Film Review: Hamlet (dir by Michael Almereyda)


What if Hamlet was a hipster douchebag?

That appears to be the question at the heart of the 2000 film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s most famous play.  In this adaptation, a young Ethan Hawke plays a Hamlet who is no longer a melancholy prince but who is instead a film student with a petulant attitude.

As you probably already guessed, this is one of those modern day adaptations of Shakespeare.  Denmark is now a Manhattan-based corporation.  Elsinore is a hotel.  Hamlet ponders life while wandering around a Blockbuster and, at one point, the ghost of his father stands in front of a Pepsi machine.  While Shakespeare’s dialogue remains unchanged, everyone delivers their lives while wearing modern clothing.  It’s one of those things that would seem rather brave and experimental if not for the fact that modern day versions of Shakespeare have gone from being daring to being a cliché.

At the film’s start, the former CEO of the Denmark Corporation has mysteriously died and his brother, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), has not only taken over the company but he’s also married the widow, Gertrude (Diane Venora).  Hamlet comes home from film school, convinced that there has been a murder and his suspicions are eventually confirmed by the ghost of his father (Sam Shepard).  Meanwhile, poor Ophelia (Julia Stiles) takes pictures of flowers while her brother, Laertes (Liev Schreiber), glowers in the background.  Polonius (Bill Murray) offers up pointless advice while Fortinbras (Casey Affleck) is reimagined as a corporate investor and Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn) wears a hockey jersey.  Hamlet spends a lot of time filming himself talking and the Mousetrap is no longer a player but instead an incredibly over-the-top short film that will probably remind you of the killer video from The Ring.

I guess a huge part of this film’s appeal was meant to be that it featured a lot of people who you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being Shakespearean actors. Some of them did a surprisingly good job.  For instance, Kyle MacLachlan was wonderully villainous as Claudius and Steve Zahn was the perfect Rosencrantz.  Others, like Diane Venora and Liev Schreiber, were adequate without being particularly interesting.  But then you get to Bill Murray as Polonius and you start to realize that quirkiness can only take things so far.  Murray does a pretty good job handling Shakespeare’s dialogue but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s totally miscast as the misguided and foolish Polonius.  One could easily imagine Murray in the role of Osiric.  Though it may initially seem a stretch, one could even imagine him playing Claudius.  But he’s simply not right for the role of Polonius.  Murray’s screen presence is just too naturally snarky for him to be convincing as a character who alternates between being a “tedious, old fool” and an obsequious ass kisser.

Considering that he spends a large deal of the movie wearing a snow cap while wandering around downtown Manhattan, Ethan Hawke does a surprisingly good job as Hamlet.  Or, I should say, he does a good job as this film’s version of Hamlet.  Here, Hamlet is neither the indecisive avenger nor the Oedipal madman of previous adaptations.  Instead, he’s portrayed as being rather petulant and self-absorbed, which doesn’t necessarily go against anything that one might find within Shakespeare’s original text.  Hawke’s not necessarily a likable Hamlet but his interpretation is still a credible one.

At one point, while Hamlet thinks about revenge, we see that he’s watching Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet on television.  There’s Olivier talking to Yorick’s skull while Hawke watches.  It’s a scene that is somehow both annoying and amusing at the same time.  On the one hand, it feels rather cutesy and more than a little pretentious.  At the same time, it’s so over-the-top in its pretension that you can’t help but kind of smile at the sight of it.  To me, that scene epitomizes the film as a whole.  It’s incredibly silly but it’s so unapologetic that it’s easy to forgive.

A Movie A Day #264: The Cotton Club (1984, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)


The time is the 1930s and the place is New York City.  Everyone wants to get into the Cotton Club.  Owned by British gangster Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), the Cotton Club is a place where the stage is exclusively reserved for black performers and the audience is exclusively rich and white.  Everyone from gangsters to film stars comes to the Cotton Club.

It is at the Cotton Club that Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) meets everyone from Dutch Shultz (James Remar) to Gloria Swanson (Diane Venora).  Shultz hires Dixie to look after his girlfriend, Vera (Diane Lane).  Swanson arranges for Dixie to become a movie star.  Meanwhile, Dixie’s crazy brother, Vincent (Nicolas Cage), rises up through the New York underworld.  Meanwhile, dancing brothers Sandman and Clay Williams (played by real-life brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines) are stars on stage but face discrimination off, at least until Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne) comes to their aid.

The Cotton Club was a dream project of the legendary producer, Robert Evans, who was looking to make a comeback after being famously charged with cocaine trafficking in 1980.  Having commissioned a screenplay by his former Godfather collaborators, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, Evans originally planned to direct the film himself.  At the last minute, Evans changes his mind and asked Coppola to direct the film.  After working with him on The Godfather, Coppola had sworn that he would never work with Evans again. (When he won an Oscar for The Godfather‘s screenplay, Coppola pointedly thanked everyone but Robert Evans.)  However, by 1984, a series of box office flops had damaged Coppola’s standing in Hollywood.  Needing the money, Coppola agreed to direct The Cotton Club.

Evans raised the film’s $58 million budget from a number of investors, including Roy Radin.  Roy Radin was best known for putting together Vaudeville reunions in the 70s and being accused of raping an actress in 1980.  Radin and Evans were introduced to each other by a drug dealer named Lanie Jacobs, who was hoping to remake herself as a film producer.  During the production of The Cotton Club, Radin was murdered by a contract killer who was hired by Jacobs, who apparently felt that Radin was trying to muscle her out of the film production.

While all of this was going on, Coppola fell into his familiar pattern of going overbudget and falling behind schedule.  This led to another investor filing a lawsuit against Orion Pictures and two other investors, claiming fraud and breach of contract.  When the film was finally released, it received mixed reviews, struggled at the box office, and only received two Oscar nominations.

With all of the murder and drama that was occurring offscreen, it is not surprising that the film itself was overshadowed.  The Cotton Club is a disjointed mix of gangster drama and big production numbers.  As always with post-Apocalypse Now Coppola, there are flashes of brilliance in The Cotton Club.  Some of the production numbers are impressive and visually, this movie has got style to burn.   However, among the leads, neither Richard Gere nor Diane Lane seem to be invested in their characters while the talented Hines brothers are underused.  The supporting cast is full of good character actors who are all in a search of a better script.  A few do manage to make an impression: James Remar, Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as veteran gangsters, Nicolas Cage as the film’s stand-in for Mad Dog Coll, and Joe Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano.  The Cotton Club is sometimes boring and sometimes exciting but the onscreen story is never as interesting as what happened behind the scenes.

 

Guilty Pleasure No. 30: Wolfen (dir. by Michael Wadleigh)


Wolfen_1981A guilty pleasure is a film that we might enjoy, but isn’t as loved by others overall. It’s the kind of film that you can watch on any given day, but to speak of it may cause raised eyebrows among your peers. Everyone has at least one film or two that they treasure in this way.

My Guilty Pleasure pick is 1981’s Wolfen, directed by Michael Wadleigh. Loosely based off the novel by Whitley Strieber, the film focuses on two homicide investigators who learn that the case they’re working may actually be caused by animal attacks. Often mistaken as a werewolf film, I really wouldn’t group Wolfen into that category. It’s supernatural in some ways, yes, but you won’t find any serious werewolf activity in it. Surprisingly enough, Wolfen was released in the theatre just a few months after Joe Dante’s The Howling. This makes me wonder how audiences took to Wolfen after seeing all of the make-up effects in Dante’s work. From an effects standpoint, Wolfen’s big claim to fame is the negative photography used to showcase the animals’ point of view. I can’t imagine it was incredibly amazing when comparing the two, but on it’s own, it’s not bad. It’s one of the few movies I’d like to see get a remake, if only to have the story match Strieber’s book better.

When a millionaire land developer and his wife are found brutally murdered in Battery Park, Detective Dewey Wilson is brought on to investigate. Albert Finney (Miller’s Crossing, The Bourne Ultimatum, Skyfall) easily carries the film as Wilson, feeling a lot like the owner of your favorite corner deli. Wilson’s detective work is subtle in the film, and Finney plays to that with a relaxed alertness. He comes across as calm, questioning, but you get the sense that if it came to blows, he’d be ready to react. I suppose most detectives are that way. When the murder is believed to be a possible terrorist attack, a Security Agency brings in a psychological expert named Rebecca Neff, played by Diane Venora (Heat, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet). Wolfen was Venora’s first film and she’s good in this, though the screenplay is written in a way where it’s more Dewey’s tale to tell. The book did Neff’s character more justice than the movie, overall. Rounding out the casting is Gregory Hines (Running Scared, The Cotton Club – also with Venora) as a forensics expert, Edward James Olmos (Miami Vice, Battlestar Galactica) as a Native American worker who may know more than he says and Tom Noonan (Manhunter, The Last Action Hero, F/X – once again, with Diane Venora) as a Zoo Worker who’s just a little to into wolves in general. That’s just my opinion, though Noonan’s been known to play creepy very well. The performances here are all pretty good. No one is really out of place here, as far as I could tell.

If Wolfen suffers from any major problem, it’s in the writing. In adapting the novel, they had the chance to really bring the terror from the novel on screen. In the book, we’re given an understanding of what the Wolfen are – creatures older, faster and more terrifying than your typical canine. They came complete with their own way of communicating with one another, and Strieber’s novel even referenced his other story about Vampires, The Hunger. The final standoff of the book was a fight similar to From Dusk Till Dawn, with the hope that our heroes could maybe hold off what was coming. The movie decided to go a different route. Not terrible in any way, but it could have been really good if they stayed on track.

I could be off here, but I believe the film elected to try to make the story more relevant for its time by circling the murder around terrorism and using the Security Agency. The Security Agency has so little to do with the film outside of bringing Neff on the case, it’s incredible. About every 20 minutes, the film cuts back to this crew of personnel at their computers, watching footage of attacks (that have little to do with the original victim) in an attempt to piece together why this death happened. Meanwhile, Wilson walks into bar and gets the whole solution handed to him in a short story over a beer. I wonder if Wadleigh (who co-wrote the script) was trying to say that with all the technology at their disposal, all it really took to solve a crime was just regular legwork. To quote Olmos’ character “It’s the 20th Century. We got it all figured out.” That’s just my speculation on that.

From a Cinematography viewpoint, Wolfen has some impressive scenes, particularly those of the Manhattan landscape. For a city that doesn’t sleep, the streets as they’re filmed here are barren, with lots of shadows. One scene in particular has Finney and Olmos’ characters talking on top of a bridge, and I have to wonder not only how they were able to get that shot, but how the actors maintained their composure. One wrong slip and either of them could have fell. I also love seeing New York City in the early 80’s, where most of the Bronx and Brooklyn looked like warzones. Both Wolfen and Nighthawks (also released in the same year) are great examples of how bad the city really was during that time.

Wolfen was also one of James Horner’s first scores. Listening to it, you can hear elements of what you’d find in Aliens, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and his other pieces.

Overall, Wolfen is a good film if you find yourself running into it late at night and there’s nothing else to catch. I watch it on purpose, but that’s just me. We all have our tastes. If at all possible, consider reading the novel as well.

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line

Guilty Pleasure No. 10: The Substitute (dir. by Robert Mandel)


the-substitute-movie-poster-1996-1020204941

The most recent entry in the Guilty Pleasure series had Lisa Marie waxing poetically about the idealistic teacher in the “jungle” film The Principal. I counter and follow this up with a similar-themed film called The Substitute that came and went very quickly in the theaters (I’m not even sure if it did or just went straight to video) in 1996.

The Substitute stars veteran actor Tom Berenger (you may remember him in such films as Platoon, Major League and Sniper) as a Vietnam vet mercenary who ends up substituting as the substitute teacher for his girlfriend’s high school class as she recovers from an attack that has left her unable to teach. The girlfriend was played by one Diane Venora who in the very same year was in another little film called Heat by Michael Mann. These two polar opposite films in terms of their “quality” just shows you that when it comes to acting, unless one was a recognizable name then any role is a good role it seems.

Getting back to the film, Berenger’s character is the titular substitute in one of Miami’s worst inner-city high schools where, as the film’s tagline proudly proclaims, the most dangerous things about it was the students. That is until Berenger’s character shows up to find out who attacked his girlfriend and bring down the wrath of God himself (or at least Berenger’s character and members of his old mercenary team).

The film isn’t what one would call very subtle. We clearly see either two types of teachers in this school. There’s Berenger and his girlfriend who care for the young teens (the former woth tough love and the latter going about it in a more liberal sense) and then there are those who have given up on the school and just cashing in on a paycheck. This goes to the extreme with the school’s principal (played by Ernie Hudson) who begins to suspect that the new substitute might be more than he appears.

It’s the passive-aggressive interaction between the two roles played by Berenger and Hudson that made for some of the more hilarious sequences in the film.

Oh, another thing the film also involves a dangerous high school gang that uses the school as if it’s their own little fiefdom and the local drug kingpin using it as a way station to move heroin into the Miami inner-city school system. Oh, did I happen to mention that Marc Anthony plays the leader of the high school gang, because he sure does.

The Substitute almost plays out like how a teacher fed up with the inattentiveness of his students and the stress of doing a thankless job imagines the perfect scenario to “clean-up” the high school. It’s not through coddling and talking things out with the students. It’s about using military tactics to take out the dangers of gangs and drug dealers and tough love on those who are still worth saving.

Some have called the film as blatantly racist while others have pointed out how it is just an extreme version of the longstanding storyline of the educated and civilized white man saving the “natives” from themselves. What this film has over other school films of similar themes is how it doesn’t try to sugarcoat and hide behind ideals when it comes to it’s story. Plus, it’s such a guilty pleasure to see a typical 80’s action flick dressed up to be a late 90’s film. They really don’t make films like this anymore.

What Lisa and Evelyn Watched Last Night #65: Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 (dir by Brian Trenchard-Smith)


Last night, after we finished watching the first episode of the new season of American Idol, my bff Evelyn and I watched Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, an evangelical apocalypse film from 2001.

Why Were We Watching It?

Considering that I’m an occasionally agnostic Irish Catholic and Evelyn describes herself as being a “Jewish atheist,” and that Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 is a film about Armageddon told from an evangelical point of view, I think the real question is how could we not watch it?  I mean, seriously.

Along with that, of course, Evelyn and I both wanted to watch something that nobody would ever expect either one of us to ever watch.

What Was It About?

Stone Alexander (Michael York) is President of the European Union and is promoting a plan that he claims will solve all of the world’s problems.  His younger brother, David Alexander (Michael Biehn) is vice president of the United States and wants to keep America from turning into Europe.  David is also in love with Stone’s wife (Diane Venora).  And, of course, Stone is actually the Antichrist while David is Michael Biehn.

Anyway, Stone uses his magic devil powers to cause President Benson (R. Lee Ermey) to die of a heart attack and David becomes President.  David, however, refuses to join Stone’s “new world order” so Stone frames David for the murder of their father.  David goes into hiding with a few loyal American soldiers while Stone makes plans to launch a military strike against Jerusalem.

It all, of course, leads to a huge battle between the forces of Hell and the combined armies of Spain and China (no, really).  David finally gets his chance to confront his brother, many prayers are said, and, eventually, a CGI demon pops up and creates a lot of CGI mayhem.

What Worked?

Evelyn claims that nothing worked in this film but I disagree just slightly.  First off, and most importantly, Franco Nero is in this film!  He plays Stone’s father-in-law and, while he may no longer be the dashing Lancelot from Camelot, Franco Nero is still aging pretty damn well.

Udo Kier is in the film too.  Seriously, Udo Kier pops up in the strangest places.

Michael York is a lot of fun as the wonderfully evil Stone Alexander. York’s performance here makes his delivery of the line, “YOU CAN LIVE!  LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE!” at the end of Logan’s Run look restrained.  Also, if you’re going to have a made-for-evil name like Stone Alexander, you might as well be the Antichrist.

On a personal note, I had a lot of fun annoying Evelyn by pointing out that just about every policy proposed by Stone Alexander has also been proposed by Barack Obama.  I imagine that Megiddo must be a very popular film among certain conspiracy-minded segments of the population.

What Did Not Work?

To be honest, the entire film didn’t work.  It’s not a very good film.  The special effects were cheap, the script made the Atlas Shrugged films look subtle, and I imagine that the film probably created more atheists than believers.

That said, Megiddo is still better than Avatar.

“Oh my God!  Just like Evelyn and Lisa!” Moments

None.

Lessons Learned

Franco Nero ages like a fine wine.

Getting the point of Megiddo

Quick Horror Review: Wolfen (dir. by Michael Wadleigh)


Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen (1981) remains one of my favorite stories with wolves, though there are no actual werewolves in the movie. It’s a great and underrated film, though I’m not quite sure if it really can be considered Horror. There’s bloodshed, yes, but not a lot when compared to the more superior The Howling, which came out in the same year.

The film in a nutshell is that you have the Bronx. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the Bronx was a warzone, and there were a number of films showcasing the decay of the area (Nighthawks and Fort Apache: The Bronx are two good ones). When a real estate mogul who’s developing buildings in the area and his wife are brutally murdered, Detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is partnered with a terrorism expert (Diane Venora) to solve the crime.

Through the film, Dewey discovers that the murders are being done not by people, but the spirits of ancient indians in the form of Wolves – or better to say that they were hunters from an older time. The Wolfen, as they’re called, are scavengers of the city’s decay, feeding off of those who won’t be missed – derelicts and the like.

While Finney and Venora carry the film, Gregory Hines has some fun lines as the local NYPD mortician and Tom Noonan’s Wolf Expert was interesting, though a little strange. The best person in the supporting cast (who doesn’t have as much time to work with) is Edward James Olmos, in a surprising turn as Eddie, who is believed to have something to do with the murders, but later helps put Dewey in the right direction.

Supposedly, the movie was a little heavy handed with all of the anti-terror angle they tried to use. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t a major part of Whitley Streiber’s novel of the same name and it tends to steer the audience away from the actual problem. I mean, the audience is seeing wolves do this (or at least are seeing something animalistic do it), so to bring in the notion that there’s a terrorist plot involved kind of went over my head. The movie would have been tighter without it, I believe anyway.

One of the cooler elements of the movie is that you are able to see things through the eyes of the Wolfen themselves in an infrared vision style. While this was done with movies after it like Predator, and films before it like Westworld, Wolfen was my first experience with the effect. That, coupled with James Horner’s score (a mixture of themes you’d later find in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens), lend to some of the style. Unfortunately, Wolfen is a somewhat difficult film to find in terms of obtaining the DVD for it, but the film has been on Netflix. If you have a chance to catch it, it’s an interesting watch.