to take on more taboo and out of the way subjects. And, like so many of her fellow female stars, she was far smarter and more talented than she was probably ever given credit for.

Outrage was her third film as a director, and in it we can see most clearly the development of the talent that she would hone to perfection with The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist. And like those films, Lupino takes on a deeply taboo subject with an unforgiving clarity of vision that transcends the film’s somewhat pat third act.

Outrage deals with rape and sexual assault with explicit attention (for the era) and a degree of sympathy that’s as refreshing as it is surprising. The film focalizes itself not through the pain suffered by those surrounding the victim, not through the search for the attacker or the machinations of the family, but through the victim almost exclusively. Lupino makes use of multiple POV shots to drive home the audience’s sympathy with the violated woman, her sense of fear and shame and undirected anger, and how she finds a way to cope with the trauma of her assault.

Ann Walton (Mala Powers) is a young woman working as a bookkeeper, with a boyfriend who becomes her fiance (Robert Owens), a loving family, and a normal, middle-class future. As she leaves work late one night, she’s followed and then attacked by the man who works the concession stand near her workplace, and who we see early on hitting on her with no response. Ann runs and then blacks out before the attack; she can’t recall the face of the man, remembering only the scar on his neck. Her sense of shame around her family, her fiance, and her fellow workers eventually drives her out of town, fleeing to the countryside where she finds a kind of solace with the help of Rev. Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews). But her assault continues to haunt her, even as she tries to repress it, and her terror soon takes a darker turn.

Outrage has so many interesting elements that it’s difficult to pick up on a single one. Lupino treats the subject with sympathy, but also photographs it as a film noir. When Ann flees from her hometown, she does so with the air of a criminal – she hides her face when her disappearance is talked about on the radio, and begins to act guilty when she’s introduced to a local sheriff. She changes her name, and declines to talk about where she came from or why she left. All of this is part of the recognizable tropes of film noir – the man or woman on the run. But Ann is the victim, not the criminal; her shame was something that was forced upon her. The film takes pains to avoid placing any blame on Ann for her assault. She hardly knows the man who attacks her; her greatest crime is turning him down, and even then it’s a rejection that carries very little weight. Like many women, Ann is catcalled and whistled at and she generally ignores it or takes it in stride as a simple fact of being female. Up to her assault, Ann is treated as an average woman, without any particular neuroses or anxieties; the sort of woman about to marry a long-time boyfriend, with a family that loves her and a good job that she enjoys. She is, in other words, a normal girl for the 1950s.

This act of rendering a victimized woman completely sympathetic, avoiding even the shadow of blame attached to her, drives several points home. The terror of the assault is that it really can happen to anyone; Ann’s greatest error is an understandable fear that slowly morphs into panic, which in turn makes her make bad decisions and errors as she runs. In Lupino’s work, victimized women are not “asking for it;” they are not “fallen women,” they do not “lead men on.” They are normal, average women victimized not just by a single man, but by the expectations and taboos of the culture surrounding them.

The film’s strongest and most terrifying scene is the lead up to the assault, as Ann’s eventual rapist pursues her through an empty urban landscape. Ann’s walk through the empty streets and industrial yards is at first relaxed; it’s quite obvious that she has done this often, and she’s comfortable in her surroundings. As her attacker pursues her, occasionally whistling or calling out, her panic develops. She’s clearly aware that she’s alone, isolated, and under threat. Lupino’s camera draws away from her into overhead shots combined with medium close-ups, emphasizing her isolation. Belatedly, Ann begins to do what most women are instructed to do in such situations – she heads for a cab, that quickly pulls away from her, and then begins banging on windows, calling for help. But no help comes. Ann finally resorts to hiding from her would-be attacker, but fails at the last to escape him. This combination of panic and an attempt at clear-headedness is believable – as any woman who has ever been followed by a man will tell you – and reminds us that most women who don’t actually fight their rapists are not actually consenting. Ann is terrified, she runs, she finally blacks out to defend her mind from the attack. It’s heart-breaking partially because the story is all too familiar.

As the film goes on, Lupino develops the terror that men can be for women, including ones that technically “mean no harm.” Ann’s fiance Jim at one point chases and grabs her, trying to convince her that they should run away and get married barely a week after her assault. Late in the third act, another man attempts to kiss Ann, despite her repeated denials. Ann’s horror at men and the prospect of being married, is part of her trauma, and the film doesn’t blame her for it. The men that she’s able to connect to following her assault are the ones like Bruce, who do not obviously view her as sexual, and who do not attempt to touch or coerce her.

Outrage’s greatest weakness is in providing a kind of solution to Ann’s trauma via Bruce, a reverend and a former Army chaplain who attempts to break through Ann’s reticence with a recounting of his own traumatic experience. The film relies on a pat combination of psychological and religious salvation that jars a bit with the earlier, noir-ish tone. In this, however, Outrage shows its generation more than anything. There are really only two solutions for Ann in the 1950s – salvation, or condemnation, and there was every possibility that the film would err on the more recognizable side of the “fallen woman” trope and plunge Ann into a life of vice or prostitution. But Lupino does have a defter hand than that. If the film somewhat shirks in its otherwise clear depiction of rape culture in the final act – including a decidedly post-war explanation of the attacker’s warped psychology – I think it can be forgiven.

Outrage is very much a film of its time, but it renders a sympathetic, complex understanding of the aftermath of rape, told through a woman’s eyes and with a woman’s camera. While Lupino would make technically better films, she probably never made a more significant one.