October 22, 2018

OPHELIA

OPHELIA

Although hindered by a lack of variety in its pacing, this fragrant imagining of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” as lived through the being of Hamlet’s love interest Ophelia, carries significant dramatic weight. There are plenty of juicy surprises to savor along the way. Naomi Watts and Clive Owen share every bit as much chemistry here (Watts as Queen Gertrude and Owen as the incoming King Claudius), as they did in Tom Tykwer’s “The International” back in 2009. Talk about a winning duo, Owen and Watts are as good as it gets.

What Tom Stoppard did for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with his 1967 post-modern play (“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”), young adult novelist Lisa Klein has done for a beguiling character whose personal tale of woe in the Middle Ages clearly deserves its own telling. Semi Chellas’s script adaptation flirts with the intrigue of Shakespeare’s language with a refreshing sense of modern English. The dialogue rings like a bell.

Enter director Claire McCarthy (“The Waiting City”) to helm a brilliant cast in the service of the romantic period drama at hand. Daisy Ridley inhabits Ophelia with an inspired canniness and earthly grounding that places her as an equal to George MacKay’s Prince Hamlet. For once we see Hamlet as the teenage boy that Shakespeare intended. MacKay’s youth informs the role with the energy and naivete that supports his hot tempered nature.  

For her part, Ophelia keeps a level head in the face of much cruelty and abuses of power that attack her wherever she turns. If the movie resonates with current social and political conditions in America and abroad then so much the better for the audience to contemplate the story’s many implications.    

OPHELIA2

The filmmakers do a good job of isolating the action within the boundaries of Elsinore’s remote mountain top village where there is truly “something rotten in Denmark.” We get the contrast of the gritty atmosphere outside the castle walls where civility dares not frequent without reliable accompaniment. Although ostensibly made on a considerably smaller budget than anything Hollywood produces, David Warren’s production designs provide an authentic backdrop to the action.

The incestuous nature of the relationship between Hamlet’s power-hungry uncle Claudius and Gertrude is clarified in an appropriately furtive scene that Ophelia witnesses through a window. One of this film's joys is the way characters eavesdrop or spy on others. Suspense and mystery attend violent outbursts, frequently involving swords.

Naomi Watts savors her dual role as the witch Mechtild who Ophelia visits to procure drugs for the Queen. Still, you can help but wish that Watts had taken advantage of the opportunity to chew the scenery more than she does.     

Daisy Ridley’s Ophelia invokes strains of Kiera Knightly’s feisty naturalism even if only for similar facial expressions the two actresses share. “Ophelia” is a refreshing addition to the bold sub-genre of Shakespeare-inspired plays and films that weave in and around the prolific English playwright’s esteemed works. The movie accomplishes that most coveted of dramatic goals of leaving the audience wanting more. So be it, let’s more of these female-centric genre explorations; they are a dozen times more compelling than the Star Wars films that squander the talents of such compelling actresses as Daisy Ridley.

Rated PG. 114 mins. (B)

Three Stars

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October 15, 2018

THE SONG OF SWAY LAKE

Song of Sway LakeNotable for being Elizabeth Peña’s last film before the actress’s untimely death in 2014, “The Song of Sway Lake” is an underdeveloped period piece set in 1992. The film relies on bland narration and an empty sense of nostalgia to generate drama where there is little. Sadly, Peña (who delivered unforgettable performances in powerful films such as “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Lone Star”) is squandered in her secondary role as house maid and cook to the haughty Charlie Sway (Mary Beth Peil). Charlie is an elderly matriarch who returns to her wealthy family’s lakeside mansion to retrieve a vintage one-off 78 record (of the film’s whitebread title) to cash in on its inexplicable value. Charlie also plans on selling off the property, but the reasons for her quest for cash is never addressed.

Co-writer/director Ari Gold struggles to match antagonist with protagonist, neither of which is on much display in this piecemeal coming-of-age movie whose greatest strength rests inside its lush autumnal setting of an idyllic [fictional] lake in upstate New York.

Rory Culkin & Robert Sheehan

Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) has the same idea as his grandmother of retrieving the prized family heirloom when he shows up at the empty lakeside property with his overbearing pal Nikolai (Robert Sheehan). Nikolai is a Russian roustabout with a not-so-hidden agenda of interloping his way into Ollie’s family, or at least possessions, by hook or crook. For his part, Ollie sports an inferiority complex that is at odds with his actorly manner.

A gratuitous sequence of Ollie and Nikolai wrecking shop inside the palatial wood cabin home like a couple of unattended 12-year-olds gives way to Charlie’s unexpected arrival as Nikolai walks around the property naked. Although Sheehan and Culkin both give respectable performances, their efforts go unrewarded due to the film’s endless affectations, such as an array of Little Lord Fauntleroy coats that Ollie is keen to parade around in.

Song of Swan Lake
Our apparent leading character Ollie is still mourning his father’s death by suicide in a frozen lake that was once the playground for the rich during the Jazz Age of the ‘20s and ‘30s. These days rowdy youngsters on jet skis contaminate the lake’s serenity. Encroaching development involving a pier threatens to permanently alter the peaceful mood of Sway Lake. The screenwriters can’t seem to make up their minds about whether they miss the good old days when Sway Lake attracted hordes of celebrates and tourists or whether they want it to remain a pristine ecological sanctuary. Any such would-be environmental theme is kept intentionally vague to the point of pretension.  

Song of Swan Lake2

There is also significant confusion regarding Hal’s place as Ollie’s father, or as his grandfather, considering that Charlie brags at the dinner table about “swimming naked” with Hal every morning in the lake. Although, as it turns out, Charlie does have a thing for younger men. Still, it makes for some mind-bending math to figure out how Ollie’s grandmother could have had sex with Ollie’s dad. I dare not call this a plot hole.

Finally being released four years after it was made, “The Song of Sway Lake” is a low budget drama without a center or a dramatic goal. It’s pretty to look at, but nothing more. Offhand outbursts of senseless violence only serve to underscore this film’s lacking sense of narrative direction. It is not a believable story, and the characters are too remote and unethical to inspire empathy. "The Song of Sway Lake" is hardly what you’d call a satisfying movie.   

Rated R. 100 mins. (C-)

One Star

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September 12, 2018

FREE SOLO

Free_soloTerrifying, invigorating, and heart-pounding describe this unforgettable documentary about free climber Alex Honnold and his efforts to climb Yosemite’s daunting 3,200 foot El Capitan Wall.

Co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Meru”) delve into Alex’s guarded personality as he prepares for the treacherous climb that will define his life, whether or not he lives or dies attempting it.

We get a sense of the childhood elements that contributed to Alex’s obsession with free climbing even as he enters into a romantic relationship that threatens to derail the strict focus and discipline essential for him to accomplish his goals. Every millimeter of Honnold's mind and body must be diamond-sharp to execute the climb.

Alex-honnold-freerider

Significant is the filmmakers’ willingness to delve into Alex’s meticulous rehearsal process using ropes and the help of master climber Tommy Caldwell to prepare for the solo climb. As Caldwell puts it, “Imagine an Olympic gold medal-level achievement where if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die.”

Placing cameras along various places on Alex’s path up the behemoth mountain allow him to climb without being distracted by buzzing drones or cameramen.

Alex Honnold

With his large dilated brown eyes and wiry frame, Honnold resembles a young Iggy Pop at the height of his powers circa the Bowie-produced “Lust for Life” era. Honnold’s easy charisma masks onion layers of emotional armor that his doting girlfriend Sanni McCandless pokes and prods at to varying levels of guarded verbal responses from our brave protagonist.

El Capitan

Alex Honnold carries the spirit if a samurai warrior with him. Hearing him describe the grips, holds, and complex maneuvers necessary to climb El Capitan’s sheer face, convince the viewer of his amazing climbing abilities that most of humanity hasn’t the first clue about. Here is a man who knows his limitations and how to push them right to the edge of existence.

To watch “Free Solo” is to take a journey into an incredibly dangerous if joyful world of free physical expression. Go on the adventure of a lifetime. The rewards are enormous.

Not rated. 97 mins. (A+) 

Five Stars

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