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.

Horror Film Review: Nadja (dir by Michael Michael Almereyda)


When we first meet Nadja (Elina Löwensohn), the title character of this odd, 1994 film, she is walking around New York, wearing a cape and picking up men in bars.  She speaks with a thick, Eastern European accent and when she’s asked what she does, she explains that she comes from an old and very wealthy Romanian family.  As we quickly guess, Nadja has lived for centuries.  She’s a vampire, a daughter of Count Dracula.  Everything she says and everything she does is drenched in the ennui of someone who wishes to be set free but who knows she is destined to live forever in the prison of her existence.  Even when she has visions of her father getting a stake through the heart, it doesn’t provide her with the relief for which she was hoping.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that it was a member of the Helsing family that drove the stake through Dracula’s heart.  However, having killed the vampire, Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) finds himself in trouble with the police.  Apparently, the cops don’t believe Van Helsing when he insists that he was just killing a vampire.  As far as they can tell, Van Helsing just killed a man with a sharp piece of wood.  Fortunately, Van Helsing’s nephew, Jim (Martin Donavon), also lives in New York and can bail his uncle out of jail.

While Jim is dealing with his uncle, Nadja is meeting a woman in a bar, a woman named Lucy (Galaxy Craze).  Both Lucy and Nadja feel empty and unfulfilled.  Lucy, who happens to be married to Jim, is soon inviting Nadja back to her home and becoming obsessed with her.  However, Nadja is more concerned with her brother, Edgar (Jared Harris).  Edgar lives in Brooklyn with his lover and nurse, Cassandra (Suzy Amis).  When Nadja visits Edgar, she decides to take Cassandra away from him.  Of course, Cassandra just happens to be Van Helsing’s daughter and Jim’s cousin!

Nadja is an odd film.  On the one hand, it’s pretentious in the way that only a mid-90s, New York art film can be.  Director Michael Almereyda shot the majority of film at night and a good deal of it with a PXL-2000, which was basically a toy video camera that was specifically marketed to children.  As a result, the black-and-white images are usually dark and grainy.  Sometimes, it’s a bit of struggle to tell just what exactly is happening on-screen.  And yet, at the same time, it kinda works.  Those hazy images, combined with the largely deadpan performances of the cast, give the film an undeniably dream-like feel.  When we see Nadja walking through the city, we feel her ennui and otherworldly presence.  At its best, the film achieves a hypnotic visual beauty.  If ever there was an American city that benefits from being filmed in grainy black-and-white, it’s New York City.

The film plays out like a satire of the typical decadent vampire film.  (Nadja even has a Renfield of very own.)  Nadja is so obviously a vampire that it’s impossible not to be amused by the fact that hardly anyone else seems to pick up on it.  However, the film’s most subversive element is Peter Fonda’s performance as Van Helsing.  With his long hair and a demented gleam in his eye, Fonda totally upends all our assumptions about who someone named Van Helsing should be.

In many ways, Nadja plays out like an elaborate inside joke but it’s just strange enough to always be watchable.  David Lynch, whose influence is obvious, has a cameo as a morgue attendant and he feels right at home.  This deadpan vampire film many not be for everyone but then again, few worthwhile films are.