is sexy, people! Coogan in Hamlet 2.
of a Tragedy
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.
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
by Randall Miller
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
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.
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.