From a very young age, Jeff Wall showed that he had the chops to be an athlete. When his mom enrolled him in karate classes he thrived. He won pretty much every competition he entered into and quickly moved up the ranks to earn his black belt. It wasn’t enough to just compete, he wanted to share his love with others. In Sindha Agha’s short film Golden Age Karate, we see Wall teach karate to elderly residents at a local nursing home. He empowers his students by teaching them something new and helping them get in tune with their bodies. This delightful and heartfelt documentary short is a glimmer of hope in an era of generational strife.
Golden Age Karate premiered at the 2021 AFI Fest as part of their Meet the Press programming.
During the American Civil War, over 400 women, disguised as men, served for both the Confederate and Union armies. Directed, written and starring Whitney Hamilton, Union is the fictional story of one of these women. Grace Kieler (Whitney Hamilton) takes on the identity of her dead brother Henry and goes to battle. Henry (who I will continue to identify as he) is injured in battle and under arrest. Henry’s brother helps him escape a death sentence and all Henry wants to do is get back to his love Virginia (Virginia Newcomb). Virginia doesn’t care that Henry is biologically a woman. With her brother pressuring her to marry an older man, Virginia and Henry secretly wed. The timeline moves back and forth from the present day, to the past as well as to the far future to tell Virginia and Henry’s love story. They will sacrifice everything to be together. Joined by the trauma of their past and their devotion to each other, can they stay together under the threat of the war and a society that doesn’t understand their love? Can Henry rescue Jesse (Carron Clark), the son of his old lover who was orphaned during the war?
“It took us 3 and half years to film the movie. We shot in historic homes and on various battlefields in Alabama and Pennsylvania. I had to become a Civil War reenactor and pass as a man in preparation for the role. I fought with the Alabama Division of Reenactors portraying both the North and the South at various events including the 150th anniversary battle of Gettysburg that appears in the opening of the film.”
While it took me a while to get into this film, about twenty minutes in I found myself completely captivated by Henry and Virginia. Hamilton and Newcomb have great chemistry and Newcomb in particular delivered a powerful performance. Civil War enthusiasts will be drawn to the level of detail that goes into the reenactments. And for people like me, they will be drawn to the unconventional love story.
Union takes great care to highlight a little known aspect of our country’s history and to show that love has always been and will always be love.
Union is available today on Blu-ray and DVD. It’s also available on digital on HBO, itunes, VUDU, Fandango, Direct TV, Youtube, Google Play, Amazon Prime and elsewhere.
Erin (Jo Scott) has high hopes for her dinner party but as the expression goes, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Unfortunately for Erin her husband Isaiah (Michael Brunlieb) isn’t much help and when her sister Tanya (Emma Pope) and Tanya’s fiancee Matt (Damian Anaya) arrive, things get awkward fast. First there’s Matt and Tanya’s new found religious beliefs which perplex and annoy Erin and Isaiah who are self-proclaimed atheists. Erin has hidden all the alcohol from her newly sober sister and has banished all phones from the dinner table. Bored Isaiah needles the guests for his own amusement. While the conversation becomes increasingly hostile, Erin’s neglected pie bursts into flames. As the painful, passive aggressive interactions between these four individuals comes to a climax, one of them will have a near death experience that will forever change the lives of each person and their relationships with each other. This dinner-party-turned-existential-crisis opens up new possibilities for the characters and for the viewer as well.
“Death is this inevitable thing that we don’t have any control over.”
Scraps is directed by Daniel Shar and made on an incredibly low budget of just under $2k. With its theatrical run in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles, that number bumped up but stayed under $6k. Filmed in Chicago and set in one apartment, the film stars a small cast of well-known local sketch and improv comedians. This dark comedy has moments of both absurdity and deep reflection. There are some philosophical discussions about relationships, faith, and the meaning of life and death. The low budget enables the filmmakers to really focus on the meat of the story, stripping away all the excess that a bigger budget would allow for but would perhaps distract from the real message.
Scraps is an interesting study in gender dynamics, romantic relationships and individuality all delivered by means of surreal humor. These characters are frustrating. They are truly awful, especially the men. However it’s incredibly satisfying to watch how they face some harsh realities about their lives and relationships. It’ll be cathartic for viewers who are feeling stuck in their current situations.
This film may not be for everyone. I get a sense that an appreciative viewer is one who is in the right headspace for it. I felt nitpicky about a few things like the undressed salad on the dinner table (for continuity?) and the medical reasoning behind the near death experience (I can’t tell you any more without spoiling the plot). Also, as someone who is formerly religious I felt that the arguments about faith were fairly weak. There’s a secondary story with a pizza delivery guy that is fairly strained but has a sweet conclusion. Even with my reservations about certain aspects of the film, I felt quite moved by the story and by the end I started to have my very own existential awakening.
“I can’t date another introverted pessimist with intimacy issues.”
Written and directed by Michael K. Feinstein, The Browsing Effect follows a group of L.A. friends as they navigate dating and relationships. The title is a reference to the plethora of dating apps that not only guide singles to find their perfect match but also overwhelm them with possibilities. Improv actress/Uber driver Melissa (Megan Guinan) and her boyfriend, soon-to-be fiancee, James (Drew Fonteiro) have just moved in together but soon realize that they’re not ready for a lifelong commitment. Ben (Josh Margolin) and Rachel (Nikki SooHoo) recently had a nasty break-up and move on in very different ways. They all find themselves on dating apps searching for their next match or someone to fill the void.
There are quite a number of indie films about the L.A. dating scene. So what makes The Browsing Effect one stand out? It re-imagines the awkwardness of dating by acting out the scenarios in a unique way. For example, Ben begins messaging a potential date on Tinder. The woman appears in his room seductively on his dresser, reading out her responses to him. In another scene, Melissa’s blind date opens a closet door to reveal his ex-girlfriend who then explains to Melissa what went wrong in their relationship. A less effective scene includes Rachel in bed with her latest fling and their younger selves appear to ask questions.
There were some enjoyable scenes but overall The Browsing Effect was a mixed bag. I didn’t care about any of the characters. The biggest exception was Ben who has a sweet yet complicated love story he has with Gabriela (Gabriela Lopez). I wanted to know more about Lawrence (Larry Powell), the only gay character in the story, who avoids dating apps and stalks his love interest in real life instead. There were plot gaps and several attempts at comedy that fell flat. The dating app used in the film is branded “Timber” yet all the actors say “Tinder”. Even the Spanish spoken at Gabriela’s birthday party was bad. If you’re like me and don’t care for improv, the scenes with the improv groups Diva Cup and Pizza Hat will be a total wash.
Shakespeare’s famously mad victim gets to tell her story in a visually sumptuous adaptation of Lisa Klein’s novel.
Flipping the point of view of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia redefines a character who rarely gets her due. Handsomely mounted, and with a strong cast, the film is ideally positioned to profit from a new alignment in cultural sensitivities.
Adapted by Semi Challas from a young adult novel by Lisa Klein, the script starts years before Hamlet, with Ophelia (played by Mia Quiney) a youngster roaming the castle Elsinore with her brother Laertes. Surprised that Ophelia can read, and has her own opinions, Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) takes her into her court.
It’s a dangerously unsettled court, with Claudius (Clive Owen) angling to remove his brother as king and take Gertrude for himself. Once in her teens, Ophelia (now played by Daisy Ridley) is hemmed in by intrigues, bickering among rivals, and the attentions of a love-sick Hamlet (George MacKay).
Finding her way without being assaulted, exiled, or losing her head requires the kind of quick reflexes and sullen courage Ridley displayed so well in her recent Star Wars outings. In fact Star Wars fans will feel at home with the plot’s infighting, hidden family relationships, and hurled imprecations.
Director Claire McCarthy seems to be aiming for a Game of Thrones vibe as well, but a carefully PG one that skims over the seriously sick doings at Elsinore. Shakespeare purists, meanwhile, will gnash their teeth over Ophelia’s liberties, like evil twin sisters and one-too-many scenes by the river.
Rethinking Hamlet from a feminist perspective makes sense enough. It’s just that McCarthy opted for a far sunnier take than the story warrants. Compare the sun-decked corridors, lissome dances and dewy glances here to the cold, stark, yet bustling and undeniably funny world Yorgos Lanthimos imagined for The Favourite.
Ophelia unfolds in a smooth, polished way, always pleasing to look at, not very demanding. Instead of facing mounting terror leading to irrevocable choices, Ridley’s character strides serenely through her scenes, always confident that her happy ending will arrive on time. But as each piece of Shakespeare’s play clicks into place, and the corpses pile up, Ophelia does manage to become an improbable survivor.
About the author: Daniel Eagan lives in New York City and writes for Film Journal, Filmmaker, American Cinematographer, and other outlets He has finished two books on the National Film Registry for Bloomsbury Press and is currently working on a biography of Sylvia Chang.