Hamlet 2: The Sequel

“Hamlet 2.” Andrew Fleming, director. Fox Searchlight, 92 minutes. Special Jury Award, Sundance 2008.

How could there be a sequel to Hamlet? They all die in the end, right?

That’s part of the joke in “Hamlet 2,” an irreverent, profane, laugh-out-loud parody of the Earnest Inspirational Teacher film genre. Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) is the epitome of the adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Not even good enough to be a has-been, he’s a never-was actor with deep unresolved father issues and a handful of lousy television commercials to his credit. Now he teaches high school drama to a class of two, roller skates to school because he can’t afford a car, wears caftans and no underwear to improve his sperm count, takes in a boarder (David Arquette) to help pay the rent (you can guess where the sperm will come from) yet models himself as a teacher on par with “Dead Poets Society,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” and “Goodbye Mr. Chips.”

While he is nothing like any of the teachers in these iconic films, Marschz does manage to inspire, in a goofy, pretentious, godawful way. That’s largely because Steve Coogan will stop at nothing to demonstrate the shame and degradation of his character, even when it requires administering a roundhouse kick wearing the aforementioned caftan with no underwear. Coogan rises above parody because he plays the idiot Marschz with such complete honesty and utter lack of dignity.

When budget cuts require the high school administrators to cancel all of the arts & crafts and shop classes, Marschz’s class of two earnest young white actors (one girl, one gay) is suddenly invaded by 20 Latinos who otherwise would be in shop. Yes, the stereotypes are broad and irreverent, but because the film revels in its political incorrectness, it isn’t offensive. When further budget cuts threaten to end the drama program as well, Marschz realizes that he has one chance left to prove himself and save the program. He decides to write and produce his magnum opus, a musical sequel called “Hamlet 2.” He sets to work writing feverishly and exults to his wife, (Catherine Keener), when it is finished, “This is the hardest 47 billion hours of my life!”

While telling Mr. Marschz about the invasion of new students, his fresh-faced young wannabe actress (Phoebe Strolle) confesses, “In prayer circle I pray for racial understanding, but I still get anxious around ethnics!” Of course, the ethnics save the day and the play, smashing the stereotypes along the way, but not before providing hilarious moments in the movie.

One of the funniest continuing gags is the presence of actress Elisabeth Shue (“Leaving Las Vegas,” “Adventures in Babysitting”) playing herself as an actress who is now a nurse because acting was just too hard on the ego. What she misses most about acting? Kissing, she tells his drama class. “You don’t get to make out with your patients when you’re a nurse,” she laments.

This is the kind of film you need to see when you are in the mood for a silly, over-the-top, irreverent, profane romp with friends who are similarly ready for a good laugh. I hate to compare anything to “Napoleon Dynamite,” it has become so trite to do so, but with Marschz’s pageboy hair, buck teeth, roller skates, and deadpan sincerity, I couldn’t help thinking that Dana Marschz is what Napoleon would be when he grows up.

Tell No One

“Tell No One.” Guillaume Canet, director.  Eurocorp/Music Box USA 125 minutes. In French with English subtitles.

“Vertigo” meets “The Big Sleep” in this French thriller, and the result is movie magic.

Even if you didn’t hear the dialogue you would know this was a French film, beginning as it does with the camera intimately panning a large outdoor dinner party populated by happy, boisterous folks drinking wine, gossiping, and arguing politics congenially. At the center of the party are pediatrician Alexandre Beck (Francois Cluzet) and his beautiful, sexy wife, Margot (Marie Josee Crozee). On the way home from the party the two stop at their favorite lake for a midnight swim. As she runs playfully (and nakedly) through the woods, Margot suddenly screams. When Alexandre dashes frantically to find her (equally naked, and hence the decision of the distributors to run the film without a rating) his head is bashed in and the screen goes black.

Now it is eight years later, and Alexandre is still grieving the loss of his wife. He receives a stunning email that appears to be from her, setting up an Internet appointment and warning him, “Tell no one.” When he opens the link at the appointed time, he sees a video in real time of Margot entering a subway station. From that moment the film becomes a Hitchcockian thriller, full of hairpin plot twists, gargoylean characters, and limitless suspects. Characters come out of nowhere to help and to thwart our hero as he desperately tries to find out whether his wife is alive, while simultaneously having to prove yet again that he did not kill her.

Hollywood doesn’t make films like this anymore, but thank goodness the French do.  Like classic film noire, “Tell No One” takes us into the often seedy world of the elegant upper class with a story that works, start to finish. The plot is complex, sexy, and deliberately, deliciously confusing, but it never makes a misstep. Tense, tender, and even funny at times, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

Napoleon Dynamite

Last winter I discovered a great secret: The best time to go skiing at Park City, Utah is the week of the Sundance Film Festival, when all the hotels are filled with moviegoers and no one is on the slopes. The mountains are a private little slice of heaven then. But when your son has films competing in two different film festivals that weekend, and one of them is “all the buzz” at Sundance, you join the lines of filmgoers. The slopes can wait for another visit.

This was our experience in January when “Napoleon Dynamite” premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Made by a group of filmmakers who have been working together for about five years, “Napoleon” is the quirky story of a high school geek living in rural Idaho who manages (okay, predictably) to come out on top. But how he gets there is so unpredictable that it is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish. As one reviewer commented, “Humor is in the details, and the details make this film.” Napoleon’s uncle, an Al Bundy-like former football jock, constantly steals glances at his own biceps, for example. And the different modes of transportation are a scream. The deadpan delivery and catch phrasese of the film’s two main characters are already beingcopied by insiders who have seen the film (including an agent from the William Morris Agency, according to Newsweek.) Judging by the growing lines of fans who have attended mulitple sneak previews this month, it’s a film that has lasting power.

But don’t just take my word for it; here are some comments from legitimate reviewers who saw the movie at Sundance:

“Far and away the best film of the festival!”

“The most hilarious movie this week–and one of the funniest to play here in years.”

“Gloriously quirky, hysterically funny ode to rural dullness…probably the fairest, most accurate representation that Preston, Idaho, will ever get.”

More recently, Newsweek called Napoleon Dynamite “our pick to be the season’s sleeper,” and rottentomatoes, an online filmrating service, gives it an 83% “freshness” rating. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and won first place at the U.S Comedy Arts Festival.

Our son Tim was First Assistant Director on the film, which means that he was in charge of coordinating the background details: lighting, sound, cinematography, set arrangement, extras and featured extras so that everything could be performed as efficiently as possible. Think of the Director as Architect and First A.D. as General Contractor, and you get the idea. So I was understandably proud when “Tim’s movie” received roars of laughter throughout the screening I attended at Sundance, and spontaneous applause before the film even ended. Halfway through the first screening, scouting agents’ cellphones began dialing out, summoning studio bigwigs, and by the movie’s end (greeted by a standing ovation) agents filled the back row, anxious to hear the buzz for themselves and meet the director and producer. Within days the film was sold to Fox Searchlight for $3 million, more than 8 times its production cost, with a 1200-screen guarantee. Yes, this was even better than schussing down an empty, powder-clad mountain.

That 1200-screen guarantee marks an important vote of confidence in the film, because each print will cost about $2,000, or two and a half million altogether. Add to that a few million in promotion, and Fox will have made a significant investment in this little film. By contrast, most independent films have “rolling distribution,” which means that the distributors will only print a few copies and then send them from city to city, usually showing in the small art-house theaters that I like to attend. This means that these films often come and go before word-of-mouth has a chance to spread, and they often head straight to the video stores. Napoleon’s 1200-screen guarantee gave it a better chance of opening to a big weekend with good reviews.

But director Jared Hess had a different plan in mind. Occasionally one of these independent films will make it big, as did “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” last year, sticking around for several months as interest spread. Hess knows his audience, and “Napoleon” is the kind of film that plays better to “in-the-know” audiences who like to discover their own underground hits via friends and websites. Indeed, when I attended a sneak preview of the film in New York this week, hundreds of people were lined up, circling the block, many of them sporting curly red ‘dos, nerdy glasses, and “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts. Many of them were attending their third, fourth, and even fifth sneak preview, even though the film does not officially open until June 11. (Over 600 people were turned away that night–including myself!) A canny promotion ploy, I would say.

What does all of this mean to the moviemakers themselves? First, and most importantly, it means more money to make more movies. Success breeds success in this industry, and this success will attract investors. The independent film industry is a great example of capitalism at work. The team will plow most of their profits right back into their business. They are already at work deciding which of their scripts will be made next. They’ll probably stay with a comedy, since that’s the “supply” that their current customers will “demand.” The core crew were happy to receive digital cameras and an iPod as bonuses from the movie’s appreciative producers, and they enjoyed the celebrity perks at Sundance, which included free clothes and other gear from sponsoring stores in Park City. But most of them will continue to live in their small apartments and condos, wearing last year’s clothes (okay, last decade’s clothes) and eating at Taco Bell, at least for now. Most of all, they are happy with the sweet assurance of being together for yet another project in this very tenuous business.

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