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Friday, Aug 29, 2008

If we weren’t already aware of Hollywood’s brain dead inability to fashion such a conspiracy, one would swear that Tinsel Town was out to destroy horror once and for all. Their weapon of choice? The J-Horror remake. Their intended targets? Foreign filmmakers who’ve proven they can master macabre with a diligent, dread-induced professionalism. In the last year alone we’ve seen the talented combo of David Moreau and Xavier Palud, responsible for the terrific thriller Ils, helm the horrible Jessica Alba vehicle The Eye. Now, Alexandre Aja, fresh from proving he could take on even the most tired material (in his case, the Wes Craven quasi-classic The Hills Have Eyes), is given the god awful task of updating the Korean creeper Into the Mirror. That he almost succeeds suggests an untapped talent that no studio suit can truly stop.


For suspended police officer Ben Carson, life couldn’t get more complicated. Six months sober, and desperate to keep connected to his family, he’s sleeping on his sister’s sofa, hoping for some kind of redemption. Taking a job as a security guard in a burned out department store, he starts making amends. Unfortunately, the former New York landmark known as The Mayflower has other ideas. While the rest of the building is a disaster, the mirrors are all polished and pristine. Seems the previous rent-a-cop had an obsession with keeping them clean - that is, before he died by his own hand. The location also has a sinister history, one connected to an old mental hospital, a crazed doctor, and a great many deaths. Soon Ben believes he is being haunted by the reflections - and once they’re done with him, his wife and children appear to be next. His must unravel the mystery to save his, and his family’s, lives.


Mirrors is a minor success, meaning it’s a pretty big failure as well. Any premise that can zap Alexandra Aja of most of his visceral viability should have been left in the secretary’s “Out” box with the rest of the rejected scripts. While the director does find a way to breathe new life into an old design (haunted object bringing grief to those interacting with it), he still can’t shake the staleness of wandering back into someone else’s ideas. What semi-sinks Mirrors is this derivative déjà-vu. If you’ve seen one Asian horror film (and its eventual American adaptation) you’ve pretty much experienced the entire genre, and no matter how hard he tries, Aja can’t shake the sameness. But thanks to some inventive locations, and the director’s attention to detail, we wind up with an effort that’s intriguing - at least until the puzzling finale.


Aja clearly adores the burnt out Mayflower building that stands as the film’s main set. He lovingly frames the introductory shots, and takes his time roaming the melted mannequin interior. During these initial sequences, Mirrors maintains a nice level of trepidation. Since we are getting an opportunity to see something new and unusual (urban ruins, so to speak), we drink in every moment. As Carson, Kiefer Sutherland offers good flashlight acting. His quiet scenes inside the structure, discovering the various frightening facades that surround him, more than make up for his occasional hyperactive outbursts and shouting matches. This is one actor who believes all dialogue is only deliverable in a whisper or a scream, and the hamfisted qualities can be overwhelming at times. Sutherland is not alone however. Most of the cast respond to problems with an overdone amount of angst.


On the other hand, Aja really does understand the basics of movie morbidity. He gives us nice and nasty gore, the red stuff flowing freely out of massively gaping wounds. This is especially true of Amy Smart’s death. As Ben’s sister, she literally pulls her jaw off in one of the most unsettling sequences ever. Elsewhere, when we finally learn what’s “possessing” the place, the showdown between ‘It’ and Ben is handled in expert fright fashion. It’s instances like this when you wonder what Mirrors could have been. You think beyond the standard mystery paradigm to envision something that expands beyond the scope of your typical scary movie.


And yet Aja can’t salvage everything. There is a palpable feeling of studio meddling here, a desire to tone down the atmosphere and increase the idiocy. The film suggests - at least, towards the beginning - that Carson may be suffering from some manner of drug based side effect. It would explain his hallucinations inside the Mayflower. The concept is explored for a second before being shuttled aside for more clues. Similarly, British actor Jason Flemyng appears as a friendly cop willing to help Ben uncover the truth. But he is so poorly introduced, and lacks any real connection to the cases, that we wonder why he’s so gracious. As with the unexplained issues within his family (Sutherland and onscreen wife Paula Patton seem to absolutely hate each other), much of the subtext seen in Mirrors is mitigated for…frankly, it’s rather unclear.


Indeed, when one goes back and tries to recall what takes the place of necessary cinematic facets like backstory and clear characterization, the substitutions become fuzzy indeed. We know there are times when Carson must visit a monastery, and he does take a trip through a collapsing wall into the old haunted hospital, but unlike other sequences of suspense, we seem to be dragging our feet here. Nowhere do the answers add up to something solid. By the end, we are shocked to learn of the real reason for the haunted glass. While successful and satisfying in a bugf*ck Exorcist kind of way, the lack of logistics really brings everything down. In the end, we sense a situation stifled by mandates from the moneymen, along with a sorry attachment to the source.

Still, fans can rejoice at what Mirrors actually ‘reflects’. For all the hate leveled at his grisly Haute Tension, or the last act bravura of Hills, Alexandre Aja may just be the next generation of fear authority. When one’s aptitude shines through even the most lax commercial creepshow, there’s an anxiousness for a return to foreign (or perhaps, independent) soil. Of course, his next project is an odd choice indeed. Supposedly, Aja will be working on a 3D version of the cheeseball Piranha movies from the ‘80s (that noise you just heard was the collective “huh” from the genre fanbase). As long as it helps him achieve a level of artistic leverage, he can make all the dumb and/or derivative movies he wants. Mirrors may not be the best example of his work, but it does show what an artist can do with even the most improbable motion picture parameters…up to a point. 


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Thursday, Aug 28, 2008

Some forty years later, the spaghetti western remains one of the most unique subgenres in all of film. As a reflection of America as seen through the eyes of the world (and the US media), it stands in startling contrast to the conservative oaters that inspired it. But even more intriguing, the multicultural facets of the format provide insight into the shared heritage and history of each creating nation. A perfect example of how this all comes together can be found in Takashi Miike’s astonishing Sukiyaki Western Django. While it may sound like nothing more than a love letter to a certain Mediterranean country and its inventive horse operatics, the infamous filmmaker’s broadened approach brings in everything from Shakespeare to standard samurai tradition. The results are ridiculously fun. 


It’s the 1880’s, and in the small Japanese/Nevada town of Yuta, the red clad Heike and the white dressed Genji are at war. Believing there was gold in this dirty one horse outpost, they arrived to stake their claim. Finding no such treasure, they have since stayed, fighting among themselves in a feud that fails to settle the issues long standing between the gangs. Both leaders fancy themselves as much better than their men. Kiyomori sees himself as rarified royalty in red. Yoshitsune carries an elegant blade and believes in the warrior ways of feudal Japan. Into their bickering bullet ballet comes an unknown gunslinger in black. His purpose and persona are unclear. Taken in by an old lady, he learns of the woman’s dead son, her mute grandchild, and the daughter who is now a concubine for the Genji chief. All vow vengeance, and with the help of this stranger, they may finally get it - or die trying. 


Sure, Sukiyaki Western Django is Sergio Leone on LSD. It’s every ‘60s/‘70s revisionist western riff supersaturated in stylized bombast and a purpose perversion of the motion picture mannerism. For someone known mostly for his crime and horror efforts, it’s refreshing to see Miike working outside his craven comfort zone. Yet as a student of cinema, he has clearly learned his unused lessons well. This is one of the best updates of the spaghetti style since a retro rock act took their Morricone-inspired music and made The Legend of God’s Gun. While that independent masterpiece was all glorified greatest hits however, Sukiyaki Western Django digs deeper. It’s complete and utter context merged with vivacious visual pizzazz. Some may think that Miike is merely celebrating a category he’s come to respect, but this movie is more than admiration. It’s passion pumped up by a powder keg of crazy invention and ideas.


Miike makes every moment of his two hour running time count. Flashbacks are handled with absolute control and confidence, while symbolism is shunned for more obvious and outright metaphors. When Kiyomori decides to “become” Henry 6th (keeping in line with the film’s already obvious nod to the War of the Roses), we fully embrace the nutty bow to the Bard. Similarly, Yoshitsune’s love of samurai code and culture gets turned backward, then broadsided, becoming more of a burden in modern confrontations than a skill set benefit. All the way through, the homage remains heavy, Leone and Corbucci (whose own celebrated series gives the film its name) ever-present in the pastiche.  But this is not to accuse Miike of artistic laziness. Instead like all great impressionists, he takes the best bits and bathes them in his own unique combination of substance and sizzle. 


Perhaps the most unusual element applied here is the use of English by the decidedly Asian cast. With many of the actors speaking their lines almost phonetically, the dialogue takes on an unusual cadence - reminiscent of singing. It’s like Greek tragedy with kabuki masks. The performers provide wonderful emotional and psychological heft, but there are still times when you can’t help but laugh at the poorly pigeoned vocabulary. Miike also tosses in a few recognizable repeaters all his own. The sheriff character is a practically immortal sycophant who changes sides as often as he avoids the Grim Reaper. His weasel whine is one of the film’s most memorable bits. So is the appearance of Miike student and supporter Quentin Tarantino. Doing his best Lee Van Cleef, his narrator character/catalyst provides a perfect contrast to the rest of Sukiyaki‘s frequent pretense.


But it’s the man behind the lens that really stands out here. From his borrowing of post-modern obviousness (the cartoon interlude, the title card labeling of a main character) to his far more subtle - and stunning - landscape shots, Miike is making art here, and it’s hard to deny his intent. This is a beautiful film, from the way it’s composed to the way the characters fill the frame. Again, nothing is wasted. Miike collects the memories from his mental movietone scrapbook and paints them effortlessly across the screen. When we get to the last act showdown, guns blazing and blood flowing, there’s a poetry in the presentation. We aren’t watching yet another take on Once Upon a Time in the West. We are witnessing the aesthetic process that could contemplate such a film in the first place.


Indeed, everything about Sukiyaki Western Django is about purpose - even if it’s not clear to the viewer initially. And when you consider that Miike borrows heavily from A Fistful of Dollars, which itself was fashioned after Kurosawa’s classic Yojimbo, the karmic connections start to make sense. Soon, one sees beyond the spaghetti stresses to witness the director’s own take on the type. Even his title gives his own insular conceit away. By the time Tarantino returns as a wheelchair bound blob of his former self, Miike has managed to do the unthinkable - he bests Leone and the like at their own game. While the Italians loved their ancillary oddness, his Japanese counterpart can’t help but go just a bit crazier. While it will make Sukiyaki Western Django unwieldy for some, most film fans will fall instantly in love.


Perhaps the most satisfying thing about this film is its visionary look and feel. Though it taken its cues from the past, the present is all but fully accounted for in Miike’s frame. This is the kind of movie that burns inside a director like the proverbial (and stereotypical) fever dream, eventually arriving in the same sporadic fits of unfathomable joy that came during its frantic inception. We can sense the fun Miike was having while he made this movie. Bliss bubbles up from almost every piece of celluloid. Some may view this as self-indulgent silliness, a skilled auteur going out on a limb for his own maverick pleasures. But if you take the time to fall under the spell of Sukiyaki Western Django, you’ll hope he never returns to his gore-drenched Yakuza roots. 


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Thursday, Aug 28, 2008

The little lie begins the deceit. Soon, the lack of truth clouds everything - from love to legality. Within days, loyalties which once seemed firm are tested, while newfound friendships provide the catalyst for even more distrust. All the while, the deception cuts as deeply as the Siberian cold, the temperature unable to freeze out the feeling of isolation or the need to be insincere. Soon, there is nothing left but a mountain of fabrication, its uneasy equilibrium waiting for one loose element to cause it all to come crashing down. That uncertain fragment is Jessie, the wife of rightly religious hardware store owner Roy. While her troubled past is now a faint memory, what she will do presently along the couple’s Transsiberian train trip will call into question everything she ever was - or wanted to be.


Returning to America via Moscow, train nut Roy and his photography loving wife Jessie have decided to take the Transsiberian express from Beijing, where they have just completed a successful church mission. Uncomfortable at first, they soon meet up with Spanish ‘teacher’ Carlos and his 20-something Seattle gal pal Abby. At first, our marrieds enjoy their fun loving friends’ company. But soon Carlos is making a play for Jessie, and while adverse to his advances, he does remind her of a more freewheeling time in her life. Soon separated, Jessie is left to her own devices. When a visit to a local church turns deadly, secrets are suddenly revealed. Turns out Carlos and Abby may be running drugs, and the Russian detective who now shares the compartment with Roy and Jessie may not be the straight shooter he pretends to be. Either way, it’s going to be a rough ride across some frozen, and rather frightening, tundra.


Transsiberian is the kind of movie you have to indulge in. To be sure, it needs more than half of its 111 minute running time to get all its little narrative dominoes in place. As you sit and watch director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9) meticulously putting each one out, the mind free associates on their significance. Initial conclusions are hard to come by, but once piled together they create the kind of solid set up that only needs a single plot point twist to take us down a rollercoaster ride filled with suspense. Oddly enough, Anderson succeeds, if only slightly. While we can’t really care about his characters (more on this in a moment), we do empathize with their fate. And when the guns come out and the torture begins, our tendency toward identifying with these people is heightened anew. This is not to say that Transsiberian is wall-to-wall dread. Once it gets going, however, it delivers enough electricity to keep us right near, if not completely on, the edge of our seats.


Our leads don’t help matters much. Woody Harrelson, who can usually be counted on for something special, is stuck playing the unwilling, unknowing accessory. He’s the kind of husband so trusting of his wife that when the police are waving a firearm in her face, he still thinks its all some kind of cross-culture confusion (“We’re American!” he shouts). The same can be said for Eduardo Noriega’s Carlos. He’s all crotch shots and amoral animal magnetism. From the moment he lays eyes on Jessie, we can sense the mental undressing - and humping. It’s not hard then to see him as evil. Rounding out the male leads is Sir Ben Kingsley. On the plus side, he’s not putting on the shtick as some fart blowing guru or oversexed New York shrink. But as Detective Grinko, a supposedly honest man in the unethical morass known as Russia, he’s about as obvious with his loyalties as an ‘80s Miami beat cop.


That just leaves our two female focal points to hold down the filmic fort, and luckily, they both do. Again, we aren’t on Jessie or Abby’s side, but we don’t mind the way Emily Mortimer and Kate Mara (respectively) bring them to life. Of the two, our married mark is more troublesome. Jessie makes some very stupid mistakes and choices here, trusting individuals who never give her a real reason for such a belief while approaching all problems like something she will consider…eventually. When Roy turns up missing toward the movie’s midpoint, we instantly suspect foul play. But even in the midst of such a personal dilemma, our heroine finds time to drift out into the countryside with Carlos. If motivations were currency, Mortimer would be paying us in Confederate dollars…or wooden nickels.


Mara is better in that Anderson doesn’t give her too much to do. In a clear case of a little going a long way, Abby makes an impact for what she isn’t as much as for what she turns out to be. When Jessie argues that she’s a good girl, we really don’t see it. But over time, Mara makes us consider the possibility - which is much more than can be said for anyone else in the cast. Thanks to the way Anderson prepares us for the payoff, and the clever little clips that he and co-writer Will Conroy toss in, we don’t mind that the finale feels lifted from dozens of other thrillers. Like Brian DePalma or John Carpenter, Anderson is aping Hitchcock in the best possible way - that is, acknowledging the master while making his noted conceits all his own.


This is what helps Transsiberian thrive. As we watch each carefully planned portion announce itself and then fall back into place, as the twists and turns take us in directions we never once considered, as the characters connive and try to betray their way out of peril, we’re prepared to be held in the tight grip of clockwork caper. That Anderson almost delivers on such a promise is unusual enough. That he can do it in a cinematic era when excess drives most thrills and chills is the film’s most amazing feat. While an appreciation for old school shivers is not required to enjoy what Transsiberian is offering, such an appreciative attitude won’t hurt. This movie’s mechanics are as creaky and conventional as the steam-driven locomotives that Roy loves so dearly. That they still function is a tribute to the power of the motion picture - and a story structured on that most human of habits…the lie.


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Wednesday, Aug 27, 2008

Mathieu Kassovitz is livid. Not just angry, mind you, but completely pissed off. After five long years of planning and praying, after months of harsh production elements and massive studio interference, his dream project, Babylon A.D. is about to close the Summer 2008 season. Not with a blockbuster bang, mind you, but with the kind of wounded whimper and no preview punishment that comes with abject studio hatred. That’s right—Kassovitz’s righteous indignation is no match for Fox’s fear of failure. The Hollywood heavyweight is purposefully writing off this title, allowing it to tank in the most obvious way possible.


It’s no wonder that the man behind the celebrated La Haine is outraged. Sure, his resume doesn’t wholly redeem his position—after the aforementioned black and white drama about disaffected youth in France, Kassovitz has had little cinematic impact. And no, working with Halle Berry on the worthless Gothika doesn’t count. It all leads to the classic Tinsel Town clusterf*ck—vaunted foreign filmmaker, respected past productions, moderate American success, studio desperate for something new, creator hungry to realize a long gestating ambition. Put them all together and you have the recipe for a big fat juicy (and unexpected) hit… or in the case of Babylon A.D., a Hindenburg waiting to burst into flames.


Based on the book Babylon Babies by French science fiction author Maurice G. Dantec, this Vin Diesel vehicle had an inauspicious start. Kassovitz had long wanted to adapt the material, and finally got commissioned to develop a script back in 2005. While the director had planned to star pal Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises) in the lead, Diesel eventually signed on. Thus began a series of screw-ups, set backs, and situational traumas that found Fox stepping in to wrangle control. According to published reports, bad weather pushed production over time and budget, and the studio, sensing that Kassovitz was in over his head, was a constant source of on set interference. Originally slated for Thanksgiving 2007, the release date was pushed back—first to February, and then August 2008.


In the meantime, the filmmaker saw his pet project whittled down from an unwieldy two hours plus to what he considers to be 90 minutes of “violence and stupidity”. With a complicated story involving a mercenary (Diesel) hired to deliver a woman from Eastern Europe to a futuristic New York, and a fanatical religious group desperate to get their hands on the ‘host’ of their new messiah, Kassovitz saw a parable for our post-modern world. He wanted to explore the concept of faith, and the human frailty to follow it. He also envisioned something epic in scope, but very personal in perspective. Fox clearly wanted action and aggressiveness. According to the director, the studio cut out all the context (almost 70 minutes worth), leaving him with an unsellable, almost un-releasable mess.


Now, this is not the first time that a ‘misunderstood’ foreign filmmaker has had his or her vision violated by an American company that can’t see the creative writing on the wall. One of the most notorious examples of this ideal was Once Upon a Time in America. Sergio Leone, a then ‘60s icon for his brilliant deconstructionist spaghetti westerns, had spent 10 years nurturing a screenplay based on Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods. He even turned down The Godfather to focus on his own ode to Jewish gangsters in the ‘20s and ‘30s. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984, the 229 minute version was hailed as a masterpiece. But when Warner Brothers tested the film for American audiences, their proposed distaste for its length and elaborate flashback structure indicated the studio may have a bomb on their hands.


Taking the movie away from Leone, a two hour and nineteen minute calamity hit theaters to scathing reviews from most film critics. Gone was the time tripping exposition. In its place were unconscionable trims, missing scenes, and a straightforward storyline that made little sense. The butchery was so great that cultural bellwethers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert devoted a whole section of their At the Movies show to disemboweling Warners over the decision. When the studio approved cut nose dived, Leone got a chance to refashion the film. While he never did manage a full 320 minute print like he wanted, the original was restored and is today considered one of his greatest achievements.


To listen to Kassovitz talk, the same thing has happened with Babylon A. D. , and while one can forgive a filmmaker for unfulfilled ambitions (and the resulting bitching and moaning), such a suggestion is strong indeed. Since no one has seen his purported 160 minute attempt, it’s hard to say if he even has a point. Much more telling is Fox’s reaction. Clearly they did not get the brain-dead Vin Diesel action romp they expected. With a leading man not known for his subtlety, and a premise that some have likened to a bigger, more brutish Children of Men, an intriguing contradiction occurs. Surely Kassovitz didn’t pull a professional bait and switch. Fox had to approve his script, and his concept for the film. So if they knew what they were getting, why do they now not want it?


That’s always the big question here—why do studios act so shocked when they get exactly, or pretty darn close to, what they initially bargained for. A screenplay is never a wholly singular creation—hired ‘doctors’ diddle with it endlessly, making sure that stars and other outsource concerns are addresses and modified. This is not done in a bubble, mind you, but with full corporate co-op, usually. Also, a big budget always means a version of Big Brother on the set. No filmmaker can cry foul when they get in bed with a known name. Interference is apparently part of the mainstream game—you just have to learn to circumvent it. Finally, most foreign filmmakers face an inherent prejudice that comes from seducing Hollywood. Shakespeare may have argued for the wrath of a woman scorned, but an angry studio is no picnic either.


So where does the sense of wounded pride on both sides come from? Why save face, especially to a media estate slowly dying in both relevance and respect? If Fox hates Babylon A.D., they should offer it up for review any chance they get. Such a slow burn would bury Kassovitz and his whining once and for all. But of course, the studio won’t do this—and we all know why. Call it sheep to the cinematic slaughter, but there are people in the demo who will line up for anything done by certain stars. Slap a name on a marquee and no matter the pre-release provenance, a few million mindless drones will drop their dollars. This is clearly what the studio is hoping for. Diesel may be dull, but he’s still a draw (at least in someone’s eyes). No reviews means no chance of missing out on any of that fluctuating fanbase cash.


Still, it’s always hard to speculate on these situations. Film folk, noticing how Fox systematically cancelled screenings around the country over the last few weeks, simply point to the lack of said advanced word and whistle “disaster”. The whole symbolism suggested by “not screened for the press” is confirmation enough for them. But what was it exactly about Kassovitz’s original cut that was so offensive/off base? Did he really make such a horrible motion picture? The stench of several unsuccessful focus group gatherings is fairly obvious here. Why studios continue to think that everyday people can guarantee them a hit still boggles the mind. The rabble tends to like anything (or hate everything), and their opinion on how to “improve” a film usually revolves around comfort level, not creativity.


Which still leaves the entire question of Babylon A.D. in the lurch. Surely it can’t be as bad as Fox thinks it is (or made it, for that matter). Equally true is the notion that Kassovitz, after seeing his baby disrespected, is merely sticking up for his motion picture principles. Somewhere in the middle of this mess is the truth. Maybe Babylon Babies wasn’t the best book to adapt. Maybe Diesel is a dud as a leading man (his career arc would suggest so). Perhaps both financier and filmmaker bit off more than they could ever possibly chew. Maybe there is no clear answer from either side—an artistic/artificial meeting of the minds that never occurred.  It won’t matter much after this weekend either—that is, until the inevitable “director’s cut” DVD arrives in stores sometime this winter. Then the debate can begin all over again.


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Tuesday, Aug 26, 2008

There is nothing wrong with earnestness. Trying too hard usually validates the effort. But when it comes to comedy, being obvious can often lead to being unbearable. Sometimes, it’s better to use subtlety to sell your satire than big, broad strokes. Such is the case with Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2. Treading ground familiar to any failed artist in the audience, the director behind Dick and the horrendous In-Laws remake hopes we’ll root for ridiculously eccentric loser Dana Marschz. While it’s true that the farcical pheromones streaming off this failed actor should be enough to keep us interested and engaged, the tone is so wildly uneven and the results so unspectacular that we never develop a vested entertainment interest.


Life is pretty horrible for out of work thespian Dana Marschz. Having landed in Tucson, Arizona and teaching at a podunk high school, he longs for the days when he was a star - or at the very least, the center of a residual providing herpes commercial. When budget cuts force other classes out of the curriculum, Marschz finds his group inundated with thuggish teens with no desire to participate. Then he discovers that drama is the next to go. Hoping to raise spirits - and some money to save the program - he writes his own script, a sequel to Shakespeare’s most famous play. With added musical numbers, and ample sex and violence, the production becomes a lightening rod of local controversy - and typical to his life, Marschz finds few people to stand by and support him. 


Let’s just call Hamlet 2 Waiting for Guffaws, and be done with it. Sadly, said laughter rarely comes, if at all. Treating its sad sack subject as the butt and beneficiary of all its jokes, this one note nonsense hopes to trick us into thinking its irreverent. Some of the subterfuge comes from Fleming’s partner in crime. Pam Brady is touted as one of the minds behind South Park, but her work as both producer and occasional writer cannot begin to match the magic that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone contribute to the show. Somehow, one imagines that if she left the animated series today, Park could somehow muddle through without her. Besides, if her contributions here are to be based on her work with the cartoon, she clearly added little besides scatology and random F-bombs.


No, the bigger problem with Hamlet 2 is with its basic format and structure. Dana Marschz is indeed a douche, an unhinged hambone that doesn’t recognize his own flailing ridiculousness. Watching him struggle and fail should be patently funny stuff. But Fleming and Brady want us to champion his chumpness instead. We’re supposed to see a hyper-sensitive dreamer and hope that all his freak show fantasies come true one day. But he’s not loveable or even likeable. He’s a self-absorbed git. And since that’s the case, most of his backstory is bunkum. His relationship with wife Brie is a radiant red herring, used to add silly fertility jokes and waste time between teacher/student shenanigans. Besides, Catherine Keener is so disconnected from this material she appears to be channeling the spirit of some other actress in a totally different film.


It’s the same with the movie’s pale post-modern gimmick - the ironic introduction of Elizabeth Shue as…Elizabeth Shue. In a Being John Malkovich kind of moment, we get the comment on the comment, the “Hollywood’s a Bitch…and Boy Don’t You Miss It” mantra spelled out in supposed self-lampoonery. Reduced to a wide eyed washout of her former Oscar nominated self, Shue sends signals that mix us up even further. Truly, she’s in on the joke, but in such a blatantly, ‘aren’t I ginchy’ manner that you can’t help but feel sorry for her. The minute star Steve Coogan goes apeshit over her existence in his town (as a nurse, of all things), she gets a few career credits - Leaving Las Vegas, Adventures in Babysitting - and then she’s Marion Ravenwood. It’s like Woody Allen introducing Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall and then not giving the media guru his punchline.


And speaking of Coogan, has any actor been so undeniably good at being so godawful annoying before? He’s like walking psoriasis, his performance making you itch from its outright irritability. He doesn’t interact with his fellow cast mates, many of whom represent the newest level of bottom feeding fame spawns the media has to manufacture. Instead, Coogan comes on like a drunken uncle, palpable and unfiltered, hoping to be inspiration but typically resulting in petulance. We never care for his aims, never want to see him succeed. In fact, the way Hamlet 2 should work is via the standard “failure = focus” paradigm. Marschz should see his play flop mightily, its lack of competence turning him inward and toward the area where his unknown acumen is best suited. Instead, we get a backwards happy ending, one that feels as fake and phony as any other supposedly whacked out aspect of the film. 


If Hamlet 2 has a single saving moment, it’s the play within a film fiasco which gives this entire exasperating effort a title. While much of the material tanks, the song “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” manages to overcome its lunkhead lyrics to get us clapping, and you can’t help but cheer when the amateur performers put on the Bard. But even then, there is so much ancillary anarchy surrounding it (including an unnecessary Amy Poelher as an angry ACLU attorney) that our focus is constantly forced elsewhere. As a matter of fact, much of this movie is misdirected, literally walking away from what’s witty to indulge in situations that seem left over from earlier, unpolished drafts of the script.


Indeed, Hamlet 2 feels like initial ideas not fully fleshed out - the components of a comedy quickly and cheaply crammed together to see if they will actually meld into something special. While it’s never easy to grade humor - it’s as personal a genre as horror or romance - it is simple to see where someone’s idea of cleverness goes instantly off the rails. Hamlet 2 is preplanned irreverence, offering nothing organic in the way of cheek or mockery. Though it offers up ideas and individuals who should find a way to work, the movie just tries too hard to find an answer. The result is more scattered than a sophomoric slam dunk.


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