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.

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Killer Party (dir by William Fruet)


The 1986 film Killer Party is one of those late 80s slasher films that somehow has developed a cult following.  Up until recently, there was a fairly active fansite devoted to the history of Killer Party and Killer Party still regularly shows up on TCM Underground.

So, apparently, Killer Party has fans.

I’m just not sure why.

Some of it, I suppose, could have to do with the first ten minutes of the film, which are genuinely clever.  It starts out with a young woman being menaced at a drive-in theater and, just when you’ve gotten invested in her story and have started to wonder whether or not she’ll survive the entire movie, it is suddenly revealed that we’ve actually been watching a movie-within-a-movie.  And that movie-within-a-movie then turns out to be part of an incredibly silly music video, featuring a band that is so 80s that you find yourself expecting them to stop performing so they can do a line of coke and play the stock market.  At one point, the band even performs while standing on the drive-in’s concession stand.

It’s all marvelously silly and kind of clever.  The problem is that the rest of the film never lives up to those ten minutes.  In fact, you spend the rest of the movie wishing you were still watching that movie about the girl trapped at the drive-in.

I also suppose that some of the film’s cult reputation has to do with the fact that Paul Bartel has a small supporting role.  Bartel plays the same basic role that he played in almost every horror film in which he appeared.  He’s a pompous professor who says a few dismissive lines and is then promptly killed off.  Maybe it’s the Bartel factor that has led to this film developing a cult following.

Who knows?

Killer Party is essentially four movies in one.  The first movie is that part that I’ve already talked about.  The opening is clever but it only lasts for ten minutes.

After the opening, the film turns into a rather standard college comedy.  Three girls want to join the wildest sorority on campus but it won’t be easy!  Everyone on this campus is obsessed with playing pranks.  And by pranks, I mean stuff like locking a bunch of people outside while they’re naked in a hot tub and then dumping a bunch of bees on them.  Of course, that prank gets filmed and the footage is later shown at a meeting of stuffy old people.  That’ll teach those uptight members of the World War II generation!  You may have made the world safe for democracy but that was like a really, really long time ago!  So there!  It’s time for a new generation, one that will make the world safe for pranks!

During this part of the film, there are only a few hints that we’re watching a horror movie.  For instance, the sorority wants to have a party in an abandoned frat house.  Their housemother goes by the frat house and kneels in front of a grave.  She speaks to someone named Alan and tells him that it’s time to move on.  Then she promptly gets killed and no one ever seems to notice.

The comedy part of the movie segues into a remarkably bloodless slasher movie.  The cast assembles at the forbidden house.  They have a party.  Someone in a diving mask shows up and kills off the majority of the cast in 20 minutes.  Almost everyone dies off-screen so there’s really not even any suspense as far as that goes.

Then, during the last few minutes of the film, the slasher film suddenly turns into a demonic possession film and that seems like that should be brilliant turn of events but it just doesn’t work in Killer Party.  Usually, I love movies that are kind of messy but Killer Party is a rather bland and listless affair.  If you’re going to combine a campus comedy with a slasher film and a demonic possession film, you owe it to your audience to really go totally over the top and embrace the ludicrousness of it all.  Instead, Killer Party rolls out at a languid and rather dull pace.

I would not accept an invitation to Killer Party.

 

Film Review: Basquiat (dir by Julian Schnabel)


Basquiat.  I love this movie.

I Shot Andy Warhol was not the only 1996 film to feature Andy Warhol as a character.  He was also a prominent supporting character in Basquiat.  In this film, he’s played by David Bowie and Bowie gives a far different performance than Jared Harris did in I Shot Andy Warhol.  Whereas Harris played Andy as a detached voyeur, Bowie’s performance is far more sympathetic.  (Of course, it should be noted that Harris and Bowie were playing Andy Warhol at very different points in the artist’s life.  Harris played the younger, pre-shooting Warhol.  Bowie played the older, post-shooting Warhol.)

Then again, it’s not just Andy Warhol who is portrayed more positively in Basquiat than in I Shot Andy Warhol.  The entire New York art scene is portrayed far more positively in Basquiat.  Whereas I Shot Andy Warhol was a film about an outsider who was destined to forever remain an outsider, Basquiat is a film about an outsider who becomes an insider.  On top of that, Basquiat was directed by a fellow insider, painter Julian Schnabel.

The film itself is a biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat (very well played by Jeffrey Wright), the graffiti artist who, in the 1980s, briefly became one of the superstars of the New York art scene.  However, it’s less of a conventional biopic and more of a meditation on what it means to be an artist.  Throughout the film, Basquiat looks up to the New York skyline and sees a surfer riding a wave across the sky.  The image itself is never explicitly explained.  We never learn why, specifically, Basquiat visualizes a surfer.  But then again, that’s what makes the surfer a perfect symbol of Basquiat’s artistic sensibility and talent.  It’s a reminder that, while we can appreciate an artist’s work, only the artist can truly understand what that work is saying.  All attempts to try to explain or categorize art are as pointless as trying to understand why that surfer is in the sky.  Ultimately, the why is not as important as the simple fact that the surfer is there.

The film follows Basquiat as he goes from living on the streets to being a protegé of Andy Warhol’s and, until he overdosed on heroin, one of the shining lights of the New York art scene.  Along the way, Basquiat struggles to maintain a balance between art and the business.  In one of the key scenes of the film, an empty-headed suburbanite (Tatum O’Neal) looks at Basquiat’s work and whines that there’s too much green.  She just can’t handle all of that green.

Basquiat’s friendship with Andy Warhol provides this film with a heart.  When Bowie first appears — having lunch with a German art dealer played by Dennis Hopper — one’s natural instinct is to assume that Bowie as Warhol is stunt casting.  However, Bowie quickly proves that instinct to be wrong.  As opposed to many of the actors who have played Andy Warhol over the years, Bowie gives an actual performance.  Instead of resorting to caricature, Bowie plays Warhol as being mildly bemused by both his fame and the world in general.

Basquiat also develops a close friendship with another artist.  Gary Oldman may be playing a character named Albert Milo but it’s obvious from the moment that he first appears that he’s playing the film’s director, Julian Schnabel.  If there was any doubt, Schnabel’s studio stands in for Milo’s studio.  When Milo shows off his work, he’s showing off Schnabel’s work.  When Albert Milo introduced Basquiat to his parents, the nice old couple is played by Julian Schnabel’s actual parents.  It’s perhaps not surprising that Albert Milo is presented as being one of the most important and popular artists in New York City.  In a film full of bitchy characters, Albert Milo is unique in that literally everyone likes and respects him.  And yet Gary Oldman gives such a good and heartfelt performance that you can’t hold it against the character that he happens to be perfect.  There’s a small but touching scene in which Albert Milo and his daughter share a dance in front of one of Schnabel’s gigantic canvases.  Of course, Milo’s daughter is played by Julian Schnabel’s daughter.

The entire cast is full of familiar actors.  Willem DaFoe appears as a sculptor.  Christopher Walken plays a hilariously vapid interviewer.  Courtney Love plays a groupie.  Benicio Del Toro plays Basquiat’s best friend.  Parker Posey shows up as gallery owner Mary Boone.  Michael Wincott plays Rene Ricard, the somewhat infamous art critic who was among the first to celebrate the work of both Basquiat and Schnabel.  For once, the use of familiar actors does not sabotage the effectiveness of the film.  If anything, it helps to explain why Basquiat was so determined to make it.  There’s a magical scene where a then-unknown Basquiat peeks through a gallery window and sees Andy Warhol, Albert Milo, and Bruno Bischofberger.  However, the film’s audience sees David Bowie, Gary Oldman, and Dennis Hopper.  What both Basquiat and the audience have in common is that they’re both seeing bigger-than-life stars.

Basquiat is an often magical and poignant film and I absolutely love it.

Back to School #22: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (dir by Allan Arkush)


Originally, when I started this series of Back to School reviews, I was planning on reviewing Grease.  After all, everyone has seen that film.  It’s on TV all the time.  (Looking in your direction, AMC.)  It’s a musical, which is a genre that I love but one which I also rarely seem to review.  The movie features a good performance from Stockard Channing.  It also has a lot of dancing and you know how much I love that.  And speaking of love, a lot of people seem to absolutely love Grease.

But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while others may love Grease, I don’t.  Oddly enough, I always seem to fool myself into thinking that it’s a fun movie but then I make the mistake of watching it whenever it pops up on AMC and every time, I am surprised to discover just how boring Grease really is.  The majority of the cast play their roles as if they’re still on a Broadway stage and projecting to the back of the house.  Olivia Newton-John is miscast.  John Travolta appears to be acting on auto pilot.  Both the songs and even Stockard Channing are never as good as I remembered.  Worst of all, the dance numbers are so ineptly staged and filmed that, half-the-time, you can’t even see what anyone’s doing with their feet.

While I certainly don’t have any problem writing a negative review (and check out my thoughts on Avatar if you doubt me), I wanted to end the 70s on a positive note.  So, instead of telling you that Grease isn’t good as many people seem to think, I want to recommend another film that, like Grease, features a lot of singing and dancing but which also happens to be a lot of more fun.

That film, of course, is the 1979 cult classic Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

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Things are amiss at Vince Lombardi High School.  The students are so obsessed with rock and roll (and the music of the Ramones, in particular) that they have caused several principals to quit.  The hallways are a disorganized mess.  Student Riff Randall (P.J. Soles) spends all of her time having fantasies about the way that Joey Ramone eats pizza.  A strange students named Eaglebauer (Clint Howard) runs a shadowy company known as Eaglebauer Enterprises out of a smoke-filled boy’s restroom.  (He’s even got an administrative assistant to schedule meetings for him.)  Handsome jock Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten) can’t get a date, largely because he’s obsessed with Riff who is obsessed with the Ramones.  Little does Tom realize that Riff’s best friend, the sweet and intelligent Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), has a crush on him.

The school board hires a new principal to bring some peace to the high school.  Ms. Togar (Mary Woronov) is a strict and mentally unbalanced disciplinarian who, with the help of two apparently subhuman hall monitors, is determined to suppress any sort of fun, rebellion, or free thought.  Togar hates loud music, mostly because it causes white mice to spontaneously explode.  (When, late in the film, a human-sized white mouse — or he could have just been a very strange man wearing a white mouse costume, the film is ambiguous on this point — attempts to enter a Ramones concert, he’s turned away for his own good.  Until, of course, he reveals that he’s brought along headphones for his own protection…)

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In the end, it all comes down to this: Togar and her allies want to burn records.  Riff and the Ramones want to stop her.  And maybe blow up the school.  (David from Massacre at Central High would have been a fan of the Ramones.)

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is an intentionally over-the-top film that both celebrates youthful rebellion while satirizing traditional high school films.  The jokes (which are a good combination of the silly and the genuinely clever) come non-stop, the actors all bring a lot of energy to their roles, and the entire film is just a lot of fun. As played by P.J. Soles, Riff Randall really is the ideal best friend and I imagine that a lot of boys in 1979 probably walked out of the theater with a huge crush on both P.J. Soles and Dey Young.  And finally, Mary Woronov gives a wonderfully demented performance as Ms. Togar.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll High School seems like the perfect film to end the 70s with.  Tomorrow, Back to School continues with the 80s!  So, if you’ve never seen Rock ‘n’ Roll High School before, watch it below!