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Jesus is sexy, people! Coogan in Hamlet 2.

Parody of a Tragedy

By John Brodeur

Hamlet 2

Directed by Andrew Fleming

 

The Tucson, Ariz., tourism board must be none too pleased with Hamlet 2, a film that, at every opportunity, takes a shot at the city “where dreams go to die.” The Tucson-bashing is just one of many devices the filmmakers use to paint its central character as completely fucked, but it can’t really be the worst place on Earth . . . right?

Tucson, it turns out, is the perfect setting for the story of a hapless boob having the bad-luck run of a lifetime; the city’s unforgiving sunlight and bleak urban landscape leave Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) nowhere to hide, from himself or from his past. Marschz is a down-and-out actor of limited talent; he’s introduced via one of those too-straightforward TV commercials advertising herpes medication. (It’s an easy joke, but a good one—have you ever wondered what that guy’s career is like?) He’s a Canadian expat with nasty daddy issues who relocated to Tucson when the commercials dried up; there, he lives with his wife, Brie (Catherine Keener, in a too-lean role), and a blissfully dull roommate, Gary (David Arquette, his role lean by necessity).

Despite his lot in life—Marschz’s job as a high-school drama teacher pays for “gas money,” so he roller-skates to work, though we mostly see him falling down—he has unbridled enthusiasm for his craft. That craft, as it were, is producing half-baked adaptations of seemingly unadaptable popular films (i.e., Erin Brockovich) in the school “snackatorium.” There’s a Dangerous Minds subplot, a ragtag band of misfits and all that, and then the school principal threatens to cancel drama class. At which point Marschz decides he needs to produce his life’s work: Hamlet 2. Sure, everyone is dead at the end of Hamlet, but “everybody deserves a second chance,” Marschz argues.

And Marschz gets his second chance, naturally, in the form of the climactic production of his magnum opus.

Almost every scene finds Marschz in a cringe-inducing situation, whether he’s playing his keytar (also with limited talent) or explaining to his class that he’s wearing a caftan because it “keeps [his] balls at room temp” (see, he’s also infertile). Coogan plays the role with an unflappable sincerity; it couldn’t have worked nearly as well in the hands of, say, Jim Carrey. But few moments are more cringe-inducing than the production numbers—you’d need nerves of steel to get through “Raped in the Face” without putting your face in your hands.

Hamlet 2, the film, is a mix of Waiting for Guffman and The Jerk. Hamlet 2, the stage musical, is pure shark sandwich. In another of the film’s many great gags, the play, while an enormous success, seems to absolutely repel its audience.

Director Andrew Fleming has a good track record with teen films (The Craft, Dick, Nancy Drew), and with the help of co-writer Pam Brady (who helped pen the South Park feature, as well as the under-seen Team America: World Police) he’s able to turn that record on its head here. And in an August that’s already seen two pictures use full-on Hollywood- blockbuster productions to take their cracks at Tinseltown, it’s good to see a film stand back and poke Hollywood (and Broadway) with a stick. Much of that comes via Elizabeth Shue, who brings a self-effacing good sportsmanship to her role as, well, herself (sort of). For Marschz, whose life seems devoid of possibility, Shue brings a double-edged ray of hope. And, as the film reminds us, hope is a demon bitch.

An Odd Vintage

Bottle Shock

Directed by Randall Miller

Bottle Shock, which recounts the famous 1976 taste showdown in which American wines trounced those of France, is almost as interested in said contest, as its filmmakers are with evoking the kind of 1970s California you imagine when listening to the Eagles. Lots of long-limbed youths with tousled, sun-kissed hair, high-waisted bootleg jeans, graphic T-shirts and, for the particularly winsome Sam (Rachael Taylor), plenty of bare-back halters. Ah, those were the days.

Of course, because this is ostensibly a movie about wine, and how a plucky bunch of Napa vintners challenged the world’s palette, it also features plenty of aw-shucks, isn’t-that-charming moments. Hey, look, the vintners didn’t charge for a barrel-tasting back then! Wow, they showed real solidarity: “If one of us succeeds, we all succeed” is intoned numerous times, usually by cranky Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman). Ummm, good! Those winemakers sure make amazing dishes! I half expected an actress playing M.F.K. Fisher to pop up and inform us that the wines and dishes so lovingly depicted on the screen are, indeed, an indication of California or new Americana cuisine.

If I sound cranky, it’s because Bottle Shock left me with something of a cinematic hangover. I enjoyed it enough at the time, but the next morning it felt cloying and heavy-handed. You want to like it because the story itself is a winner, with all the hallmarks of a great David-and-Goliath confrontation, accented by homespun pride, and brought to life by enormously appealing performers. (These include Alan Rickman as the Brit oenophile Steven Spurrier, whose idea it is to do the taste test; Dennis Farina as his expat friend and fellow wine lover; and Freddy Rodriguez as the last in a long line of Mexican vintners.)

Unfortunately, screenwriters Jody Savin, Randall Miller and Ross Schwartz seem intent on throwing everything in the mix. What works in book format does not transfer gracefully to the screen. The action goes back and forth mostly between Paris and Napa. The characters pause here to drink and trade philosophical barbs (hey, these country people sure are well-read!) and advice on how to harvest grapes. Occasionally, racism rears its ugly head, but interestingly, it’s only the anti-Mexican variety, not the anti-French, that’s depicted as out-and-out bad. Throughout, the achingly beautiful vistas of the Napa Valley undulate and shimmer, and this without the added touches of oh-so-perfectly placed shacks, complete with Laura Ashley bedding and two beautiful lovers entwined.

There are some wonderful performances and more than a handful of moving scenes, such as when Jim, facing foreclosure, is forced to seek re-employment with a former partner, who just so happens to be married to his ex-wife. There are interesting father/son dilemmas between Jim and his slacker son Bo (Chris Pine, wearing a far-too-disconcerting mop of bleached hair) that point to the weaknesses and strengths of each. And, yes, there is a sense of pride that comes across in the story of those who put California wines on the map. It’s just too bad that the filmmakers didn’t have enough faith in the basic bones of the story, and felt the need over and again to drive points home via kitschy fashion choices or retro rock lyrics.

—Laura Leon

Heavy Metal

Death Race

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

In the year 2012, unemployment is rampant, overcrowded prisons have been privatized, and the TV-viewing public is bored with watching inmates battle each other, gladiator-style, on pay-per-view. The warden and CEO of Terminal Island (Joan Allen) ups the ratings by staging ultra-violent car races around the island. When her superstar, a racer named Frankenstein whose face is so mutilated by crashes that he hides it with an iron mask, is taken out of the action, the warden replaces him with an unwilling recruit: a former race-car driver named Ames (Jason Stratham) who has more experience in prison body shops than the warden realizes. Ames is violently set-up, convicted, and forced into assuming Frankenstein’s role behind the wheel.

Adapted and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, Death Race is an efficient update of Roger Corman’s 1975 cult actioner, Death Race 2000. But Corman wasn’t the only filmmaker to riff on society’s fascination with violent entertainment that year: No less a cinematic luminary than Norman Jewison explored the same theme in Rollerball. Jewison’s satire of corporate malfeasance and violence as the opiate of the TV-addicted masses no longer seems as sci-fi as it once did; disappointingly, Anderson, director of the Resident Evil movies (as well as the underrated Soldier), isn’t so much interested in throwing gasoline on the popularity of reality TV as he is in topping Rollerball’s bloated progeny, 1987’s The Running Man, a witless Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. Meanwhile Allen’s warden is less ruthless CEO than femme sadiste, and her prurient minions seem to have little awareness of the profits inherent in her death-race program’s multimillion audience share.

What Death Race does get right, especially in its grisly opening scenes, is the social depravity and desperation created by an apocalyptic economic depression. There’s also a fillip of interest (centered on a conscientious mechanic played by Ian McShane) in how the corporation regards its inmates as a cheap labor pool. But once the races start, it’s all about heavy-metal carnage, and it is at that, Death Race delivers. Anderson is a quick-cut junkie, and the resident evil of blue-gray cinematography dampens the full-throttle action sequences; to the screenplay’s credit, however, road kills are more about mechanical ingenuity than gore, and the races are spiked with gaming-style twists. Though his road-warrior rivals have more personality than Ames does—Stratham is scrawnier than he was in The Transporter, and barely punches it past first gear—his grease-monkey anti-hero propels the plot with a minimum of downtime.

—Ann Morrow


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